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Warner Home Video presents
"Luck doesn't happen by mistake. Luck is when opportunity meets preparation."
DVD ReviewIf you had to come up with a caricature of a Hollywood producer, you just might end up with something that looks suspiciously like Robert Evans. With his oiled-back hair, his huge sunglasses, his talk talk talk talk talk and his relentless self-promotion, he seems in many respects like Sammy Glick come to life. But Evans is a whole lot more than just hot air—he's got the goods to back up a lot of that talk, having had a hand in some of the great films of the 1960s and 1970s: Rosemary's Baby, The Godfather, Chinatown, Marathon Man, to name only a few. His life has been relentless fodder for the tabloids, from his astonishing highs (saving Paramount from shutting its doors, producing a string of hits, marrying Ali MacGraw) to brutal lows: thousands of dollars of cocaine gone up his nose, a past littered with ex-wives and many, many other women, his name smeared in the infamous Cotton Club murder trial. He's one hell of a piece of work, is Evans.
He told almost all in his 1994 memoir, the basis for this unusual and enormously entertaining documentary. The film doesn't even bother paying lip service to PBS-like talking head neutrality—The Kid Stays in the Picture is Evans' story as told exclusively by Evans, and we're locked into his perspective for the run of the film. Evans narrates many of the crucial events of his life, which is illustrated with film clips, newspaper articles, still photographs and much of the other memorabilia he so assiduously held on to over the decades.
In many ways Evans is the fulcrum between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood—he was literally discovered swimming in the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel, by Norma Shearer, who wanted Evans to play her husband, legendary producer Irving Thalberg, in a film about Lon Chaney. He wasn't much of a performer, as the clips of him indicate, and he gets points for candor: "I was a half-assed actor, and I knew it." He reinvented himself from pretty boy leading man to producer, and he and everybody else came to believe his clippings: he was installed as the head of production at Paramount Pictures, at that time placing ninth in a nine-studio race.
Evans' run as studio chief was one of the most fertile in the history of the business—as the Hays Code was discarded and the studio system dismantled, he had an eye for talent and story at a time when the other studios in town were making big bloated movies that no one wanted to see. Evans' first big project was Rosemary's Baby, and he happily talks us through the happy times, highlighted by his courtship of and marriage to his Love Story leading lady, Ali MacGraw.
The filmmakers deserve a tremendous amount of credit by taking the brave strategy of letting Evans speak for himself—his a terrific raconteur, and we're rooting for him, but we also see that at times he's given just enough rope in the film to hang himself. His flair for self-invention can lead to him sounding like some pathetic B-movie tough—he talks about Roman Polanski, for instance, as his brother in arms: "We both came out of the same school of drama: the drama of life." Oh, please. And the same tone apparently works with the ladies, for he's very proud of his tone with MacGraw at their first meeting: "If anything goes wrong with you and Blondie between now and post time, take my number—I'm seven digits away." He also shares with some professional athletes that annoying habit of referring to himself in the third person: "That's what Evans wants to be."
The apex for Evans seems to have been The Godfather, and he takes credit for much of the film's success. (My fellow Corleone obsessives may want to compare his account of these events with that of Francis Coppola, who dismantles Evans' story on the commentary track of the Godfather DVD.) The 1980s weren't nearly as kind—busted by the D.E.A. for cocaine, for instance, his penitence is producing a series of anti-drug specials for NBC, which Evans here calls "the Woodstock of the 80s." Did a chorus of celebrities, including Bob Hope, Scott Baio and Herve Villechaize, singing a bad pop song, convince anyone at all to just say no?
