The Kid Stays in the Picture



USA 2002 : Brett MORGEN & Nanette BURSTEIN : 93-4 mins

When the Oscar nominations for 1997 were announced, few people outside of Hollywood expected Dustin Hoffman to be included in the Best Actor shortlist for his Wag the Dog performance as Stanley Motss, an egotistical PR-savvy producer hired by the government to cover up a crisis. But the Academy voters knew that the whole performance was a feature-length in-joke: ‘Motss’ was a very lightly-veiled version of real-life producer Robert Evans, and Hoffman delivered what insiders recognised as a pitch-perfect impersonation. This episode neatly illustrates the gulf between the public’s actor-fixated view of Hollywood, and tinseltown’s own internal pecking-order, where names like Lew Wasserman, Jack Valenti and, indeed, Robert Evans, appear much more frequently in the pages of trade-bible Variety than the relatively transient likes of Nicholson, Eastwood or Cruise.

Evans has been making Hollywood headlines since the late 50s, when he had a very brief spell in the limelight as a leading man. Never any great shakes as an actor, Evans parlayed his prominence into a second career a studio executive, taking the reins at Paramount and steering it through the likes of Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, Chinatown and The Godfather. Branching out on his own, Evans fared less well in the mid-70s (Marathon Man, Black Sunday) before really hitting the skids in the 1980s: the decade kicked off with an embarrassing cocaine conviction, followed by the disastrous Francis Ford Coppola flop The Cotton Club – which embroiled Evans in a long-running murder trial that seemed to finally end his career.

The indefatigable Evans was to bounce back, however, in 1994 with the appearance of his tell-all memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture. While a notable best-seller with the public, it made a bigger impact in time-starved Hollywood circles converted into an audio-book – read by Evans himself in his deep and gravelly drawl, which somehow manages to be hurried, droning and languid all at the same time. It’s these tapes which form the basis for Morgen and Burstein’s movie – most of the soundtrack consists of direct extracts from the audio-book, with some additional material recorded by Evans for the film.

Evans’ absorbing (if occasionally indecipherable) commentary now has the benefit of illustration: digitally enhanced and colourised photographs (camera trickery endows them with a 3-D aspect); clips from Evans’ movies, behind-the-scenes footage of their production; archive film and TV extracts of Evans in action and in interview, plus up-to-date shots in which the camera glides throug Evans’ luxurious, flower-festooned Beverly Hills pad, occasionally catching the subject himself in reticent, silent shadow.

The shrinking-violent act should fool nobody, of course: like the post-modern Tony Wilson biopic 24 Hour Party People, the audience is always aware that this is very much one man’s solipsistic view of his own life and times, the egotistical self-aggrandisement just adding to the fun. The rigorously tight focus on the central figure, meanwhile, makes this one of the very few modern showbiz documentaries that manages to tear itself away from the desperately tired ‘talking head’ format in search of more original ways to ‘cinema up’ the material.

Evans’ direct-to-camera ‘performance’, filmed to placate Paramount’s nervy corporate paymasters, is wisely featured in full, as is (accompanying the end credits) Hoffman’s hilarious pre-Wag Evans impersonation on the set of Marathon Man. But the real comic highlight is the section featuring the anti-drug TV programmes Evans was required to make as part of his cocaine sentence – a large crowd of celebs, including deliriously unlikely bedfellows Paul Newman, Bob Hope and Fantasy Island‘s Herve Villechaize, are seen exhorting the nation’s youth to “get high on yourself.”

Despite such priceless moments, the movie’s running-time demands ultimately make The Kid Stays in the Picture a necessarily but frustratingly truncated, choppily episodic variation on the much more expansive material previously available. While never less than engaging, The Kid Stays in the Picture is essentially a teaser-trailer for the ‘main feature’ currently available at your nearest good bookshop.

1st March, 2003
(seen 25th February, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle)

by Neil Young