"Mind if we do this in bed?" asked Robert Evans, preferring to stretch out his legs at the end of a long day of interviews for the new film The Kid Stays in the Picture, a highly entertaining documentary based on his popular 1994 autobiography of the same title.
I had never done an interview "in bed" before. I suggested that I take a seat instead on a nearby ottoman and pulled it up to the notorious Evans, who proceeded, in his seductive baritone voice, to dish out recollections about his 60-year relationship with show business.
"The image that we all have of the iconoclastic Hollywood producer in many ways has been defined by Robert Evans," noted Brett Morgen, the co-director and co-producer of The Kid Stays in the Picture, which details Evans' dramatic rise, fall, and return. Indeed, Evans is still a slick, smooth-talking charmer for whom image is everything and who is both loved and reviled in the entertainment community.
Once considered Hollywood's "Golden Boy," Evans is best known for saving Paramount Pictures from going out of business. Under his reign as the studio's head of production from 1966 to 1974, he was responsible for bringing modern classics like Rosemary's Baby, The Odd Couple, Harold and Maude, The Godfather, Love Story, and The Conversation to the screen. After exiting his high-ranking post, Evans produced Chinatown, Marathon Man, Black Sunday, Urban Cowboy, and Popeye, among others. Most of these accomplishments were accompanied by legendary fights, in which Evans passionately battled over artistic decisions.
The Godfather, for example, would probably never have been made, nor would it have become a success, without Evans' fervor fueling the project. After lobbying the reluctant studio to hire Francis Ford Coppola—at the time a relatively unproven director—Evans fired Coppola three times during the movie's post-production. Unhappy with the first edit of the movie, Evans postponed the film's release in order to severely re-cut it, insisting that Coppola put back much of the footage that was initially taken out. (How often do you hear of a studio executive insisting that a movie be longer?) The result of Evans' battles led to one of the most acclaimed, influential films ever made.
"He is symbolic of a unique time in Hollywood and moviemaking," said Morgen of Evans. "He showed the kind of independent spirit that we think of with these smaller films now, and he was doing that in a studio system. Bob was a huge risk taker."
As Evans would find out more than once in his life, with great gambles come great successes—and failures. As he says in The Kid Stays in the Picture, "Did I fall from grace? I didn't fall; I dove from grace. The higher you climb the mountain, the steeper the dive."
From Golden Boy to Pariah
Evans was essentially made by the press, brought down by the press, and with the theatrical release of The Kid Stays in the Picture, is being re-made by the press. Evans said he has no hard feelings.
"Press is press," he told Back Stage West. "It is there to build or to tear you down. They're only interested in you in that way. You're interesting when you go up, and you're interesting when you fall."
Evans set out to become a producer in the early 1960s. After appearing as the subject of a New York Times article that described Evans as a "mover and shaker" in Hollywood, he was tapped to become chief of production at Paramount, a once successful studio that had fallen on hard times. Evans had yet to produce a single film, and his hiring came as a shock to Hollywood. Because Paramount, which was struggling to survive, had little to lose, it took a chance on Evans, who in return took great chances, proving to his company and to the rest of Hollywood that audiences were interested in provocative, challenging pictures.
Though Evans seemed invincible, his downfall began with a drug dependency that eventually caught up with him. In the early 1980s, Evans was busted on a drug charge. The press had a field day. Then came the biggest blow to his career. While producing the troubled 1984 film The Cotton Club, he was implicated—though never arrested or charged—in the murder of a business associate. Dubbed by the media as "the Cotton Club murder," the incident professionally buried Evans, who instantly went "from royalty to infamy," as he put it.
"He's the quintessential Hollywood story because he was a man who got everything in life and, equally, because his life was destroyed and tarnished," said Nanette Burstein, the co-director/co-producer of The Kid Stays in the Picture.
Still, Evans refused to throw in the towel. He eventually returned to producing, beginning with his re-teaming with loyal friend Jack Nicholson in the 1990 film The Two Jakes, followed by films such as Sliver, The Saint, and The Out-of-Towners. Five years ago Evans suffered a stroke that paralyzed half of his body. Once again he recovered and went on.
Said Morgen, "The moral of the story is never quit. You have to be able to withstand all of that rejection, particularly in the acting world. Bob shows you to never give up. It's 60 years [since Evans began] and he's still got it. He's still in the picture. The essence of the man has not changed. He's incredibly charming and seductive and lives life to the fullest."
