Affectation. Noun. 1. Behavior, speech, or writing that is artificial and designed to impress. 2. A studied display of real or pretended feeling. If you are ever researching Hollywood, I recommend you begin with Robert Evans and The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002). Evans is the caricature of Hollywood and either doesn’t know or care that, to the vast swath of humanity, his persona is a joke. He is part Gordon Gekko, part Andy Warhol. Neither of those are particularly complimentary when one is speaking of persona. And yet, as you might expect of such a fusion, Evans as a producer or head of production at Paramount Pictures produced an incredible list of classics including The Odd Couple (1968), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Harold and Maude (1971), The Godfather (1972), Serpico (1973), Chinatown (1974), The Godfather: Part II (1974), The Conversation (1974), and Marathon Man (1976). All three of those films from 1974 were nominated for Best Picture.
The Kid Stays in the Picture is a documentary directed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen with Morgen adapting Evans’ autobiography. Evans narrates the adaptation complete with his own characterizations, incredibly loaded dialogue, and enough photographs of his ever-tanned face to make it impossible for you to mistake him ever again. He tells his story. He tells it well. Obnoxiously, but that makes it funny too.
His story is itself a affirmation of everything I think of producing. He made his way by happenstance. He was found by an actress to star in Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) and then in The Sun Also Rises (1957) as the young Matador which nobody wanted except for the producer Darryl F. Zanuck who, after seeing Evans perform the role, said the words that would title the autobiography and this documentary. “The kid stays in the picture.” That’s when he realized he wanted to be a producer. That and the complete failure of his next movie, The Fiend Who Walked the West (1958).
How did he become a producer? A friend called him up and said he’d written a great book. Evans optioned the book for $5,000 and brought it on to 20th Century Fox on the condition he be a producer for the film. This leads to a large article written by Peter Bart hailing his powers as a Hollywood big shot, which, in turn, gets him a job as head of production at Paramount. That’s not entirely as impressive as it sounds since Paramount was a ninth out of the ten major studios. But his idea, or is it Peter Bart’s, was to get content, not stars. And that started with Rosmary’s Baby. From there he covers the ups and ups of his career until a cosmic downfall created by drugs and then innuendo concerning a murder case. To his credit, Evans says “If you live by the sword, know damn well you die by it.” He has a minor rebirth, but it is nowhere near the kind of success he saw between 1968 and 1976.
I mentioned affectation. He actually uses the word “dames” to describe women. He thinks he’s the detective in a film noir or at least that’s his favorite voice. Dropping in hard swearing or ethnic slurs is all a part of the character. On example, and this is reporting his original statements around 1969, talking about the problem with mafia movies of the sixties: “They were written, directed, and produced and usually starred Jews not Sicilians. There’s a thin line, Peter, between a Jew and a Sicilian.” There’s also that lovely pride, historically justified, where he brings low the mighty. “You’re picture stinks, Francis. You shot a great picture, where is it? In your kitchen with your spaghetti?” Then there are the many times he threatened to quit when the executives started to encroach in his movies.
Here’s a piece from his attempt to save himself and Gulf+Western CEO (parent of Paramount) from being fired: “We at Paramount don’t look at ourselves as passive backers of film. We look at ourselves as a creative force unto ourselves and that is why Paramount is going to be paramount in the industry in the 70’s.” That and clips of Love Story (1970), or more likely his then wife Ali MacGraw, saved their hides. It’s interesting to note that MacGraw is the only one of his seven wives mentioned in the documentary. And while I’m mentioning interesting symbols, he’s got a lot of pictures of himself, I’ll say that.
When he talks about Chinatown, it shows something of the hollowness to Evans’ greatness. “You mean it takes place in Chinatown?” asks Evans. “No,” says screenwriter Robert Towne, “Chinatown is a state of mind!” “Oh, I got it,” says Evans. Narrating, Evans says “I had no idea what the f**k he was talking about.” “Nobody, I mean nobody understood it.” But he pushes for it against studio on the power of having Jack Nicholson locked in and Towne’s being “a brilliant writer.” It sounds like an insane gambler. And yet, moments earlier is a clip of Evans doing interviews and saying that it may say “Roman Polanski’s Chinatown” but it’s really Robert Evans’ Chinatown— “I was on the picture for five years, for years and Roman was on the picture for nine months.”
That says it all, doesn’t it? Chinatown is a phenomenal movie when you see it the second time, it really is that subtle and that complicated, and Evans made it happen without understanding any of it. In this one moment, he both justifies and undermines capitalism in art. Without Evans, there is no Chinatown (as it came to be), so does that not make him the creator in some way? But just because you bought the canvas, brushes, and paint for Rothko doesn’t make it yours.
Capitalism and art are like men and women. On their own, they have nothing, but if the egg is fertilized, something is created and each has a claim to it. And yet a success has many parents while failure is an orphan. Much seed money is wasted on sex and glitter and how many ova are passed a month from the womb of creation. Lost in the tissue paper of development hell or the tampon of producers’ recycling bins. Is there an eHarmony of agents that might bring about creation? Or is the free love of digital media bound to bring about great minds and teenage wastelands of indy greatness and Youtube terror? Nay, but without our Yenta that is Robert Evans to… Okay, I’m done.