A Head Too Big For the Picture

Robert Evans creates a successful film despite his big ego and narrative style.

Robert Evans' name is probably not well known outside of entertainment circles. As an actor, he was basically Keanu Reeves in an age that valued Laurence Olivier. As a producer, his more recent work includes such gems as Sliver, Jade and The Saint, which means he's responsible for killing the careers of Sharon Stone, David Caruso and Val Kilmer, respectively.

Although we should no doubt thank him for offing these annoying celebs, his greatest accomplishments are of a more positive nature. Evans was, throughout the 1970s, the 'boy genius' studio head who ushered in such pics as Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, The Godfather and Love Story, making him one of the key figures in what critics now wearily call "American cinema's last golden age."

More recently, Evans wrote a memoir called The Kid Stays in the Picture, which has been adapted to film by documentarians Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen.

Evans narrates the film, which is mostly a series of still pictures. Well, sort of still. Some low-level computer trickery has been used to pull the foreground figures out of the picture and allow them to move about slightly, creating the illusion of 3-D, or more like the illusion of a series of 2-D cutouts in a 3-D environment.

At first this seemed clever, but when it turned out to be the only effect in the film, it got to be a bit grating. Then again, I'm a complete churl, and the friend I went to see the film with claimed to enjoy it all the way through.

Evans' narration also has its pros and cons, though I mostly dug it.

The narration is taken directly from Evans' book, and it's largely smooth and witty, which is how Evans likes to portray himself. The best or worst aspect of the narration, take your pick, is that Evans voices all the characters in the film. I thought it was hilarious to hear him recreate conversations with his ex-wife, Ali MacGraw, because he gives her a whiny, irritating voice and has her spouting shallow hippieisms and unreasonable starlet demands all at the same time.

When he switches to his end of the conversation, his impression of his younger self is of a self-possessed operator who talks like a Raymond Chandler detective and can perfectly manipulate the difficult dame he's trying to pull. This level of hubris is a real kick, and it just screams "Hollywood Producer," so if you're going to see the picture expecting the epitome of the worst Hollywood stereotypes (and why else go?) you'll be richly rewarded by Evans unselfconsciously self-inflating performance.

Evans' personal recollections wouldn't be so interesting, though, if they weren't embedded in the true story of how Hollywood operated in the latter half of the 20th century. There's tons of juicy tidbits about sex, starlets, drugs, deals, and the way the largely Jewish studio heads decided to let Polish and Italian directors into their company, though not without a little name-calling and condescension.

The best of these bits is when Evans decides that the studio needs to do a movie from Mario Puzo's The Godfather. When the studio bosses tell him that all the Sicilian mobster movies up to that point have failed, Evans claims that it's because they were made by Jews and not by Sicilians, and that he was going to get a Sicilian to direct this one. Sadly, claims Evans, there is only one Sicilian director of any note, the difficult and non-commercial Francis Ford Coppola.

According to Evans' version of the story, he hires Coppola and then has to berate him into making a proper film. Only after Evans demands a re-cut does Coppola's Godfather become the masterpiece it is. Or, as Evans would have it, only after the re-cut does Evan's Godfather become the masterpiece it is, which is to say, ultimately, that the Sicilian wasn't up to it and the Jewish guy had to step in and make things right.

Evans' wild ego, and his casual distaste for his friends (he refers to Roman Polanski as "that Polack" while simultaneously praising his work on Rosemary's Baby) makes the whole film creepy and fun. The oddest part is that Evans' views on some events are so obviously skewed that you can see right through them in spite of the fact that the only perspective presented is Evans'.

Ultimately, the movie succumbs a bit to the Behind The Music formula when it details Evans' drug bust and his subsequent fall from grace in the notoriously anti-drug Hollywood movie community. Still, since this is essentially true, you can hardly fault the scriptwriter for putting in this hackneyed plot twist.

On the whole, the incredible ego and self-absorption of Evans is well represented by this style of film, and his disgusting, exciting and historically relevant life is hard to resist. It's basically a train wreck with credits at the end, and I think everyone would agree that that's a formula for success.

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