|"You only get one shot: you either grab that big, beautiful brass ring, or you get the brass knuckles in the balls."
Such is the gambler's philosophy of Robert Evans, legendary Hollywood actor-turned-producer and the subject of The Kid Stays in the Picture, a fascinating documentary produced and directed by Brett Morgen & Nanette Burstein (On the Ropes), and narrated by Evans himself.
The genesis of The Kid Stays in the Picture was the 1994 book-on-tape version of Evans's autobiography of the same name. In fact, most of the narration is taken directly from the audiobook (a cult classic among the showbiz crowd), with Evans recording only some 20% of the narration specifically for the film. Evans has a mesmerizing voice, a heavy New York accent delivered in a rapid-fire baritone. Though at times almost incomprehensible, his delivery is pure entertainment, a grizzled pastiche of Hollywood cliche, shameless braggadocio and disarmingly honest reflection on a life lived to the startling fullest.
Visually, the film is a compelling montage of images: beautifully filmed interiors of Evans's treasured Beverly Hills home, old newsreel and feature film footage, TV interviews. Most effective of all are still photos that seem to move across the screen, thanks to some phantasmagoric cut-and-pasting and kinetic panning techniques that leave Ken Burns in the sepia-toned dust.
But the real star of the film is Robert Evans himself.
Having previously abandoned a stagnant acting career, the dashing ladies' man was spotted in 1956 at the Beverly Hills Hotel pool by Hollywood icon Norma Shearer. Shearer recruited Evans to play her late husband Irving Thalberg in the James Cagney movie Man of 1,000 Faces. The headlines announced with glee, "New York Businessman Dives Into Pool, Comes Out a Movie Star." Next, Evans was tapped by producer Darryl Zanuck to play a bullfighter in The Sun Also Rises, which prompted a formal protest from Ernest Hemingway and the movie's lead actors. But Zanuck was not to be cowed. "The kid stays in the picture!" he barked into his megaphone, according to Evans. "Anyone who doesn't like it can quit!" The kid stayed in, but Evans had seen his destiny: not acting, but producing.
After a modest start, the inexperienced Evans soon stunned the business world when he was named head of Paramount Studios by Charles Bludhorn, the hard-charging but idiosyncratic founder of Gulf & Western, Paramount's parent company. Though greeted by G&W and Hollywood alike with profound skepticism, Evans soon began a decade-long run of hits including The Odd Couple, Rosemary's Baby, Love Story, The Godfather, Chinatown and Marathon Man.
But in true tragic form, Evans eventually hit the skids. A cocaine bust was followed by a box-office bust, The Cotton Club, which in turn sparked perhaps the most notorious event in Evans's life: the murder of a movie financier with vague ties to the project. Though not even a suspect in the murder, the highly publicized trial effectively put an end to Evans's career. He sold his beloved mansion and had himself committed to a mental institution.
Finally, though, The Kid is a story about redemption and resurrection, as Evans's old friends including Jack Nicholson rally to his aid and help him reclaim his home, his dignity and a place back in the business. He is still producing movies to this day, despite having suffered a series of strokes in the mid-Nineties.
It's worth the price of admission just to see the footage of Dustin Hoffman's spot-on impression of Evans that accompanies the end credits. Shot during a break on the set of Marathon Man, Hoffman's caricature is one of the funniest things you are likely to see this year, or many another years, on the big screen.