Ex-wunderkind producer and studio head Robert Evans continues the love letter to himself he initiated in 1994 by narrating this documentary by Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein based on the best-selling memoir of the same title he published in that year. “The Kid Stays in the Picture” seems an almost perfect embodiment of the spirit of its subject: it’s slick, self-serving and amusing but ultimately rather shallow, more apologia than analysis. Movie buffs should find it almost morbidly fascinating, and compared to most “non-fiction” films it’s certainly lavish and eye-catching. In reality, though, it exudes the pizzazz of celebrity cable TV instead of the incisiveness of real reporting.
Evans did, of course, have a remarkable career. Plucked in his mid-twenties from life as a successful businessman to become a Hollywood actor (Norma Shearer discovered him at a Beverly Hills swimming pool and decided he was perfect for the role of her late husband Irving Thalberg in Universal’s biographical movie about Lon Chaney, Sr., “Man of a Thousand Faces”), he had a meteoric career, in the sense of both rising and falling quickly: snippets of his thespian work, culminating in his hilariously awful turn in the 1958 disaster “The Fiend Who Walked the West,” cover this period smoothly. For some reason an article on him by Peter Bart (now the editor-in-chief of Variety but at the time a mere reporter for the New York Times) induced Charles Bluhdorn, the mercurial chairman of Gulf and Western (and a fascinating fellow in his own right, whom the picture leaves one longing to know more about), to tap him to become head of production at near-moribund Paramount, which G&W had recently acquired. Over the course of four years Evans turned the studio around, and easily the most interesting portion of “Kid” involves his recollections of the trials and tribulations behind the making of such smashes as “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Love Story” and “The Godfather”–all made while he staved off closure (the famous tale of how he single-handedly persuaded the G&W board to keep the studio open still retains its edge-of-the-cliff effect). Evans went on to a prolific producing career both while heading Paramount and later as an independent, but his golden-boy aura was eventually undone by the turmoil that attended the making of “The Cotton Club,” which turned into a financial calamity for both him and Francis Ford Coppola, and by his implication in a cocaine bust and a lurid murder case. The final reel recounts how he nonetheless rose from the ashes with the help of buddies like Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty to become a player again. You almost expect the flick to end with Evans’ rendition of “I Ain’t Down Yet!” Move over, Molly Brown!
“The Kid Stays in the Picture”–the title quotes Daryl F. Zanuck’s insistence that the young Evans keep his role as a matador in “The Sun Also Rises” despite widespread dissatisfaction with his casting–makes absolutely no claim to objectivity: this is Evans’ version of events, which he narrates in the hard-boiled, purpler-than-thou prose of the Hollywood tough guys of 1940s film noir. It glosses over many aspects of Evans’ life, not least the years prior to his “discovery” in 1956. (Surely his childhood might have deserved at least a line or two.) But this is clearly the great man’s interpretation of himself, and Evans argues at the beginning of it all that his perspective is as valid as any other. (There are no “talking head” interruptions here to afford alternate views.) Morgen and Burstein have certainly presented his recollections in as sumptuous and visually dazzling a fashion as possible. They’ve spared no effort in assembling pertinent archival footage; filmed appropriate locales, including Evans’ palatial abode, in luxurious, swooning style; fashioned elaborate cuts and montages to make the transitions ultra-smooth; and even spruced up still photos (using the 3-D “viewmaster” technique that Stephen Low has employed in his IMAX features “Across the Sea of Time” and “Mark Twain’s America”) to give them greater immediacy. The result is a documentary with an unusually rich visual surface, even if you might leave feeling that you haven’t been taken very far beneath it.
Speaking of leaving “The Kid in the Picture,” be sure to stay through the final credits, over which Dustin Hoffman–apparently during the shoot of “Marathon Man” (which might incidentally have been covered in more detail)–delivers a hilarious improvised impersonation of Evans, who produced that movie. It’s good enough to make you wonder whether observations from more folks who dealt with the wonder boy over the years might not have strengthened the picture. As it is, the documentary is like an elegantly-served meal that nonetheless leaves you feeling hungry for something a bit more nutritious when it’s over.