Robert Evans is a titan of the motion-picture business -- just ask him. Allowed to tell his own story yet again in the film version of his printed memoir, "The Kid Stays in the Picture," industry power-player Evans oozes the old-school bluster that enabled him to shepherd some of the most significant films of our time. One-sided and unashamedly hyperbolic, the documentary is nobody's idea of a comprehensive investigation into "real" events. But its unbridled spirit and (especially) visual style shuttle us through the corridor of Evans' memories with sufficient force to leave us in a state of happy exhaustion.
As directors Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein play lithe games with archival footage and photographs, narrator Evans retraces his life's path from sportswear kingpin to (briefly) on-screen heartthrob to chief of production at Paramount Pictures. Overcoming Hollywood odds and the skepticism of his own superiors, Evans reversed the fortunes of the then-beleaguered Paramount with such hits as "Love Story" and the "Godfather." (One of "Kid's" unearthed treats is a state-of-the-studio message Evans committed to celluloid, a glorified internal memo in which he implored the suits not to pull the plug on the entire operation before "Love Story" could be released.) His gambles helped Paramount cement itself within the late-'60s/early-'70s renaissance of American cinema, and the spoils of that success included liaisons with Ali McGraw and other sex symbols of the era. Evans recounts these events in a crusty, budgets-and-broads vocabulary that may constitute wise self-mockery or merely its image-conscious approximation. Either interpretation is fine as far as our entertainment value is concerned.
Cinephiles will love the tidbits Evans tosses about, including the revelation that schlock-horror king William Castle (of the original "House on Haunted Hill") was determined to direct "Rosemary's Baby." Evans ultimately secured the job for Roman Polanski, only to face a new crisis when the movie's shooting schedule put him in the crosshairs of a battle between his star, Mia Farrow, and her then-husband, Frank Sinatra. The resolution of that conflict speaks volumes about the personalities involved and about show business as a whole.
The doc darkens when Evans branches off from the studio to begin his career anew as an outside producer and finds waiting for him not continued prosperity, but an epoch defined by cocaine and courts. Here, the movie shies from its flirtation with frankness; more energy is expended denying Evan's involvement in the "Cotton Club" murder, for example, than explaining what the actual charges and suspicions were. What counts is the confluence of emotion and cinematography as clips from Evans' films are used to dramatize his eventual stay in a sanitarium, and the mournful passage of the camera through his cherished mansion symbolizes his fall from dominance.
The only real mistake Morgen and Burstein have made is in judging that authenticity requires Evans to read his own words. Though having his inflections on the soundtrack -- as opposed to those of a professional voice-over -- does lend a certain intimacy, the initial allure wears off after about 15 minutes of tossed-off line readings and improperly stressed syllables. One feels churlish harping on Evans' garbled diction -- the poor man is a stroke survivor, after all -- but listening to his tales proves a perpetual strain.
In any other film, this might be a critical flaw, yet the bouillabaisse of images these filmmakers have compiled would be easy to ingest were the narration in Japanese. Clips collide at a breathtaking pace, and elements liberated from still photographs join in a three-dimensional dance, interacting like players in the world's most technologically advanced popsicle-puppet show. Watching this kicky, kinetic procession, you understand how a bottom-liner like Evans could become -- and remain -- entranced by the moving image. It's the best monument possible to a life literally lived in pictures.
P.S. Stay put for the end credits, in which Dustin Hoffman -- presumably captured on the set of "Marathon Man" -- turns in a hilarious, extemporaneous Evans impression. It's better than anything you'll see the actor do in the forthcoming "Moonlight Mile."
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