Let's Get It On
Evans was an actor long before he ever worked in movies. He began acting in his native New York at the age of 12, working in radio, followed by early television. He was eventually signed by Paramount, but his contract was dropped after six months. In need of a job, Evans returned to New York and went into business with his brother. Within three years, their clothing company, Evan-Picone, made Evans a millionaire at 25.
Then one day, during a stay at the Beverly Hill Hotel, Evans jumped into a swimming pool and was "discovered" by screen legend Norma Shearer. His good looks, allure, and confidence captured Shearer, who offered him a role in the 1957 picture Man of a Thousand Faces, in which he portrayed Shearer's late husband, movie mogul Irving Thalberg, as a young man.
"I jumped into a swimming pool and came out a movie star," said Evans, who believes he wouldn't have been hired had he not had acting experience already under his belt. As he likes to say, "Luck is when opportunity meets preparation."
Evans' first day on a film set called for a scene with James Cagney. "You don't know how nervous I was," he shared. "Here was one of the great actors of all time and, Take One, Jimmy Cagney walks into my [character's] office. Cagney looks at me and says, 'You're Irving Thalberg.' I couldn't get a word out of my mouth. After six takes I still couldn't get a word out. I was too scared. I was sure I was going to be fired. Cagney walks over to me and says, 'Let's take a walk outside, kid.' So we walked out to one of the streets at Universal and he says, 'Let me tell you something, kid. I'm only 5 foot 4. The first scene I ever had was with a guy who was 6'3, and when the scene was over he was 5'4 and I was 6'3. So don't be scared of me. Let's get it on.' It was his generosity that let me get it on."
Before his first movie came out, he was spotted in public again and cast, this time, to play the handsome matador, Pedro Romero, in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. He would go on to star in three other films before giving up an acting career for producing. Looking back, Evans does not think he was a very good actor. "I was a good reactor," he explained. "I was a good imitator, but when I played parts that were too close to myself I was terrible."
Evans' time as a movie star may have been short-lived, but it was glamorous. He dated some of Hollywood's most beautiful women, including Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, and Grace Kelly. Later as a producer in the 1970s, he would marry, have a child with, and divorce Ali MacGraw.
Evans has an endless supply of great stories of his days as an actor, including one of my favorites about famed teacher Stella Adler. Evans turned to her for help on a screen test for the 1959 picture The Best of Everything, in which he was up for a lead role.
Recalled Evans, "I went to Stella Adler's [house in Los Angeles] for a weekend to study with her. In the scene that I was going to be screen testing for, I was supposed to walk through a door and see my girlfriend making love to another guy and be totally shocked. So I walked into the living room and did something and [Adler] said, 'Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. It's phony. Do it again.' I walked out and came back into the room and I was stunned. She had totally undressed herself. She was a big, voluptuous woman. I froze. She said, 'That's what I want!' That's how I got the part, because I played it that way."
Evans believes actors must have strong technique, and he's been known to send quite a few famous actors to acting teachers and vocal coaches. If there's one thing that separates an actor from a star, according to Evans, it's his or her voice.
"The voice is the single most important instrument for any actor—much more than looks, height, beauty, measurements, anything. If you can close your eyes and know who's saying the words, that's what makes a star. You know what Jack Nicholson's voice is like. You know what Clint Eastwood's voice is like. Dustin Hoffman's. Faye Dunaway's. Lauren Bacall's," said Evans, who also has a wonderfully distinct voice—deep, rich, and dramatic.
Continuing with his many true tales, Evans shared with me a few of his favorite pieces of advice from legendary actors he's had the pleasure to befriend. He particularly treasures what Sir Laurence Olivier told him during the making of Marathon Man.
"There's a [famous torture] scene where he plays this dentist who drills Dustin Hoffman's teeth," explained Evans. "When he did the film, Laurence Olivier lived with me at my house, and I'd drive him to work. One day on the way to work he said, 'Bob, I know how I'm going to play this scene. I was watching you garden today—cut the roses—and you cut them with such beauty—such love and affection. Szell, the man I'm playing—this Nazi who used to get gold out the Jews' teeth—he did it because he enjoyed doing it. I'm not going to condescend to the part. I'm going to do it with joy, because I enjoy doing it.' That's why it was so wonderfully done. He did it with joy and affection. That was his interpretation."
Evans also shared Cary Grant's advice to him when he was a young actor: "Take a diary and write about that person you're playing from the day he was born. Write everything down about that person, even if it's not in the picture. So when you walk in to do that scene, you know who you are. You're building a person. Don't just read sides; make up any story you want about that person, and that's the person you're playing. You are that person. That's a wonderful technique, as well."
