The Kid Stays in the Picture
dir. Burstein and Morgen
Opens Fri Aug 16
Cinema 21

Robert Evans devoted the first two decades of his life to show business. After a stint as a moderately successful radio actor, he jumped into business with his wildly successful brother, a dressmaker. As young Evans sat wheeling and dealing over a poolside telephone in a Beverly Hills hotel, aging actress Norma Shearer spotted him and saw something in Evans that reminded her of her late husband, legendary producer Irving Thalberg. And in that moment, Robert Evans experienced something that starstruck teenagers wandering the streets of L.A. can only fantasize about: He was discovered.

The Kid Stays in the Picture is the kind of True Hollywood Story that E! network executives have filthy dreams about. The maverick producer extraordinaire started out the son of a Harlem dentist, and fought his way to the top of the Hollywood food chain as an actor (sort of), and then again as a producer, without ever really giving in to the soul-crushing Tinseltown system. His enchanted rise was followed by failed marriages with glamorous movie stars, and an abrupt downfall that included drug abuse and murder.

Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen's screen adaptation of Evans' autobiography is a thing of beauty. The story is so wonderfully trashy, packed with juicy insider gossip and behind-the-scenes accounts, that the focus and commentary brought to the film by the two visual magicians make for a movie that's absolutely mesmerizing. Burstein and Morgen temper the braggadocio cocksmanry that gives the source material a somewhat pathetic, self-serving feeling, and stick with what made the book such a treasured cult object among Hollywoodphiles. Most of all, the directors preserve Evans' overly feisty, straight-talk attitude: Evans narrates his own filmed biography (always off-screen--an unseen, overwhelming presence) with gusto and a biting, self-deprecating humor that's missing from the print version.

After years of wallowing in legal, personal, and professional hell, the film ends on an up note--but it's tough not to squirm at the obligatory topple in his story. Rooting for the underdog sucks me in. There's plenty of that, but Evans seems to enjoy the roller-coaster experience that has been his life, and that comes through onscreen. The desperate big-winner/big-loser philosophy might not always beat the house, but the game is still thrilling to play, or to watch, for that matter.