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Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2003
The truth is not out there
Becoming a Hollywood legend is easy enough if you're an actor, and it's not so hard for directors these days either, but for the industry's business types, it takes a truly special kind of personality to attain that mythic stature.
True, you can point to studio heads like Louis Mayer or Daryl Zanuck, or more recently players like Mike Medavoy or Don Simpson, but these people are all famous for being Grade-A assholes as much as for being successful. You want the people's love? Wrong business, kid; try acting instead.
Which says something about Robert Evans, who gave up a career as an actor to pursue his real dream, being the guy who calls the shots, who hires and fires, wheels and deals, rants and raves, and develops a massive coke habit. Whoops -- well maybe that last one wasn't on the cards -- and, truth be told, Evans' excesses don't ever begin to rival those of former Jerry Bruckheimer partner Don Simpson, but if Evans' legend is ever to be writ, it will be as a "rise and fall."
"The Kid Stays in the Picture," a documentary directed by Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein, makes the case for Evans as one of modern cinema's most influential producers. But note that Evans' close cooperation with the filmmakers may have had something to do with their thesis.
Was Evans one of Hollywood's great ones? Well, take a look at his track record: After being "scouted" by the wife of Paramount Chairman Charlie Bludhorn (and there's surely a story there we're not privy to), Evans moved effortlessly from being a failed actor in 1960 to being head of production at Paramount in 1966. As a producer in the late '60s and '70s, he gave Paramount a string of hits, some just popular -- "Love Story," "The Odd Couple," "Marathon Man" -- and quite a few that have gone down as true classics: "Rosemary's Baby," "Il Conformista," "The Godfather" and "Chinatown."
The '80s started off with the mixed blessings of "Urban Cowboy" and "Popeye," and Evans, after sparring with Francis Ford Coppola all through the shoot of the disastrously received "Cotton Club," saw his career stall big-time. Drug addiction, crime links and police investigations kept it that way until the '90s when he made his big comeback with . . . "The Two Jakes"? "Sliver"? "The Saint"? So much for Hollywood last-act happy endings . . .
The documentary doesn't really spend much time on the '90s, or, indeed, anything that doesn't show Evans in a good light. The man himself is doing the voiceover, so perhaps balance shouldn't be expected. True, Evans addresses such issues as his drug problem and his spats with filmmakers, but only when they're too big to ignore, and even then only with a great deal of spin.
Thus, we're treated at length to Evans' gushing tributes of love to his actress wife, Ali MacGraw ("Love Story"), who screwed him over by falling for Steve McQueen on the set of "The Getaway." We don't really hear anything about the two wives he had before MacGraw, or the three who came after, never mind the constant string of actresses, models and hookers he was seen with. Did Bob have a taste for women -- lots of 'em? Surely. Did that perhaps have something to do with his break-up with MacGraw? Not according to this film: Poor Bob was just working too hard on "The Godfather."
And what about that flick, surely one of the biggest films of the decade, and a constant in critics' Top 10 lists these days? True, Evans deserves some credit: He optioned the novel for Paramount and fought to get Coppola on board. But then he goes on to claim that he was the man who "saved" "The Godfather," that Coppola had cut the film down to a skimpy two hours, and that Evans heroically insisted on the longer version. "You shot a saga, pal, but you turned in a trailer!" is how Evans recalls what he told Coppola.
Of course "The Kid Stays In The Picture" doesn't bother to ask Coppola what he thought. What we do know is that Coppola banned Evans from the set when he filmed "Godfather II." He's also quoted -- in Peter Biskind's excellent "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" -- as saying to Evans, "You did nothing on 'The Godfather' except annoy me and slow me down!" Evans did at first oppose the casting of both Al Pacino and Marlon Brando, and even Evans' co-executive at Paramount, Charlie Yablans, said, "Evans did not save 'The Godfather.' . . . This is a total figment of his imagination."
The Gospel According to Evans makes for a fun view, especially for buffs of insider Hollywood, as the films and times Evans was involved in continue to stand as some kind of cinematic renaissance. There are plenty of fun anecdotes, like how Evans convinced Mia Farrow to defy her bullying husband, Frank Sinatra, to star in "Rosemary's Baby," or how Evans, busted by the DEA, agreed to perform his community service by producing a prime-time TV special called "Get High on Yourself" (the clips of which make for a great wallow in '70s kitsch at its lamest).
But however you view it, a documentary that's in bed with its subject -- like the recent one on Woody Allen, "Wild Man Blues" -- is never as much fun, or as revealing, as one which takes a wider perspective. The film opens with Evans saying, in voiceover, "There are three sides to every story: Your side, my side and the truth." We only get one out of three in "The Kid Stays In The Picture," and it sure ain't the truth, pal.