Is The Kid Stays In The Picture a masterpiece Hollywood memoir? Oh yeah

Is The Kid Stays In The Picture a masterpiece Hollywood memoir? Oh yeah

In the 16 years I have toiled for The A.V. Club, I’m not sure I have ever used the phrase “movie magic” non-ironically. You can’t be an intelligent movie-lover without being able to see through the hubris, ridiculousness, and greed that characterize the movie business and the wonderful, horrible people who inhabit it. 

But you also can’t be a movie-lover unless there is some part of you that genuinely believes, on a deeply non-ironic level, that movies are magic, that this greatest of art forms is legitimately capable of uplifting the human spirit and transporting audiences to exhilarating new worlds. You’ve got to be a combination of cynic and true believer.  

This divided consciousness helps explain the enduring appeal of Robert Evans, actor, producer, studio head, alpha male, womanizer, and icon, a figure cinephiles both love and love to laugh at. I am not alone in finding Evans to be at once a legendary icon of the silver screen and a pompous, self-delusional, and quite possibly insane boob. 

Robert Evans is one of the great satirical characters in all of literature. He’s right up there with Ignatius J. Reilly or Huckleberry Finn or Sammy Glick of What Makes Sammy Run?, only he has the advantage of being real, or as real as an inveterate phony can ever hope to be. If Robert Evans did not exist, then Robert Evans would have to invent him, or rather he’d have to hire someone smarter and more creative (I’m thinking Robert Towne or maybe Francis Ford Coppola) to create him—then Evans hog all the credit, as is his wont. 

At the height of his fame, Evans personified a dazzling new archetype: the studio executive as movie star, the powerbroker who was as sexy and dynamic as any of the stars who worked under him. Evans didn’t just look the part; he played the part, or maybe it was the other way around, since his short-lived career as a leading man was entirely predicated on his looking like a movie star. Evans never claimed he could act, and the film industry shared that estimation. During his acting career, it ultimately didn’t matter whether Evans could act; until it did, then he was forced to look for a new hustle. 

Like no executive since Irving Thalberg—who Evans not so coincidentally played in Man Of A Thousand Faces, the movie that failed to launch him to fame as an actor—Robert Evans was a true star. I think it’s entirely possible, even admirable, to deplore the warped values and superficial obsessions of celebrity while simultaneously respecting, hell, even revering, stars of Evans’ magnitude. I consider Evans every bit as much of an icon as Robert Redford or Warren Beatty, if not more so. 

Evans possesses many qualities I abhor in unusually pure form. He’s arrogant, leering, narcissistic, an inveterate mythmaker, and proudly anti-intellectual. He’s the kind of guy who can write (or have someone ghost-write) a great book about his life, but would never actually read a book himself, unless professionally obligated to do so. 

I am not a violent or angry man, but if someone uses the word “cocksman,” I resist the urge to punch him in the face immediately. Evans is not only the kind of man who would unironically use “cocksman” in conversation, but he’d also then proclaim himself the world’s greatest cocksman, and produce a great wealth of material, in the form of movies and audio recordings and photographs, to back up his claim. I should despise Evans, but he’s so over the top in his shamelessness that he somehow transcends it. Like Ronald Reagan, Evans is so fake he’s real and so smarmy he’s sincere. 

Though he began as an actor, moved into production, and ran a studio, Robert Evans’ real art form is as a raconteur and bon vivant, and The Kid Stays In The Picture is his masterpiece. While reading it, I was hypnotized by the cornball charm of Evans’ literary voice and the incongruous way everyone in the book talks exactly like Evans, much as everyone in Kevin Smith movies talk like Kevin Smith. 

Peter Bart, Evans’ longtime right-hand man, for example, tells Evans early in their relationship, “You’re the only one I’ve spent time with since I’ve been in Tinseltown that isn’t tinsel. You know who the real star is—the material. What’s interesting about you, Evans, and why you’re worth writing about, is that you’re beating the so-called big guys at their own game.” 

Evans’ signature literary technique is to ask a big question, then follow it up with a smartass answer. Is this technique hackneyed and over-used? You bet your sweet ass it is. Does Evans abuse every tortured metaphor and cliché in existence? Does Warren Beatty have an eye for the ladies? Does it work like gangbusters all the same? I wouldn’t be writing this essay if it didn’t. The Kid Stays In The Picture should come with a warning label: Prolonged exposure to Robert Evans’ prose invariably leads to talking like Robert Evans. The man is infectious. Like a disease. A really good disease. 

The Kid Stays In The Picture opens with the grabbiest of introductory grabbers. We begin with Evans at the height of his fame and glory, as he obsesses about the all-important world première of a new film about “the boys”—you might know this film as The Godfather, and it’s a bit of a big deal to Mr. Evans. 

