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'Kid Stays in the Picture, The'

Robert Evans' colorful story as mythic memoir

Friday, August 30, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"The Kid Stays in the Picture" begins with this epigram written by the film's subject, movie producer Robert Evans: "There are three sides to every story: Yours, mine and the truth. ... And no one is lying."

 
 
'The Kid Stays in the Picture'

RATING: R for language and some brief violent and sexual images.

DIRECTORS: Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen.

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What a perfect introduction to a nonfiction film about a Hollywood mogul, a lord of the reels who mixes art and commerce in an unholy alchemy born of light and emulsion, poisonous backbiting and the gossamer wings of make-believe.

The movie filters Evans' exploits through a kind of mythic dreamscape, larger than life and populated by the ghosts of a man's past, as fleeting as a movie image.

Now at the Squirrel Hill Theater, "The Kid Stays in the Picture" is based on Evans' 1994 memoir, and he narrates the movie as well. A partner in the Evan-Picone sportswear company in the 1950s, the handsome young man tells us of being discovered at the swimming pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel by screen legend Norma Shearer, who decided Evans would be perfect to portray her late husband, Irving Thalberg, in the Lon Chaney biopic "The Man of a Thousand Faces."

After being cast in a cowboy remake of "Kiss of Death" called "The Fiend Who Walked the West" (we see both the trailer and Evans emoting -- it's hard to say which is more laughable), he realized he would be better off as a producer.

He became head of production at Paramount just in time for the revolution of the 1970s. As he tells it, he saved the studio with the blockbuster hit "Love Story" (and married its leading lady, Ali MacGraw). He rescued "The Godfather" by forcing director Francis Ford Coppola to make the movie longer at the cost of missing the film's planned Christmas opening. He didn't understand a word of Robert Towne's screenplay for "Chinatown" (he was hardly alone in that) but produced it anyhow.

And then, in the 1980s, fate dealt Evans his comeuppance.

This is no standard talking-heads documentary. Directors Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen employ a melodramatic music track that plays throughout the entire movie, sometimes competing with Evans' deep but reedy voice and threatening to overwhelm it. He sounds like a brash, cocky guy with enough of a sense of humor to make light of his own flaws and faults, which (as we shall see) are considerable.

The camera keeps returning to Evans' woodland mansion, his hideaway and retreat, almost brooding as it treads through the subdued lighting of the richly appointed rooms with their photographs and memorabilia but not a living soul in sight.

The movie uses archival film and TV news clips that, through their vivid Technicolor hues or faded lighting or the carbon dating of black-and-white film, offer a visceral sense of the era in which they were shot. In many of the still pictures, the figures of Evans and others are somehow lifted out of the background, as if they were cardboard standups on a set.

This is documentary as a kind of winking soap opera, putting down layers of mood atop Evans' story, which is dramatic enough even without any mention of his three other wives. It demonstrates how loyalty is not dead even in cutthroat Hollywood -- we learn how Jack Nicholson traveled halfway across the world to make a desperate entreaty on Evans' behalf and how producer Stanley Jaffe, who got his first break from Evans, returned the favor when it was needed most.

Somehow, the kid stays in the picture to this day. Whatever the truth, Evans' side of the story makes for an entertaining yarn.


Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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