The visual style of the piece is arresting, as well—it's sort of like Photoshop gone wild. Little live-action footage of Evans survives from the crucial years, apparently, so the filmmakers play around with the many still photographs of him, dollying in and out of them, animating them, giving them depth and perspective. It gives a lot of the movie a strangely cartoony feel, but it seems to fit the story.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: Good, saturated colors and a sharp eye for detail make this a very handsome-looking DVD. The archival material varies in image quality, of course, but the filmmakers are keenly aware that their movie is wallpapered with narration, and that visual interest has to be sustained throughout—otherwise, they're reinventing radio. Footage of Evans' Beverly Hills house, shot by D.P. John Bailey, looks especially luminous.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: The fear is that this could be little more than a prettified book on tape, but there's a surprising amount of audio interest, nicely mixed on the 5.1 track. Evans' deep voice frequently descends into a growl, and hence things can sound a little bottom heavy; but it's clear throughout, with little hiss or pop.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein
Extras Review: You say you haven't yet had enough Robert Evans? Good news, then, for there's an extras package here jam packed with the self-proclaimed Kid.
Historically, the most interesting item may well be Evans' 1971 filmed appeal (07m:43s) to the board of Gulf + Western, who were considering shuttering Paramount forever. Evans brought in Mike Nichols to direct him, as the studio chief outlined his plan for the years to come—some of the movies, like Love Story ("Paramount's Christmas gift to the world") were huge hits; others, like Dead Head Miles, were not. It's Evans at the top of the pyramid, and you'll rarely see a more polished job of selling. The only thing missing here are the clips from the films themselves.
A section called The Kid Speaks offers a 21st-century Evans in his own words. On the Red Carpet (01m:10s) is him with his pretty new young wife getting ready to accept an award; Up Close with the Kid (05m:10s) is an interview with him that appeared on Nightline, to promote this movie. We see him Receiving the Spirit of Life Award (15m:16s) from Larry King; Evans gives a long, emotional speech, climaxing in his wedding video, but King paces behind him, bored. Then Evans is Receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award (12m:33s) from the Producers Guild of America; Dustin Hoffman provides a long introduction, comparing Evans to Willy Loman, and making hay with his honed Evans impression. (Hoffman's own performance as a Hollywood producer in Wag the Dog has more than a little Evans in it.)
The Truth According to Others is the heading for the next round, and the subject is of course still Evans. Showgirls on Evans (01m:24s) is a clip from The David Susskind Show, featuring four aging starlets, all of whom, apparently, slept with Evans back in the day. The Evans Gag Reel (08m:38s) is from Marathon Man, with both Dustin Hoffman and Roy Scheider showing off their Evans impressions; Hoffman is of course the star, and an extended clip from this plays over the closing credits of the feature, with Hoffman as Evans an imaginary twenty years into the future, contemplating suicide. On the Red Carpet offers thirteen brief interviews from one of the awards ceremonies—those commenting on the Kid range from Jack Valenti to Leeza Gibbons to Craig Kilborn to Peter Bart, Evans' former consigliere at Paramount, now the editor of Variety.
Directors Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen tag team on a commentary track—the former introduces the latter, who talks over the first half of the film, before passing the baton back to his collaborator. Morgen discusses the unconventional approach of the film, and expresses his fears about offending the documentary community by tossing out any pretense of objectivity—since "you'll never get the whole truth," he says, it's a fool's errand even to try, and the pretense to even-handedness results frequently in pabulum: "It doesn't have to feel like cough syrup," that is, good for you but not really good, and this film is anything but boring. Burstein talks more about her fondness for Evans, and the pleasures of getting to know him—this was a mutual seduction, the documentarians looking to uncover their subject's secrets, the master producer looking to engineer his most personal on-screen triumph. She seems to get a special kick talking about Evans' womanizing ("one of the great cocksmen of Hollywood"), and explains that even in a feature, they couldn't possibly cover all of Evans' life—he's currently on marriage #5. Both directors also heap lots of deserving praise on their editor, Jun Diaz.
Filmographies are for Evans and Burstein, and a bonus fun fact is that one of the film's producers is Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair.
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsThe unreliable narrator is a device that has been almost the exclusive property of fiction, but the makers of this documentary challenge that notion, with great success. Robert Evans is one hell of a storyteller, and the directors have found a visual strategy that succeeds in letting the Kid tell his own tale without our attention wavering. It's also a movie full of tales out of school from one of the great periods in American filmmaking, and with an extras package full of giggles and wry asides. Thoroughly entertaining.
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