Scumbag or player? It's not a question the Robert Evans documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture is prepared to answer.
This infectiously entertaining, sorta-documentary is like a Vanity Fair movie star profile written and narrated by the star in question, in this case, notorious Hollywood producer Robert Evans. Evans uses the film as a kind of mea culpa for dreams that were just too big and livin' that was too large.
Filmmakers Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein have described the film as "operatic" for the smear of Evans' gargantuan ego, which gums up the work like so much cheese. But while Evans had the ability to transform his life events into the stuff of apocalypse, with its coke trail and bed hopping, The Kid is more Douglas Sirk than Wagner.
The Kid is inspired by Evans' autobiography by the same name, which for a time was a primer on how to make it and shake it in La-La Land. In his growling adenoidal patter, Evans traces his transformation from playboy hipster shaking his groove thing with Jack Nicholson and Roman Polanski in the high-flying '70s to producer non gratis after a cocaine bust and a murder caused Evans' career to go South.
The Kid Stays in the Picture opens with a Rashomon caveat emptor about the rubbery nature of reality: "There are three sides to every story: my side, your side and the truth." And that sense of skepticism about how accurate Evans' rendition of his life's journey is -- from women's wear executive to pretty boy actor to producer-mogul -- stays with this picture.
The winking, gaudy imagery and coked-up editing Morgen and Burstein employ plays just as fast and loose with the truth. The Kid foregrounds its self-referential style so outrageously, it often brings to mind Todd Haynes.
When the red velvet curtains part at the film's opening and a glistening fountain spills out droplets, Morgen and Burnstein let their audience know that this film is told from the land of the fairies and the wood nymphs. Only Evans himself, who keeps plugging away with his highly subjective version of the facts, doesn't seem aware of the gloss of pixie dust the directors have laid over their film.
Viewers are reminded of just how constructed and one-dimensional the film's perspective of Evans is by its tendency to lean heavily on photographs from Evans' personal collection, which the directors cut and paste like a Richard Hamilton collage or kiddie pop-up book, to further enhance the sense of colorful artifice.
A failed actor who was "discovered" displaying his oily beefcake at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Evans went on to cling to the top of the Hollywood dunghill, producing a string of hits -- Chinatown, The Godfather, Love Story -- that made him the golden boy of Paramount Pictures. But Evans took a massive tumble when a "Hollywood princess" sharing his bed for the night turned straight-edged Evans onto the nose candy. Flash-forward to Evans getting busted trying to buy a heap of pharmaceutical coke and every door in Hollywood slamming closed on his retreating rump.
Along with a string of heartbreaks and scandals, Evans seemed to lose his Midas touch, going from a wiz-kid who could take the national movie pulse like a pro to a tone-deaf fogy with a busted zeitgeist-meter producing sadsack fare like Sliver and The Two Jakes.
Directors Morgen and Burstein keep the pace bopping along, buoyed by the feverish recollections of Evans himself and a campy survey of the style crimes of the '70s: shirts unbuttoned to navel for maximum chest-show, George Hamilton tans and the TV dishing of a sunshiny Dinah Shore.
By Evans' account, his producer job required him to be a Siva with arms dangled in every direction, gauging budget and stroking ego, while taking the rectal temperature of the squirming, fickle movie-going public. And like a sailor telling his grandchildren about his seafaring adventures with the clap and two-dollar whores, Evans clearly revels in the wild good and bad times he recounts, even as his outsized, sycophantic, self-aggrandizing bluster makes it all fantastically silly and fun.
Evans may have been a lousy, hambone actor, as clips from The Fiend Who Walked the West demonstrate, but when it comes to rococo, cologne-stinking storytelling, Evans is tops. Throughout his checkered career, Evans lived by one executive creed: Place story above everything, above stars, above director. The Kid Stays in the Picture is a film that does just that, and weaves a mesmerizing, foggy thicket of a tale worthy of Chinatown.