Robert Evans was the one-time Wonder Kid of Hollywood. “Discovered” in the mid-1950s by Norma Shearer as the perfect person to portray her late husband, Irving Thalberg, in the James Cagney biopic on Lon Chaney Sr., The Man of a Thousand Faces, Evans started his Hollywood career as an actor.
Landing a plum role in the production of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Evans found himself odd-man -out and on the receiving end of an attempted coup by Hemingway, Tyrone Power, Ava Gardner and Eddie Albert (the sole holdout of the film’s heavy-hitters was Errol Flynn). Producer Darryl F. Zanuck visited the production, saw Evans in costume and performing, and said, “The kid stays in the picture.”
The phrase became the name of Evans’ autobiography, and later the title of this documentary based on that book. According to Evans, it was at that moment Zanuck stuck up for him that he decided he wanted to be a producer, to be the man who got to say things like, “The kid stays in the picture.” That’s probably a bit of poetic license, since it seems far more probable that his comically bad portrayal of a psychotic killer in the Western revamp of Kiss of Death — titled The Fiend Who Walked the West — helped him decide that his future lay in something other than acting. It nonetheless fits the mood of this invariably entertaining film, which at least offers the illusion of telling it all.
Getting his foot in the door by optioning a book and bargaining a deal with 20th Century Fox, Evans really came into his own when Gulf-Western took over the then-ailing Paramount studios and put him in charge of production. Evans’ tenure during that time produced such blockbusters as Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story and The Godfather. Deciding he wanted a piece of the action, he then went on to produce his own films for release through Paramount, starting with Chinatown, which turned out to be so successful that the studio forced him to choose between being production head or an independent producer. He chose the latter.
The documentary details all this and more, and it does so with very little new footage (some shots of Evans’ Beverly Hills home were obviously done for the film). It relies instead on manipulated photos (a technique that comes close to wearing out its welcome), clips from films and archival footage — all held together by Evans’ narration. Most of it works wonderfully, due in no small part to co-directors Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen’s clever use of music. Irving Berlin’s 1924 song, “What’ll I Do?” — briefly popularized 50 years later through its use in the Evans-produced Great Gatsby — serves as a kind of melancholy theme for the entire film. Christopher Komeda’s lullaby from Rosemary’s Baby cleverly hooks together the section of the film dealing with that movie’s beleaguered production. Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” is used to set the mood for the film’s shift to the ’70s. Even Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore comes into play with a bit of the aria “Strida La Vampa” (“Upward the Flames Roll”), which is used to signify the start of Evans’ downfall.
What works best, however, is the candid nature of Evans’ remarks , which often reveal more than Evans himself probably intended. His anecdote concerning Mia Farrow standing up to — and ending up divorced from — Frank Sinatra presents a much-less sympathetic portrait of the actress than we are generally given. It even suggests a pronounced streak of vindictiveness that goes a long way toward explaining her continued refusal to allow footage involving her to be used in any documentary on Woody Allen’s films. While Evans is very up-front about having an ego that rivals, if not outdistances, his talents, it’s unlikely he quite catches the irony of his own claims that Chinatown is really more his film than that of director Roman Polanski or writer Robert Towne — claims that come not 30 seconds after he’s admitted he never even understood the script!
Whether or not The Kid Stays in the Picture is the unvarnished truth about Hollywood, it’s obvious there’s enough truth between the lines to make it essential viewing for all hardcore movie fans.