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In 1956 Robert Evans was a successful East Coast businessman. Whilst on a visit to LA, he relaxed by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Amongst the sun worshippers that day was the actress, Norma Shearer, who approached the disarmingly attractive Evans. It was a meeting that would change his life. On Shearer’s recommendation he was cast in Man of a Thousand Faces, before Daryl Zanuck picked him for the role of the bullfighter, Pedro Romero in The Sun Also Rises. The casting of an inauthentic newcomer aroused the anger of Ernest Hemingway (the writer of the novella on which the film was based), but Zanuck defiantly retained Evans, declaring: “The kid stays in the picture!”. The conflict between the over-involved artist and the savvy overseer is a distillation of much of Evans’ later success: it is no wonder that Zanuck’s words provided the title for Evans’ memoir and subsequent documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, which tells the story of his journey from ordinary actor to the extraordinary producer of such monumentally successful films as Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, Chinatown and The Godfather.

Evans’ book was adapted for the screen in 2002 by Nannete Burnstein and Brett Morgen. That Evans life’ is told through cinema is fitting, given the cinematic nature of that life. It is a journey that sounds like a Hollywood pitch: an almost over-night career switch from business to acting; the whirlwind success of his productions for Paramount; his marriage to Ali MacGraw (at the time, the biggest female star in Hollywood); a drug scandal, suggestions of involvement in murder, and a sustained period of failure in the eighties before a Phoenix-like return to movies in the nineties. Accordingly, the documentary seems persistently and self-consciously aware of the filmic nature of its subject. As such,  the film is dominated by archive footage, still-photographs, and excerpts from the protagonist’s many films (with the exception of shots of Evans’ stunning Hollywood home, and the non-diegetic narrative voice of Evans himself): quite literally a life in pictures. With Evans’ distinctive gravelly voice relaying his retrospective commentary in lush monotone we begin to develop a sense of intimacy with the film’s archived and recalled images, akin to an elderly relative showing us their photo-albums or home-movies.

What we see is an almost novelistic recasting of documentary film’s apparent purpose. The subjectivity of the autobiographical voice usurps the objective remit of the address. This has its shortfalls, particularly in the way Evans skirts around the more salacious aspects of his story, such as the murder trial and his cocaine addiction. However, these concerns are minimised by the overbearing sense in which the film’s form says everything about its subject. Just as in Classical Hollywood we are only told what is necessary. To relay the story of Evans’ life, The Kid Stays in the Picture uses precisely the tools and methods of representation that have formed him. 

By David Forrest


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