DVD Review of The Kid Stays In The Picture

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/3/04


  The Kid Stays In the Picture is another in a series of stylistic documentaries over the last few years that seems to be reinvigorating the form by using different narrative and filmic techniques in service to a story. In Winged Migration it was an interplay of raising birds from hatchlings, mixing great flying footage with special effects, in The Fog Of War it was juxtaposing a man’s life (ex-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara) with his beliefs, & then with special effects and facts not widely known, but this film goes the furthest in pushing this technique, to almost docudrama, and it succeeds brilliantly. As a work of art it’s a tour de force. It’s subject matter may seem a bit more problematic- it is not the life of a major political figure, but of a Zelig-like Hollywood mogul- Robert Evans- whose rise and fall is chronicled mostly by his own narration, & the computer effects of taking still photographs & making them come alive. There is very little of the talking head phenomena that infects most film documentaries. In his behind the scenes with the stars life Evans resembles rock DJ Rodney Bingenheimer from the documentary The Mayor Of Sunset Strip, and in its blend of subjectivity with reality it shares a kinship with the Harvey Pekar docudrama American Splendor, yet it succeeds far more than either of those two films because its subject is not an oddball, and has actually led a life worth examining. Neither Bingenheimer nor Pekar ever had the personal success Evans did.

  The film starts off in the late 1950s when a twentysomething Evans, head of the Evans-Piccone fashion company, dove into a Beverly Hills pool and was spotted by over-the-hill actress Norma Shearer. Taken by his resemblance to her husband, movie mogul Irving Thalberg, he was cast to star opposite Jimmy Cagney in the Lon Chaney biopic The Man With 1,000 Faces. Wisely, the film does not delve into Evans’ childhood, save for a mention that he was a failed child actor. The fact that the film starts with a red curtain opening upon his mansion, then dives straight into the pool anecdote, allows viewers to feel we are gonna experience a film documentary unlike any we’ve seen. The film moves quickly, with Evans’ bass narration, akin to Robert Mitchum’s voice, playing against the dazzling effects- such as scenes where smoke is seen rising from cigars in still photos.

  The film’s title comes from the time when Evans was cast as the bullfighter in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Papa, and stars Ava Gardner, Tyrone Power, and Eddie Albert urged Evans’ firing. Studio head Daryl Zanuck flew to Mexico, saw Evans at work and declared ‘The kid stays in the picture.’ He was next cast in a B horror flick and his career as an actor was over. Evans admits he was a bad actor, but decided, after Zanuck’s edict, that he wanted to be behind the scenes in the film world, not out in front. Through a series of events, he was tapped to run the Paramount Studio, then floundering as the least profitable of the major studios, by Gulf & Western CEO Charles Bludhorn. Within a few years the studio zoomed to the top, with Evans greenlighting unconventional hits like The Odd Couple, Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, Harold And Maude, the two Godfather films, Chinatown, and later Marathon Man and Urban Cowboy.

  He was at his zenith at the premiere of The Godfather when he was able to canoodle Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to attend. He was also married to early 1970s superstar Ali McGraw, the star of Love Story, & things seemed to be boundless in his life. Then, McGraw left him for film star Steve McQueen, studio politics made him opt for independent producer status. In the 1980s he was busted on a cocaine rap, endured the filmic disaster of The Cotton Club, then smeared as if having involvement with the murder of a business associate, then checking himself into an insane asylum to ward off suicidal thoughts. After selling off his mansion to pay for his treatment he had his pal Jack Nicholson fly to France to beg the new owner to sell the property back to Evans, to help him gain back his sanity. If this sounds like a typically apocryphal Hollywood tale it probably is, & the film is loaded with them. So what? We know from the beginning that the film is gonna be told solely from Evans’ highly unreliable narration. In a sense, this lends the film alot more honesty, as well as depth, because we see what Evans deems important. Although much is glossed, like Evans 4 other wives, aside from McGraw, it is not simplified in the way most fiction is. When Evans talks about his convincing Francis Ford Coppola into adding an hour to The Godfather, or the import he felt over doing court-mandated anti-drug public service announcements, we know it’s classic bullshit, but knowing that, we get an honest insight into the real man that fiction would be hard-pressed to duplicate- especially with a bad actor.

  Filmmakers Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein have achieved something rare in the film world- a documentary that both pushes the genre’s boundaries yet achieves what all but the very best documentaries achieve- insight into its subject matter. Evans is a man who is both a starmaker and starstruck fan, barren chaff yet sage insider. He is truthful- to a degree, arrogant, yet self-deprecating- a refreshing turn from many self-satisfied and dishonest documentaries. This film was clearly worlds better than Bowling For Columbine- the doc that won the Oscar that year, yet the reason for its not winning, nor even being nominated, is obvious- aside from the fact Evans made many enemies in Hollywood. Most viewers will forget it is a documentary while it’s being watched. So effectively subversive are Morgan and Burstein in their technique that it works against them in terms of recognition. Yet, this film, not Columbine, will be studied in film school.

  As for the features, there is not much- no making of documentary, just assorted interviews with celebrities at the film’s premiere, and Evans accepting some awards. The commentary track by Morgan and Burstein is superb, one of the best explications of the marriage of technique with subject matter you’re likely to hear.
  A cynic might argue that the film is an homage to a talentless actor who just had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and to a degree that’s true. But, the film is really about the solipsistic nature of all people. We know that. We are that, by and large. It’s only when we see that in people richer, more famous, and more rewarded that we look away from ourselves. The film opens with 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.’ Rarely has such truth been admitted by anyone in film, rarer still something done with it. This is why The Kid Stays In The Picture is a great documentary.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 11/04 Hackwriters website.]

Return to Bylines   Cinemension

Bookmark and Share