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.
In this context, Evans was a glorious anachronism with an inimitable… or rather, endlessly imitable… swingin’ sixties vocabulary. It should also be noted that aside from the objectively great filmography, most of the Robert Evans’ mythos comes from… Robert Evans himself, the master myth-maker, writing and narrating his own story. The man had an astounding seven wives, only one of which (Ali McGraw) received mention in the movie version of The Kid Stays In The Picture. To his credit, The Kid Stays In The Picture was as beloved for all the things it left unsaid as much for what it did (notably, both Oswalt’s and Odenkirk’s impressions seem like attempts to voice all the things Evans left as subtext — his God complex, or the taste of Diane Keaton’s vulva soaked in fruit juice).
Which is to say, there will probably be some equally great Robert Evans stories that come from someone other than Robert Evans. but until then, we have The Kid Stays In The Picture. Here are some of the most Robert Evansy lines.
Evans on Roman Polanski, whom he calls “The Little Polack.”
“We both come out of the same school of drama, the drama of life.”
Evans on trying to talk Mia Farrow into defying Frank Sinatra and staying on to finish Rosemary’s Baby:
“If ever my experience with dames came in handy… I mean actress dames, this was the moment. I knew what makes the head of an actress tick, and I finally found its purpose.”
(I enjoy the implication here, that after working with actors all his career, he had, in his forties, finally discovered a purpose for an actor’s brain).
General advice from Robert Evans:
“Never plan, kid. Planning’s for the poor.”
On Ali McGraw, calling him furious over his choice of director for Love Story:
“Suddenly miss snot nose remembers my seven digits. This was one angry broad. I say angry with a capital A.”
On Ali McGraw showing up at his mansion for a fight and ending up in the pool:
“Yeah but miss flower child snot nose soon got wet, very wet.”
To Francis Ford Coppola after screening the first cut of The Godfather, which Evans decided was too short:
“You shot a great film, where the fuck is it? In the kitchen with your spaghetti?”
On one of his many bold business moves:
“When you’ve only got one shot, either you pull down that beautiful brass ring or you get the brass knuckles in the balls.”
On something his mentor Charles Bluhdorn presented Paramount’s board:
“His proposal was turned down flatter than Twiggy’s chest.”
Evans on the night he tried cocaine for the first time, when he was in his 40s:
“Lying beside me one night was a Hollywood princess.
“Is it me?” she asked. “The pain can’t be that bad.”
Wearing only a necklace, she handed it to me. Unscrewing the top, she whispered, “Take a sniff, a sniff of life.”
It was my first experience… into the world of white.
“The name Evans gets ink.“
RIP to one of Hollywood’s all-time most memorable characters.