Evans is obsessed with getting the reclusive and reluctant Marlon Brando to attend the première, but when he’s unable to convince Brando’s psychiatrist to persuade the eccentric star to appear, Evans’ fixer, Sidney Korshak (a mob-affiliated lawyer revered as one of the most powerful and feared backstage players of the 20th century) helps finagle a somewhat adequate replacement for Brando in Henry Kissinger. 

All the while, Evans gazes adoringly at his new bride, Ali MacGraw, a woman he coerced into starring in The Getaway opposite Steve McQueen, the man who eventually took her from him in the most humiliating, public manner imaginable. It was a moment of supreme triumph that doubled as the moment everything starts to go awry. It was, in other words, the giddy high from Evans would very dramatically and publicly fall. As Evans writes in the book, “Was I dreaming it? I was. It was all a façade. It was the beginning of the end.”

This passage is the book in microcosm. Evans lived his life in superlatives. He couldn’t merely be promoting an important film; he had to be promoting one of the greatest and most revered films of all time. He couldn’t just be out to secure a favor from an eccentric actor; he had to appeal to the most eccentric great actor in the history of American film, via the greatest fixer of all time. It wasn’t enough to bed and woo and win a beautiful actress; he had to bed and woo and win the biggest female movie star of the time. And Evans couldn’t lose MacGraw to just anybody; he had to lose MacGraw to the biggest stud in all of film, a man whose propensity for womanizing usurps even Evans’ own. 

We then segue from Evans’ ultimate moment of triumphs to his origin story as the beautiful, blessed son of a humble dentist and a woman of wealth and privilege. From an early age, Evans worshiped the world of entertainment and specialized in accents and impersonations of his heroes, Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. His reverence for tough-guy character actors helps explain why he writes and talks like a street-smart Damon Runyon character (or a sentient copy of Variety), despite being an upper-middle-class Jew. 

When Evans falls under the sway of legendary producer Michael Todd, for example, the producer of Around The World In Eighty Days tells Evans, 

“You’ve got too much moxie, kid, to be an actor. It’s okay for a dame, but not for a guy. Unless you make it big, real big, it’s a lousy life. After a while, you start losing cojones. There’s nothing more boring than hangin’ with some half-assed actor, talking about himself.” 

I’m not sure anyone in the history of the universe has ever talked that way outside of hard-boiled fiction, particularly a multi-millionaire and future husband of Elizabeth Taylor, but from a mythology standpoint, it’s perfect that a world-class alpha male like Todd would give lessons in manliness to a young Robert Evans. Who cares if it’s true? It makes for a good story. 

Evans was a champion womanizer from an early age. Women fascinated and obsessed him, and his gig as a teenage radio actor specializing in accents certainly impressed the skirts he devoted his free time to chasing. There’s a passage early in the book that speaks volumes about Evans’ attitude toward the fairer sex. In it, he talks about helping sneak one of the many tramps he had sex with out of his building (I’m using Evans’ phrase, not my own) when he discovered the love letters his humble father sent to his wealthy mother to win her love. 

Evans depicts himself as a true romantic while letting us know that he has had sex with countless women, the vast majority of whom he clearly considers whores. Later, Evans writes about how he and his best friend Dick Van Patten would frequent an establishment called The Red Rooster. Evans writes,

“Dickie and I were the only white faces in the joint. The poker tables were downstairs. The bedrooms upstairs. We never ventured upstairs, but we never had to. All the waitresses could do it: you’d hold out a dollar bill and in one movement, they’d life their skirts, squat and pick up your tip with their pussies.” 

There you have it: Women are mysterious, exciting, dangerous, and capable of using their genitalia to pick up money. Later, Evans elaborates on why it’s essential to provide for young women, on account of their inability to provide for themselves: 

“When things get tough, rent not paid, electricity turned off, little or no food to eat, and too scared to ask her judgmental parents for help, sadly, no matter how decent a girl is, she ends up spreading her legs in the world’s oldest profession.” 

It’s telling that Evans, self-styled true romantic, genuinely seems to believe that every respectable woman in the world is just a financial crisis away from prostitution. 

From there, it is a rocket ride to stardom as our dashing hero cycles rapidly through glamorous gigs as a teen actor, disc jockey, women’s pants mogul (through Evan-Picone, the lucrative family business), and finally back to being an actor again.  Legendary actress Norma Shearer plucks Evans from obscurity to play her late husband, Irving Thalberg, in Man Of A Thousand Faces, a biopic of Lon Chaney Sr. starring James Cagney, Evans’ old hero. 

The casting of the callow young actor as in the role now feels like destiny. In the long run, Evans didn’t want to play juicy roles like Thalberg; he wanted to be Irving Thalberg. He didn’t want to be the kid up for the role; he wanted to be the man who decided who got cast and who got cut. 

