How the Kid Stayed in Movie Business

"The Kid Stays in the Picture," a witty, colorful and poignant account of the life and times of producer Robert Evans, takes its title from a remark made by movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck. With scant acting experience, Evans had been cast as a matador in "The Sun Also Rises," and so chagrined at this turn of events were Ernest Hemingway, Tyrone Power, Ava Gardner and Eddie Albert that they sent Zanuck a telegram demanding Evans' removal.

Whether it was merely that Zanuck resented his judgment being challenged or that it would be too costly to replace him is not made clear. Zanuck might well have been impressed at how Evans had so wholeheartedly thrown himself into the role, which had required three months' training in the bullring. In any event, he retorted, "The kid stays in the picture, and anybody who doesn't like it can quit!"

Zanuck's words were a revelation and inspiration to Evans, who had no illusions about his acting ability. In an instant, it came to him that he'd rather be a Zanuck than a movie actor. "There are three sides to every story: my side, your side and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each one differently." This observation from Evans kicks off this engaging, imaginatively assembled and handsomely produced film memoir, and directors-producers Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein clearly take Evans' side.

They work not only from Evans' autobiography of the same title, but have Evans narrate his own story. Their approach is very much like that of Maximilian Schell's memorable 1984 "Marlene," in which the reclusive Dietrich is never seen outside film clips but is heard throughout. Evans is every bit as vivid, funny, outrageous and gallant as Dietrich was. Like Dietrich, Evans wants no one to feel sorry for him.

Where Schell had to re-create Dietrich's Paris apartment on a set to evoke an atmospheric frame for his portrait of her, Morgen and Burstein have had full run of Evans' Beverly Hills estate, Woodland. His elegant refuge from the world for more than three decades, the estate is the site of storied parties and romances, his security blanket through his breathtaking rise to power in Hollywood, his spectacular fall and his hard-won return to a position of respect.

Evans' life unfolds as if it had been written by Harold Robbins. Evans was born in New York in 1930 and was a child performer. At 21, he joined his late older brother Charles in his hugely successful women's sportswear business. (Charles, like his younger brother, was also a charmer but in a lower-key way.) While staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel on a 1956 business trip, Evans was lounging by the pool when he was spotted by screen legend Norma Shearer, who thought he would be perfect to play her late husband, movie mogul Irving Thalberg, in "Man of a Thousand Faces" (1957). The movie starred James Cagney in a film biography of protean silent star Lon Chaney.

A movie magazine proclaimed that he dived into a pool and emerged a movie star, and one magazine selected Evans the most promising newcomer of 1957. He may have looked like a movie star, but he was barely adequate as an actor. (His best performance, under Mike Nichols' direction, is in a special reel prepared to persuade Gulf & Western's board of directors not to dump Paramount.) Although continuing to prosper in the garment industry, Evans was determined to become a movie producer, and based at Fox, acquired the rights to Roderick Thorp's bulky, dense bestseller "The Detective," which became a taut, entertaining 1968 thriller.

But Evans withdrew from the project before it began filming to accept a position in London as head of European production for Paramount. The offer came from Charles Bluhdorn, the chief of Gulf & Western, which had just acquired the studio and had been impressed by a New York Times profile of Evans written by Peter Bart, who was to become Evans' right-hand man and is now vice president and editor-in-chief of Variety.

If the industry was surprised to discover that such a responsible position was handed to Bart, a man who had never produced a picture, that news was nothing in comparison to the impact of the announcement that Evans had almost immediately been appointed head of production back at the studio in Hollywood.

Evans wasted no time in validating Bluhdorn's instincts, for in a few short years he moved Paramount from No. 9 at the box office--the rock bottom position in the roster of major studios--to No. 1 with such diverse films as "Rosemary's Baby," "True Grit," "Love Story," "Harold and Maude," "Chinatown" and "The Godfather," to name but a few.

The man who played Thalberg arguably equaled and maybe even surpassed the achievements of the vaunted golden-era MGM production head. (Whereas Thalberg ordered the butchering of Erich von Stroheim's "Greed," Evans insisted that Francis Ford Coppola make "The Godfather" longer.

Yet as the '70s gave way to the '80s and Evans stepped down from head of production to a producing deal at Paramount and entered his 50s, he began to slip. The offer of some cocaine from an unnamed "Hollywood princess" to ease his pain from sciatica propelled him into a downward coke spiral, hastened by a drug bust and, worse yet, the murder of one of his backers of the ill-fated 1984 "The Cotton Club." Evans was never named a suspect in the case, but the association with this shady character so clouded his reputation that he was at last asked to leave the Paramount lot because no one wanted to work with him.

No one rises to the top in Hollywood without accruing detractors and enemies, but Evans along the way also acquired staunchly loyal friends. He persuaded Henry Kissinger to attend the New York premiere of "The Godfather" even in the midst of a perilous turn of events in Vietnam; Jack Nicholson bought back his cherished home for him; and in 1991 producer Stanley Jaffe welcomed Evans back to Paramount, where he remains to this day.

Evans has dated some of the world's most glamorous women, but having been married five times, has not been so lucky in love. Clearly, he regards Ali MacGraw as the love of his life, and he blames himself entirely for the breakup of their marriage, when he neglected her badly to concentrate on getting "The Godfather" made.

But Bob Evans is nothing if not a survivor--with his sense of humor intact--and "The Kid Stays in the Picture" leaves us with the feeling that in today's Hollywood it might well be impossible for a colorful, glamorous gambler of such daring yet sure instincts to flourish so fully--and that the movies are surely the worse for it.

*

MPAA-rated: R, for language and some brief violent and sexual images. Times guidelines: blunt language throughout.

'The Kid Stays in the Picture'

A USA Films presentation of a Highway Films & Ministry of Propaganda production. Directors-producers Brett Morgen & Nanette Burstein. Based on the book "The Kid Stays in the Picture" by Robert Evans and adapted for the screen by Morgen. Producer Graydon Carter. Cinematographer John Bailey. Editor Jun Diaz. Music Jeff Danna. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; and the Regent, 1045 Broxton Ave., Westwood, (310) 208-3259.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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