Above all, stressed Evans, "less is more" when it comes to film acting. "The less you move your face, the less you make expressions and more you do nothing—that's mystery."
The same goes for dialogue. "You watch actors work over a decade—and I don't care who the actor is—if you see a picture they made 10 years ago and you see one they made last year, invariably the delivery is one half the pace that it was 10 years ago. Silence is very important. Actors shouldn't care about dialogue; they should care about silence."
Making The Kid
Morgen recommended that any actor interested in succeeding in the film industry read Evans' tell-all autobiography, which is even better in its audio-book version colorfully narrated by Evans. Said the director, "I would pretty much guarantee that if actors were to read this book, they would increase their chances of getting roles 10 to 20 percent, because Bob tells it like it is. There are very few people who will give you the tricks of the trade, but Bob does."
Indeed, after listening to the audio-book version—which has become a cult favorite in Hollywood circles—a few years ago, Morgen and Burstein were drawn to Evans' life story as a possible film subject.
"As a director, you look for good material. It's the hardest thing to find. Nanette and I read three to four scripts a day, seven days a week, and they're all lousy, I hate to say. It's really hard to find good material. Bob lived the life for us. He graced us with this incredible life that we could then bring to the screen. When we heard his book on tape and we loved it so much, we said to ourselves, There's a chance that this might work as a movie. It could be one hell of a film," said Morgen, who met Burstein while both were film students at NYU. Together they produced and directed the 1998 feature documentary On the Ropes, which was nominated for an Oscar and won a Directors Guild of America Award.
While in Los Angeles to attend the Academy Awards in 1999, they met with Evans, who was initially reluctant to participate in a documentary with them. Around the same time, Vanity Fair's editor in chief Graydon Carter flew out from New York to get Evans' permission to produce a special DVD version of The Kid Stays in the Picture, which would be included in the magazine's annual Hollywood issue. Carter convinced the young documentarians and Evans to collaborate with him, and the project soon grew into something larger—a feature-length documentary film with studio backing and a theatrical release from Focus Features.
Evans' main stipulation was that the film be told solely through his narration and using archival photographs and footage—with the exception of contemporary footage of Evans' Beverly Hills mansion. Morgen and Burstein agreed in exchange for final cut of the film.
"Bob's narration is so provocative, and he's such a kind of hard-boiled film noir character, he's one of the few people that you'd be able to do this with. Not only that but he saved every image of his life, and it was so well recorded," said Burstein.
However, the making of the movie was not without its challenges. In addition to having to get permission from every actor featured in the film's footage, the filmmakers had to figure out how to tell an entertaining story in this highly restricted format.
Said Morgen, "We tried to do something that had never been done before, which was to tell a story with a guy talking off-camera for 93 minutes that is as entertaining as any summer movie out there. The very premise of a guy talking off-camera is a snoozeathon, if you ask me. How do you make that dynamic? How do you visualize it?"
Fortunately, Evans had collected a treasure-trove of photographs from his life. With the help of a graphics computer program called After Effects, the film's editor, Jun Diaz (who also cut the terrific doc American Movie), found a way to "animate" many of the photographs used in the film and created a bizarre, three-dimensional look to the photographs.
"We realized that Bob's reality is a distorted reality; it's his version of his life" said Burstein. "We wanted the images to reflect that—to feel like you are in this disorienting, kind of hallucinogenic, trippy [world]."
Evans certainly found the finished film to have that effect on him. After seeing the movie for the first time at its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Evans said, "Watching the film was hallucinogenic. The first time I saw it I was shaking from it." He was also amazed at the audience's reaction to the film. When he was asked to say a few words to the audience afterwards, he received a standing ovation. "It was one of the most exciting moments of my entire life, if not the most. I had never had anything like that happen to me in my life. None of my pictures ever had a [response] like that."
Winding down our interview, Evans concluded that he never stopped acting. Acting is what made him such a persuasive force as a studio chief and as a producer. He said, "Acting doesn't necessarily have to be on a stage. It can be in life. That's a bigger stage. Ronnie Reagan did it. The Pope did it [Pope John Paul II, as Evans told me, was a Polish stage actor in his youth]. In my way, I've done it."
Or as Burstein fondly put it, "Bob continued to play Irving Thalberg when he went to Paramount. He didn't realize the movie was over." BSW