The Kid Stays in the Picture is a 2003 documentary based on Robert Evans’ 1994 autobiography of the same name. Much like Peter Biskind’s enjoyable, muckraking “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”, the documentary looks at the often-incompatible personalities behind New Hollywood – when risk and artistry briefly returned to American films.
Robert Evans was head of production at Paramount during the late 1960s and the early 1970s, a time of great upheaval in both American society and American films. A new generation of filmmakers – among them Scorsese, Coppola, Bogdanovich, Rafelson, Spielberg, De Palma, Lucas, Ashby – started making films and Evans oversaw quite a few of the most famous and successful. Rosemary’s Baby, Harold and Maude, The Godfather, Serpico, The Conversation and Chinatown represent an incredible run not only for Evans but also for American cinema in general.
Despite the apparently endless winning streak and the tabloid-friendly lifestyle, Evans’ life was hardly free from disaster. He was publicly humiliated when his wife, Ali McGraw, left him for Steve McQueen, he was caught in a drug bust that ruined his career, he was implicated in a murder case and later, burned out, he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. Despite all this, he is still working in Hollywood today.
The sections on Robert Evans in Biskind’s 1998 book are among the most interesting and oddly tragic – Evans is presented as a talented producer, able to nurse talented but insecure filmmakers and encourage them to make their masterpieces. That said, like most of the great characters from the time, he was taken down by his own hubris – big budget flops like Popeye and The Cotton Club – and his excessive lifestyle. It would seem that a documentary biopic on Robert Evans couldn’t help but be interesting. So why is The Kid Stays in the Picture so dull?
The documentary is made up almost entirely of photographs of Robert Evans accompanied by a narration – often sampled from an audiobook of Evans reading from his own autobiography. In terms of form then, the documentary is unexciting and speaks more for the access that the filmmakers didn’t have. Often there is little for the filmmakers to do but make time while the narration plays out, zooming in and out of various photographs and trying to animate them in an effort to recreate the events, creating a slideshow, which never seems to get at its subject. As visual accompaniment they don’t work very well and it gives the documentary a very cheap, made-for-TV feel, hopelessly out of date alongside more cinematic and experimental documentaries like Silence and 5 Broken Cameras. There is one interesting moment in which the filmmakers cut together footage from Evans’ films, both as actor and as producer, while he talks about his escape from a psychiatric hospital, making the story powerfully visual – we see the hospital escape from The Godfather, Dustin Hoffman running away in a hospital robe from Marathon Man and Evans himself pulling what are supposed to be the facial expressions of a psychotic man from his starring role in The Fiend Who Walked The West – “He breaks a neck and laughs…watch out for yours!” This sole moment of dynamism only works to the film’s detriment, acting as a reminder of the invention that is absent throughout the rest of the documentary.
The other problem is Robert Evans. It is based on a book that he wrote and he relates the whole story through voiceover. It is difficult to believe any of it since it is all based on the word of one source. The film even begins with a quotation, also by Evans, a not-so profound statement about the impossibility of any testimony being truthful. So what can be taken from a documentary that does not even try to be accurate or reliable? The documentary skips his childhood entirely and mentions only one of his seven marriages, suggesting a heavily edited greatest hits and greatest lows compilation that bares little relation to the reality of its subject. As a result, there is no sense that we have found anything out about the man and the film feels like a rather narcissistic, wish-fulfilment exercise by a bitter Evans who wanted to settle some old scores. We see him briefly in his house – in a rare moment of original footage – darkly lit and from the side. Like the documentary in general, we never see his true face, just an angry, rather sinister and unknowable figure in the dark.
The Kid Stays in the Picture is Robert Evans’ side of the story, the poster’s tagline dressed up to sound like a tabloid – “Success! Scandal! Sex! Tragedy! Infamy! And that’s just the first reel…” – all empty thrills and an unlikeable, rather exploitative edge. The documentary itself is hardly prurient or revelatory, just highly conventional, neither mimicking the artistry and invention of the films that made Evans’ name nor eliciting any kind of emotional response. By the end of this documentary not only do you not know Evans, you get the feeling you wouldn’t even want to.