In the wake of his well-received memoirs in print and especially in its book-on-tape versions, Robert Evans further tends to his own legend in this documentary version of "The Kid Stays in the Picture."

In the wake of his well-received memoirs in print and especially in its book-on-tape versions, Robert Evans further tends to his own legend in this documentary version of “The Kid Stays in the Picture.” Opulently produced, fittingly enough, and quite entertaining as a surface ride through the up, down and somewhat up again life of one of the New Hollywood’s most colorful characters, this long-in-the-works USA Films release will easily generate enough press to give it a good launch in specialized theatrical release. But it is, in the end, a movie biz documentary, meaning that its most significant audience waits down the line in television and video/DVD markets.

Filmmakers Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein, who made the Oscar-nominated docu “On the Ropes” in 1998, not only have a rich subject in Evans, whose life neatly divides into a perfect three-act structure, but one who has already provided hours’ worth of great, celebrity-laden stories in his autobiography. Biggest artistic challenge was probably just deciding which yarns could effectively be conveyed onscreen with enough visual documentation.

More basic decisions, however, determined the nature of the picture, produced by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. Film is fronted by a quote from Evans –“There are three sides to every story: my side, your side and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each one differently.” — advising that everything that follows will be from the point-of-view of the producer and former Paramount production head during some very heady days. In his distinctively deep, gravely voice, Evans narrates the entire documentary, with commentary drawn both from the book-on-tape recording and freshly prepared voiceover, which means the sacrifice of any objectivity for the sake of total immersion in the subject’s buoyant, seductive and disarming personality. There are no talking heads, no comments from friends, associates or naysayers to “balance” the story as told here.

Approach leaves the film open to criticism from those who will view this as Evans’ latest attempt at the rehabilitation of his image and the fostering of his iconic status as a maverick executive and producer partially responsible for Hollywood’s last golden era in the late ’60s-early ’70s. Fortunately, the arguably self-aggrandizing aspects of the piece are substantially offset by Evans’ self-deprecating humor, humility over his later career transgressions and the fact that, no matter how you look at it, he has lived a pretty amazing life.

Skipping over the subject’s New York City childhood, which is interesting in itself, pic’s literal red curtains open on Evans’ fabulous Beverly Hills home, which is presented as the one constant in the man’s life over the past 35 years. After having already made a small fortune with his brother Charles in the Evan-Picone women’s clothing line by the time he was 25, Evans was “discovered” in legendary fashion poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel by Norma Shearer, who hand-picked the dashingly handsome fellow to play her young mogul husband Irving Thalberg opposite James Cagney in “The Man of a Thousand Faces.”

Docu rides in large measure on the quality of the stories and anecdotes Evans relates, and the ones pertaining to his tailspinning career as a hot new star are particularly well handled; there is just enough evidence presented to persuade anyone to agree with Evans’ own assessment: “I was a half-assed actor, and I knew it.” But it was watching how 20th Century Fox tycoon Darryl F. Zanuck handled Evans’ detractors on “The Sun Also Rises,” who included Ernest Hemingway himself, and stuck by his choice of the New York Jewish clothing executive to play a brilliant matador, that convinced Evans that he wanted to be not an actor but a fearless moviemaker like Zanuck.

Brought to the attention of Gulf and Western topper Charles Bluhdorn by an article by then-New York Times reporter Peter Bart, Evans was hired to head European production of the conglomerate’s newly acquired studio in 1966. He was quickly moved up to the top job at Paramount in Los Angeles — to the shock of the Hollywood establishment. Under constant threat that the studio would be closed down or sold out from under him, Evans, with Bart as his right-hand man, guided Par to the position of No. 1 studio in town by 1970.

Among the film’s best sections are those devoted to Evans facing down Frank Sinatra’s demand that Mia Farrow be quickly freed up from the making of “Rosemary’s Baby”; “Love Story,” the smash hit that is intimately intertwined with Evans’ romance and marriage to Ali McGraw; “The Godfather,” with its constant Evans-Francis Ford Coppola fights and whose premiere coincided with Evans learning of McGraw’s affair with Steve McQueen on “The Getaway”; and Evans’ filmed presentation to the G+W board that persuaded the brass not to unload the studio.

Many films, notably “The Great Gatsby,” are overlooked or slid over, and after Evans’ departure as studio head and his production of such pictures as “Marathon Man” and “Urban Cowboy,” focus naturally turns to “The Cotton Club,” which fractiously reunited him with Coppola. Then there were Evans’ drug bust and tangential connection to a Hollywood murder case. Suddenly the most glamorous and exciting producer in town was cold, shunned by the industry and left to endure deep depression, rehab and professional exile that ended in the ’90s when he produced several more films for Par.

Some of the latter is skimmed over too quickly, especially the whole “Cotton Club” episode, and only McGraw of the five wives and countless women in Evans’ life is singled out for any attention. The film unquestionably romanticizes Evans, making him into a quasi-Monroe Stahr/Jay Gatsby figure, in part via the documentary’s lavish production values: Pic makes very interesting use of digital collage techniques that combine independent photographic images in ways that make creative connections and contrasts; ace cinematographer John Bailey was engaged to lense the original material at Evans’ home; and Jeff Danna’s score lushly combines with numerous classic pop tunes from different eras, notably Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” Natch, docu is loaded with clips from films relevant to Evans’ career, as well as a mostly fresh selection of archival footage and intriguing behind-the-scenes glimpses of several productions, especially “Rosemary’s Baby.”

The Kid Stays in the Picture

Special Screenings

Production

A USA Films release of a Highway Films and Ministry of Propaganda Films production. Produced by Graydon Carter, Brett Morgen, Nanette Burstein. Co-producers, Kate Driver, Chris Garrett, Sara Marks. Directed by Brett Morgen, Nanette Burstein. Screenplay, Morgen, based on the book by Robert Evans.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color), John Bailey; editor, Jun Diaz; music, Jeff Danna; digital services, Scott Klein for Edgeworx; supervising sound designer (Dolby), Claude Letessier; associate producer, Christopher J. Keene. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 18, 2002. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Narrator: Robert Evans.
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