"Fuck íem, fuck íem all" ó words to live by, truly, and the last five words of the most vigorous and entertaining of all Hollywood memoirs, Robert Evansís The Kid Stays in the Picture. Evans had a brief career as a Hollywood actor in the late í50s, but he left his biggest mark on film history as head of production at Paramount from 1966 to 1974.
Because itís largely about that turbulent period, and because Evans is so compelling as both a subject and a storyteller, Brett Morgen & Nanette Bursteinís film of Evansís life canít help being interesting. But what kind of film is it? Itís part hagiography: Evansís own self-idealization, given more or less straight. He narrates the documentary, and his perceptions and personality dominate it. The film becomes the almost direct self-display of a man of great charisma, gifts, and power ó and it celebrates these qualities for their own sake, with no critical analysis of the ends to which theyíre used. (Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter didnít co-produce the film for nothing.)
At times The Kid Stays in the Picture is like a feature-length expansion of the 1969 promo in which Evans (directed by Mike Nichols, no less) gave a confidence boost to executives of Gulf + Western, which owned Paramount. The excerpt in the documentary shows a determined, boyishly sincere, and frighteningly slick Evans manipulating the buzzwords of the day. ("Love Story is going to start a new trend in movies . . . toward telling a story about how it feels rather than where itís at.")
The gonzo quality of Kid the movie comes from Evansís voice, the same voice we get in his book: combative, crass, shrewd, paranoid, outrageous ó the compulsive, familiar monologue of someone whoís determined, over your protests, to wrap you up in his personal myth. The film is only half-honest in what it does with this voice and this myth. Morgen and Burstein know that, given half a chance, Evans will seduce everyone in the audience whoís not predisposed to write him off as an asshole, so they give him more than half a chance: they practically let him write the script. They end up without a point of view of their own ó not enough of one, anyway, to call him on his claims of authorship of The Godfather and Chinatown, or to delve into his identification with his house.
Morgen and Burstein are somewhat in awe of Evans, so they pretend to be amused by him. They drape the story in velvety irony and ornament it with Hollywood-peekaboo touches: the syrupy opening shots (which could be from a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous episode directed by John Waters) in which the camera glides through Evansís luxury mansion; the perpetual flow of gossip-mag snapshots under Evansís slurry voice; the funny video clips (chosen to suggest that Evans has always had a timeless cool, whereas almost everyone else we see is sort of dated).
Being addicted to eye candy, the filmmakers wonít allow a still photograph on screen without doctoring it so that the figures move apart or together ó sometimes in flagrant disregard for the meaning of the image in Evansís story. Perhaps the most disappointing part of this documentary (along with the rushed, perfunctory cocaine sequence ó obligatory in a documentary on the American í70s?) is the section dealing with Evansís self-commitment to a mental institution. Deprived for once of direct media coverage of their subjectís life, Morgen and Burstein resort to a potpourri of violent clips from films he produced or starred in; this culminates in an absurd trailer for The Fiend Who Walked the West, the 1958 picture that (supposedly) doomed his acting career. The filmmakers refer to this trailer often during The Kid Stays in the Picture, seeing it as an all-purpose trope for ó what? insanity? failure? weirdness? In any case, the use of these clips to represent mental illness is questionable.
If you see the film, stay for the end credits, in which Dustin Hoffman (on the Marathon Man set in 1976) gives a brilliant, hilarious impression of Robert Evans 20 years in the future. Hoffmanís rambling single-take monologue should be transcribed and published as an acting exercise or a prose poem. Itís one of the highlights of The Kid Stays in the Picture.