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IT IS EVAN'S WORLD

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The biggest laugh in The Kid Stays in the Picture, which is a pretty funny film, may come when our narrator tells us, deadpan, "The one thing I'm not, is prone to exaggerate."

Whether he has stretched any of the hard facts of his life or not, Hollywood icon Robert Evans has turned the tale into an epic of personality, a symphony of suave. His seductive low rumble of a voice, full of mannerisms that have become instantly indicative of Tinseltown royalty, spells out the plot with the dramatic punch of a movie pitch and the indolent self-assurance of a man who knows the movie is already a hit.

Evans was a fashion-industry tycoon who fell into the movies by chance because he had the right look. He was a bad actor, but he had impeccable behind-the-scenes instincts, grabbing a tiny asset and working it until he was miraculously put in charge of a movie studio. He then made that rinky-dink studio top of the heap; while he was in charge of Paramount, he oversaw blockbusters such as Rosemary's Baby, Love Story, Chinatown, and The Godfather. Between the era of the showbiz mogul and the studios run by bean counters, he oversaw some of Hollywood's most artistically free-wheeling, idiosyncratic features, and he made a fortune doing it. Off the set, Evans romanced every beautiful woman in town, made the scene in the swankiest spots, and indulged in some mind-altering substances that eventually led to a scandalous fall from grace.

Evans' rise and fall would be compelling enough material for a just-the-facts documentary, but nothing as commonplace as that would suit this subject. Instead, the filmmakers throw all pretense of objectivity out the window, letting Evans be the only source of information — and he obliges them, mythologizing himself willy-nilly. His failed marriage to Ali McGraw takes on the tragic proportions of Shakespeare, the L.A. mansion he was forced to sell was as magical a place as Camelot. (The former was lost forever, the latter was rescued by Jack Nicholson, just one of Evans' glamorous best friends.) All of this is told with the strange combination of boldness and self-deprecating humor that has made Evans one of the industry's favorite raconteurs.

While Evans talks, the filmmakers are matching his voice with imagery every bit as intoxicating. Using what must be an enormous archive of photographs and film clips (it's as if Evans had a sidekick with him everywhere, taking photos of his high life), they show us the people and places Evans describes. Morgen and Burstein bring still images to life in a fresh way, digitally cropping figures out of the background and making them float above the scene. A black-and-white image of Evans in a limo gets live action scenery spliced into it, a frozen-in-time cigarette has real-life smoke drifting from it.

The trickery is fun to watch, but it's also a smart indicator that the directors know that what they are making doesn't quite fit into the "non-fiction" category. But it's not necessarily fiction, either. As Evans said quite famously, "There are three sides to every story: my side, your side, and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each one differently." Pretty deep for a guy as tan as George Hamilton, who wears bolo ties with turtlenecks.

The Kid Stays in the Picture
"Seductively entertaining"
Dir. Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein; writ. Robert Evans (book), Morgen; feat. Robert Evans (R)

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