The Kid Stays in the Picture is a candy store for film buffs. It’s a kaleidoscopic riff on the life and career of Robert Evans, the fabled Hollywood producer whose story would have the star-packed, glitz-addicted, rise-and-fall-and-crash-and-rise trajectory of a tabloid epic even if it hadn’t been laid out in a movie as brash and mesmerizing as this one. Evans, who was discovered by Norma Shearer while sunbathing at a hotel swimming pool, became a tin-pot matinee idol in the mid-’50s, with the slightly geeky good looks and throwaway acting talent of a Jewish Troy Donahue. His star fizzled as quickly as it shined, and so he repackaged himself as a producer, ultimately taking over the ailing Paramount Pictures at the dawn of the age of conglomeration. Once there, he saved the studio by shepherding ”Rosemary’s Baby,” ”Love Story,” ”The Godfather,” and ”Chinatown,” doing as much as any modern mogul to usher in the Hollywood renaissance of the ’70s. He married Ali MacGraw, then lost her to Steve McQueen. He did mountains of drugs and dated harems of women. He thrived, and roared, and was trashed, and survived.
Directed by Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein, ”The Kid Stays in the Picture” is adapted from Evans’ 1994 autobiography, which attained cult status thanks mostly to the books-on-tape version, a feverish, spaced-out babble of gossip, memoir, and confessional innuendo in which Evans, speaking in a nasal New York sputter somewhere between Robert Mitchum and Henny Youngman, mythologized himself as a kind of film-noir antihero of the New Hollywood. The movie plants us right inside the thrilling, frequently hilarious core of Evans’ insecurity and ego, as he enters the souls of friends, enemies, and the directors he lorded it over. (Evans to Polanski during the shooting of ”Rosemary’s Baby”: ”Pick up the f — -in’ pace or we’ll both end up in Warsaw!”)
Instead of trotting out the usual talking heads, Morgen and Burstein intersperse rare film clips with a melting melange of digitally enhanced photographs in which the main figures come rising, with subliminal elegance, out of the backgrounds. (Think Ken Burns on Ecstasy.) The effect is akin to watching a scrapbook of Evans’ mind come to life; it’s almost tactile in its vibrant nostalgia. ”The Kid Stays in the Picture” is a dazzling dream of a documentary. It may be showbiz about showbiz, but it’s like the E! version of ”Citizen Kane.”
Is every story that Evans tells trustworthy? Not necessarily. To cite just one example, Francis Ford Coppola has denied the claim that Evans ordered ”The Godfather” to be made longer. What’s indisputable is that Evans, a manipulator and a romantic, had the gambler’s daring — the crazed movie love — of a producer who cared about something bigger than the grosses. In the end, he flew too close to the sun, flaming out in the ’80s after a cocaine bust and the ”Cotton Club” homicide scandal, in which he was tainted by the glaring fish-eye of the publicity he basked in. The irony, of course, is that a downfall that dramatic could only have happened to a player who imagined his life as the biggest production of all.