Hagiography, or recounting the lives of the saints, was always meant to have an instructive purpose: to elevate and exhort us lesser mortals. But the Royal Court’s ingenious account of the life of Hollywood hustler Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture, is not intended as an example to others. It could serve as a cautionary tale, warning that if you want to stay sane, solvent and out of jail you better steer clear of Tinseltown. Evans was not just one of Hollywood’s great film producers, with credits ranging from Rosemary’s Baby to Chinatown. He was also a whopping personality who lived by the seat of his pants.
As related here in Simon McBurney’s dizzying, spellbinding, hi-tech adaptation of Evans’ autobiography, his life was a doomed romance. Evans is presented as a frontiersman, a pioneer of cool who lived the kind of life for which many are called, but for which few are chosen. A life that hubris and the law eventually laid low. He started out as the son of a Jewish dentist in Harlem, and got into acting thanks to his good looks after being spotted on a Beverly Hills poolside by actress Norma Shearer.
Ava Gardner and Ernest Hemingway hated him as an actor and tried and failed to have him fired from the film adaptation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. The producer, Darryl Zanuck, overruled them, announcing through a loudhailer ‘the kid stays in the picture’. This moment was an epiphany for Evans. He realised where power lay in Hollywood: in the hands of producers. Striking out into production himself – making The Detective, starring Frank Sinatra – he became famous for his combative manner. This got him noticed by the explosive industrialist Charles Bluhdorn, who hired Evans in 1968 to restore Paramount Pictures to its former glory. Evans achieved this in style, with a succession of films including, most famously, The Godfather.
Everyone told him The Godfather would never sell – least of all with Al Pacino as the lead. But when Evans saw Coppola’s first cut his only objection was that he’d commissioned an epic and been presented with a trailer. Coppola was sent back to the editing room to make it the cross-generational saga we know today. Thanks to another big fat money-spinner, Love Story, he met his third wife Ali MacGraw. They had a son together (the actor and producer Joshua Evans), but McGraw, one of the most desirable women in Hollywood, later ran off with Hollywood’s most desirable man, Steve McQueen. By this stage Evans counted secretary of state Henry Kissinger among his buddies, and was able to dragoon the Nobel Peace Prize-winning carpet bomber of Cambodia into openings to make up numbers.