Perhaps the sweetest irony of The Kid Stays in the Picture is that, by not placing their star physically in the movie, filmmakers Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein were able to make him even bigger-than-life than he already is.
Their star is legendary movie producer Robert Evans, whose 1994 memoir of the same name has become required reading for movie-history fans, and whose book-on-tape -- featuring that lush, honey-coated Evans voice -- apparently has become a cult hit among Hollywood player wannabes.
Yet despite Evans' fabled good looks -- he seems to have invented the Hollywood tan -- and his luminous presence, the 72-year-old told Morgen and Burstein he really didn't want to be in the picture that much. The kid who's spent his life in the picture didn't even want to be in his own?
Morgen and Burstein, who at the time were fresh off their Academy Award nomination for their On the Ropes boxing documentary, decided to use the decision to their advantage. "We thought by keeping Bob off-camera it would actually help us and not hurt us," Morgen says from his cell phone while driving around in Hollywood. "We didn't want a film on a 72-year-old man looking back at his life. Obviously, Bob at 72 is not as delicious as Bob at 35. This helped create more of a mythical feel."
The result is a movie that transcends the documentary genre, a vivid portrayal of an American icon that succeeds by breaking the rules -- not unlike its subject. After all, Evans was ripe for profiling. He is best known for bringing Paramount Studios from the bottom of Hollywood's nine major studios to the very top during his reign from 1966-74, green-lighting and shepherding such blockbusters and critical smashes as Rosemary's Baby, Love Story, Harold and Maude, The Odd Couple, the first two Godfather movies and Chinatown. He counted among his friends Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and Henry Kissinger. Plus, he dated, married and/or seduced some of Hollywood's sexiest women including Ali MacGraw (one of his five wives), Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Grace Kelly.
Evans lived a dream life in the world's dream factory. A former radio star in New York City, he eventually joined his brother Charles' apparel company, Evan-Picone (famous for introducing women's pants into the fashion world). He eventually put that aside when he was "discovered" -- twice. First, actress Norma Shearer spied him on the phone poolside at a Beverly Hills hotel, and then Twentieth Century Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck saw him, thought he looked like a matador, and immediately cast him in the adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. (It was Evans' experience on that set that provides the title of the book and movie.)
A self-confessed "half-assed" actor, Evans decided he wanted to be a producer, and through a bizarre turn of events wound up, at age 34, as the head of production of the floundering Paramount Studios. Despite some modest success, parent company Gulf + Western was ready to pull the plug on Paramount until Evans "starred" in a video directed by Mike Nichols (The Graduate) that promised good times ahead. In that historic video, Evans touted the upcoming productions of Love Story and The Godfather.
Both films were icons for their times: 1970'sLove Story was a schmaltzy tale that ran against the late-60s current of cynical, anti-establishment films, while 1972's The Godfather was the first film about the Mafia with key roles in cast and crew filled by Italian-Americans -- inlcuding director Francis Ford Coppola. ("You can smell the spaghetti!" Evans says in his narration).
From there, Evans' star rose through an entire decade, until his career crashed and burned in the 1980s due to a cocaine bust and a connection to a murder that was only tangentially related to the making of the ill-fated Cotton Club. Evans was out of work, out of his home and (briefly) institutionalized. He made a '90s comeback when he was rehired at Paramount and produced a string of modestly successful films including Sliver and The Phantom.
Morgen and Burstein tackle this giant myth of a man by relying on access to an infinite wealth of archival footage, photographs, press clippings and clips from his classic (and not-so-classic) films. Most of all, with the help of cinematographer John Bailey (Ordinary People, As Good As It Gets), they make a star out of Evans' famous Woodland estate -- which Evans used as his greatest seduction tool. Throughout the film, the camera explores Woodland as it would one of Evans' many targets (from screenwriters to starlets), sweeping through its art-filled rooms, panning over his pool and through his prized rose bushes.
"We felt that the three-dimensional aspect, the distorted images would help that," says Morgen, who'd written a term paper on Bailey in college. "When we approached John to make the film, he loved it because there were no actors to work with. Bob had used him to shoot his last film, The Out-of-Towners, and we explained to him that Woodland was the longest relationship in Bob's life. We wanted to present Woodland as a metaphor for Bob's internal landscape, but also as an Oz, so the colors were hyper-saturated, surreal if you will, in pure Technicolor, to present that magical moment in time. When Bob's life crumbles, so does the house.
"The visual style of the film should be dictated by the content of the film," Morgen continues. "Bob's melodramatic, he's glamorous, he's elegant and kitschy all at the same time. John's cinematography and the effects provide that sort of feeling."
At first blush, making a movie that relies almost entirely on Evans' voice and archival images would seem a major risk. In fact, the film's few critics have complained that it lacks objectivity, apparently not realizing that the filmmakers consciously wanted to focus more on the image of Evans than the reality of him.
"This is a film that is wholeheartedly about image and image-making," Morgen explains. "Hollywood is the dream factory, it's our modern equivalent of Homer, it creates our myths. This is about a guy who got everything through his image. ... It's the idea that image was essential to this man's creation."
Also risky for Morgen and Burstein was making a movie about a producer who lived for fighting with his directors (Evans and Coppola bitterly disagree about Evans' editing roles in both of the first two Godfather films). "Once we got into the process, we fought all the time," Morgen says. "It wasn't like a man yelling at me, it was like 'Bob Evans' yelling at me. It was always sort of amusing to me."
Morgen happily says that Evans, not surprisingly, has been hogging credit for parts of the film, but notes two key Evans contributions: the use of Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do?" to open the film and leaving in the final segment of Evans' video pitch to Gulf + Western that mentions the Love Story and Godfather projects.
"I thought we should've cut it off before Love Story and Godfather, and Bob was adamant about his prediction of those movies being huge," Morgen says. "It's one of the greatest moments in the film right now. He was totally right and I was wrong. I was so worried about the pacing of the film. I felt it was gratuitous. Having to watch him for three minutes in one shot made me nervous. And yet it's one of his single greatest contributions."
And in his own way, Robert Evans stayed in the picture, looking good, preserving his myth.
- Robert Evans (center) basks in his glory with then-wife Ali MacGraw and then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, at the 1972 premiere of The Godfather.