Robert Evans, who died this week at age 89, was so larger than life that our two most iconic Robert Evans impressions — Patton Oswalt’s and Bob Odenkirk’s on Mr. Show — compared him to Satan and God, respectively. Both impressions draw heavily on The Kid Stays In The Picture, Evans’ 1994 autobiography, the audiobook memorably read by Evans himself, and the 2002 documentary adaptation of the audiobook from Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein.
The book and the movie are a complementary tandem. Evans had an idiosyncratic reading style, rushing through some lines and mashing words together, then really luxuriating in others, growling them carefully and percussively, like a big band leader with permanently plugged nostrils, all with Christopher Walken-esque disregard for punctuation. Between the bassy register and the smushed lines, I had to listen on headphones even in the car. But the tradeoff in intelligibility was more than worth it. The book just wouldn’t work with anyone else reading it — who else could’ve captured Evans’ iconic casting couch patois, where he delivers every line like Frank Sinatra dropping bons mot to an eager bellhop on his way to party with some dames?
Dames… Evans actually used that word. He also loved to start sentences with a wry laugh, like he was genuinely tickled at the opportunity to be spending this time with himself. The documentary took everything that was iconic about the audiobook, put it into chronological order, and added stock footage, movie clips, and interviews with Evans — slowing down some of his rushed line reads, trimming some tangents, and generally translating Evans into something more universally accessible. You can watch the doc to see all the things the book references, then go back to the book to get the unfiltered stories told in their original Evans-ese. My favorite visual from the film is a 1970s interview with Edward R. Murrow, who gives the audience background on who Evans is, and then a curtain opens theatrically on a separate room to reveal Evans, perched on the arm of a couch like a tanned, wrinkle-less gargoyle. Murrow continues to interview him there as if it’s the most casual thing in the world.
From his discovery at the Beverly Hills Hotel pool by Norma Shearer, widow of Irving Thalberg, who helped get Evans cast as Thalberg in a 1957 biopic of Lon Chaney, to his eventual running of Paramount where he produced Chinatown, The Godfather, Love Story, etc., Evans’ represents a bygone era of deliciously sleazy yet weirdly innocent Hollywood. It was a place where guys who got discovered in a pool or as Barbra Streisand’s hairdresser could end up running studios. Enough with incompetent fail children of celebrities in vanity projects, bring back outsized roles for their ambitious service staff! (Adam Sandler seems to be the only celebrity still operating this way, God bless him).
After playing Thalberg in The Man Of A Thousand Faces, Evans played the bullfighter in The Sun Also Rises, a casting decision Ernest Hemingway hated so much he that tried to enlist other players to quit over it. Darryl Zanuck allegedly overruled them all, shouting “the kid stays in the picture” into a bullhorn. In the book, Evans describes being snubbed by Hemingway, even years later, and Evans retaliating by dating Hemingway’s granddaughter.
Evans came from the days when financiers still made bets based largely on the tastes of powerful studio heads. Gropey, cigar-chomping speed-fiends some of those studio heads may have been, it does seem an oddly more innocent time compared to today’s crop of bloodless MBAs making five-year plans based on franchise opportunities and ancillary revenue opportunities (I recommend reading Ben Fritz and Matt Stoller on how these shifts came to be). Even if you don’t care at all about “the industry,” it’s hard for any movie lover to look at Robert Evans’ output as a producer and not wish we had more movies like that now. In a successful 40-year career, I count a total of one sequel (Godfather Part II, in which he’s listed on IMDB as uncredited) on Evans’ resume. This year, there’s only one movie (Us) in the top ten of the domestic box office that isn’t a sequel, remake, or comic book tie-in.