Evans’ next role proved even more central to his lovingly constructed myth. In his telling, God himself all but descended from the heavens to angrily demand he be fired from the plum role of a bullfighter in The Sun Also Rises. Evans claims nearly everyone involved with the production wrote a letter to his mentor, Darryl Zanuck, demanding it. So there was unbelievable pressure on the young actor when Zanuck stopped by the set of The Sun Also Rises to inspect his protégé’s performance. Always one to rise to the occasion, Evans apparently dazzled and overwhelmed Zanuck with a once-in-a-lifetime display of movie-star magnetism and bullfighting heroics. Zanuck’s response to Evans’ display gives the book its title: “The kid stays in the picture.” And with that, the legend of Robert Evans, prince of Hollywood, alpha male of the western world and Casanova of the ’70s, was officially born. 

As a cheeseball actor turned legendary mogul, Evans is a little like George Hamilton if Hamilton eventually graduated to producing some of the greatest films of all time. But before Evans the baby mogul could be born, Evans the baby-faced actor had to die, or rather his career as a leading man had to die.

In the mid-’60s, Evans leveraged the rights to The Detective, a hot novel that was eventually turned into a film starring Frank Sinatra, into a three-picture deal as a producer. A hustling young New York Times writer named Peter Bart was so fascinated by Evans that he wrote a glowing profile that caught the attention of blustery German oligarch Charles Bluhdorn, who decided that the slick young man with the matinee-idol looks was the perfect man to take over Paramount Pictures. 

In Evans’ telling, the whole world scoffed when a pretty-boy actor—without a single picture as a producer under his belt—was given the keys to Paramount. Oh, how they laughed! They all thought the kid was on the ropes, that it would be a quick trip to Nowheresville for the upstart Gatsby of Hollywood. 

For neither the first nor the last time, the odds were stacked against Evans. Hell, David had it easy in his battle with Goliath compared to Evans’ war with the status quo, but Bluhdorn saw something in the slick kid, barking at him, “Go by the seat of your pants, Evans. Make pictures people want to see, not fancy-schmancy stuff people don’t understand. I want to see tears, laughs, beautiful girls—pictures people in Kansas City want to see.” 

That he did. Evans’ genius was to combine the glamour, sex, and excitement of Old Hollywood with the rebelliousness of New Hollywood. He was a link between the old dinosaurs who had ruled Hollywood and the young turks who were taking it over. Though Evans began as an actor, he abhorred the studios’ reliance on the fading starpower of stars like John Wayne and Kirk Douglas. The young generation cared more about stories and characters than the geriatric movie stars that played them. 

Once ensconced in the corridors of power at Paramount, Evans was seemingly at the epicenter of everything: Hollywood, politics, sex, the counterculture, the establishment. He was supposed to be at the dinner party where Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family, only to get stuck working late in an editing room. He palled around with Cary Grant and Henry Miller, was intimate with Sidney Korshak, and fought righteous battles on behalf of Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, Chinatown, and The Godfather.

Then the prince of Hollywood met his princess in Ali MacGraw, a bratty, über-WASP model who tantalizes Evans by blowing him off and crowing about how deeply in love she is with her fiancé. Their romance? Tempestuous. Emotions? Overflowing. When MacGraw teases Evans by asking him if he’s ever been to Venice, then insisting he should only go when he’s madly in love, Evans replies with an impassioned, “Never plan, kid. Planning’s for the poor.” That’s exactly the kind of impossible yet impossibly perfect moment of melodrama that makes The Kid Stays In The Picture transcendent and lasting, both as the ultimate Hollywood insider tale and the most hilarious, loving parody of an ultimate Hollywood insider tale. 

The Kid Stays In The Picture sometimes reads like the world’s most elaborate humble-brag. Throughout, Evans kicks himself for being too distracted—while painstakingly transforming The Godfather into the masterpiece we all know and love today, saving Paramount, and palling around with the likes of Henry Kissinger—to devote enough attention to his marriage to Ali MacGraw or make some money for himself and not just his corporate overlords. And while the world might have looked at Evans, the boy prince, and seen a wealthy playboy leading an enviable existence, Evans wants us to imagine that he is a gentleman pauper throughout his heyday who was too exhausted from his 18-hour work days to have sex with the armies of women who threw themselves at him, except, of course, for all the beautiful women he did sleep with. 

Then sometime in the mid-’70s this altar boy, who had made it deep into his mid-40s without ever indulging in the deplorable practice of smoking marijuana, let alone experimenting with psychedelics or hallucinogens, met a lady. A white lady. Lady Blow. Miss Cocaine Train. Uppy McUppers. Was it love? More like lust. A fatal attraction. A dangerous obsession. Forget marriage: This doomed love affair was more likely to climax with a funeral! 

Was the kid Evans hooked? Like a fish—a fish addicted to cocaine that is! Did it get him into trouble? Are you kidding? The boy Evans was lucky to evade the hoosegow when he got busted attempting to purchase liquid cocaine. Evans got off easy but was ordered to produce an anti-drug clip as community service. 

