When Robert Evans was appointed Head of Production at Paramount Studios in 1966, he had never actually produced a single film; his acting career, once so promising, had stalled fatally some years earlier; and what money he had he had made as a partner in his brother’s tailoring firm. Yet The Kid Stays in the Picture, and the memoir from which it is adapted, is the story of a man born lucky and who knew how to ride it.
The foul-mouthed, hyperbolic book lengthily traces Evans’ life as a precocious child actor in New York and his tailoring/modelling career (he claims to be the man who introduced women to long trousers), but the highly stylised documentary begins when he is spotted poolside by Norma Shearer, who casts him as her late husband Irving Thalberg in Man of a Thousand Faces (1957). A few years of poor performances and glitzy premieres follow, including a role in The Sun Also Rises (1957) and an encounter with Darryl Zanuck, from which both book and film take their title. The understanding that real power lies behind the camera motivates Evans to seek out production opportunities which, eventually, leads him to being made Head of Production at ‘the mountain’, a studio then lying some way behind the others in terms of box-office and profile.
Most kamera readers will know the next part. Rosemary’s Baby (1968), True Grit (1969), Love Story (1970), The Godfather (1972) and Chinatown (1974) all followed, and Paramount were top of the heap. At the same time, Evans and his right-hand man Peter Bart became largely responsible for ushering in the period we now know as ‘New Hollywood’. The attendant hedonism and hubris were at least in part also responsible for Evans’s decline into drugs and – probably worse as far as he’s concerned – mediocre movies like Urban Cowboy (1980) and The Cotton Club (1984).
What makes this film of note, stylistically, is its complete avoidance of ‘talking heads’. Instead the film-makers have used digitally altered contemporary photographs to illustrate events, which are narrated by Evans himself. (Evans’s occasionally incomprehensible voice is wonderfully impersonated by Dustin Hoffman over the closing credits and in the gag reel that supplements the DVD.) This is wonderfully evocative, and slyly has the effect of making the ‘documentary’ seem more like a home-movie, thus keeping it very much in the self-aggrandising style of the narrator. (There is one lovely subtle image of an otherwise black-and-white photograph of Frank Sinatra with eyes tinted blue.) Unfortunately this effect runs out of steam after about an hour and the film-makers have to resort to rather less interesting news and chat show footage to document Evans’s 80s decline.
The fact that The Kid Stays in the Picture is produced by Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, for which the project was initially intended as a DVD cover mount (!), will give you some idea of its level of critical analysis. But it is nonetheless an entertaining, if one-sided account of the last Golden Age of Hollywood and a man who, with good reason, could claim to be its spiritual midwife.