I grew up a terrified child of the ’80s “Just Say No” generation. It was drilled into me as a child that if I were to smoke a marijuana cigarette, I’d be sucking off hobos for crack money within hours. Yet even I had never heard of “Get High On Yourself,” an anti-drug campaign spearheaded by Robert Evans. The author depicts it as a watershed moment, not just in his own glorious career but in pop culture and—why be modest?—culture as a whole, when all of the entrainment world turned against drugs and embraced sobriety. 

In the film version of The Kid Stays In The Picture, Evans actually refers to “Get High On Yourself” as the “Woodstock of the ’80s.” How powerful was the campaign? Late in the book, NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff warns Evans that sinister forces are out to frame him and discredit his message. Suspects included rival networks—jealous of the sweet ratings that invariably accompany strident, sloganeering campaigns on behalf of the public good—drug cartels, and, surprisingly, the DEA—as Tartikoff notes, “[Evans’ anti-drug campaign] is gonna accomplish more in a year than all of their agencies together have done in 20.” 

When it comes to battling the plague of drug addiction, all the cops and prisons and maximum sentencing in the world can’t compete with the world-changing power of celebrities crooning a preachy ditty. “Get High On Life” was so successful I’m surprised the war on drugs wasn’t won conclusively sometime in 1983. Thanks to Evans’ pioneering work, the ’80s will forever be remembered as a decade when cocaine’s popularity sank to all-time lows, and a generation of young people raised on Evans’ propaganda decided to get high on life and leave the nose candy to the no-hopers. 

Were Evans troubles over? Not by a long shot. That dizzy dame Lady Luck wasn’t through running our boy through the wringer. In the early ’80s, Evans stumbled upon the project that would be his ticket back to the A-list, a historical potboiler about sex, sin, crime, and music called The Cotton Club, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on a story by Mario Puzo. Let’s just say audiences and critics found it an offer very easy to refuse. But that’s not the worst of it: Coppola, that prick, tried to bully Evans off the picture. 

“Get High On Life” may have been the Woodstock of the ’80s, but otherwise the Reagan decade played out like a grotesque burlesque, with all of Evans’ iconic glories replaced by knockoff failures. To borrow Evans’ indelible turn of phrase, the decade was full of lightning—bad lightning. The genius of The Godfather mutated into the self-indulgent emptiness of The Cotton Club, while a ludicrous, ballsy scheme to catapult Evans back onto the big screen as the second lead in a Chinatown sequel called The Two Jakes fell apart for reasons that should be apparent to anyone. 

The kid was on the ropes. The disaster of The Cotton Club was magnified when the producer’s name was dragged through the mud in connection with the murder of a shadowy figure named Roy Radin that had very little to do with Evans, or even The Cotton Club, but made for a hell of a good story anyway. 

Evans was a lost. The man who once conquered Hollywood briefly checked himself into a mental hospital, only to make a daring escape into a waiting limousine. With the movie biz giving him the cold shoulder, he was a king without a kingdom. When he was forced to sell his beloved mini-mansion, Evans became a king without a castle. But he is too much of a showman and an entertainer to let his book end on a bum note, so it closes in a flurry of triumph. The kid gets his mojo back producing The Saint and Sliver and is lovingly welcomed back to Paramount as a legend and empire-builder. 

The Kid Stays In The Picture ends with Evans back on top and intent on learning from his mistakes, and the book plays like a raunchy, randy Hollywood fairy tale about a prince who lost it all only to win it all back through pluck, charm, and persistence. What would it be without a fairytale ending, bullshit or not? 

The release of The Kid Stays In The Picture launched the second phase of Evans’ career, the one devoted to Evans being Evans. Is it a good book? Try great. Enduring. One for the ages. Is it true? Damned if I know. Does it matter? What does matter is it’s an eminently quotable page-turner we’ll still be quoting and spoofing 50 years from now. It also inspired one helluva documentary. 

In The Kid Stays In The Picture, Evans embodies the romance, glamour, and excitement of Hollywood as an old-school dream factory as well as a brilliant, sustained parody of the romance, glamour, and excitement of old Hollywood. It helps that Evans has the résumé to back up his monstrous ego; he played a big role in ushering some of the greatest movies of all time onto the silver screen, from Harold And Maude to The Godfather to Chinatown. So he has ample justification to be thoroughly full of himself. 

Although his self-destructive behavior eventually cost him the protection and favor of mentors Korshak and Bluhdorn, Evans’ enduring tome brilliantly embodies Bluhdorn’s dictate to make populist, crowd-pleasing, and utterly irresistible entertainment replete with tears, laughs, and beautiful girls. That is the essence of The Kid Stays In The Picture, and the essence of Evans, bless his wicked soul.

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