Robert Evans: Godfather of 1970s
pop culture, and collaborative art

         Posted: February 2014

There are endless Hollywood stories in Robert Evans’ celebrated memoir, The Kid Stays in the Picture, but most interesting is the very subtle, even inadvertent, implication that collaboration produces the greatest art.

We’re all meant for our time, but few of us more than Robert Evans. He is not a rebel. Rather, he is a risk-taker. There’s a difference. He is not here to defy people, but entertain them. For that, he will push the envelope, in ways far greater than most people will consider.

The Kid, initially published in 1994 and given a fresh introduction in 2013, owes its appeal to its everyman employment fantasy — reading scripts, hearing pitches, watching dailies, and ultimately deciding, “This works,” or, as Evans would put it, “This is sh--.” To watch dailies with Evans would be like observing the NFL Draft combine with Bill Belichick. Very few can make a living in that line of work; fewer still with those dreams can acquire a mansion and the premier parking space at a Hollywood studio. These recollections of artistic critiques, not the lukewarm, non-titillating sexual escapades, carry The Kid into rare heights of memoir-dom.

The early pages indicate the origins of Evans’ chutzpah. Literally, his family pushed the boundaries of America's racial divide. His father was a dentist — in Harlem, of all places, the “first fully integrated” office in America, by Evans’ way of thinking. “Lenox Avenue was his,” Evans writes, marveling at how a white father and son could walk the streets and never feel threatened. While he never aspired to be a dentist, Evans clearly takes emotional sides between his father, serving the masses, and his mother’s siblings, uncles of great wealth during the Great Depression who drew Evans’ scorn for riding around in Cadillacs.

Very early in the book, Evans supplies a critical story from his childhood about his capacity to judge art. Wondering how his mother “had married beneath her,” he found a hatbox with letters she received from his father, a treasure of romantic poetry. “No wonder she’d fallen in love with him!”

From the day we’re born, we learn how the audience responds to us. Evans as a boy realized his own ability to entertain was prodigious. Here we get the delineation between rebel and risk-taker that ultimately catapults Evans to Hollywood’s throne — a boy requesting some form of non-disapproval from his father to seek acting jobs and pursuing them to the extreme, faking a résumé, taking Nazi parts. During summer break. At age 12.

Few things give a young male more confidence than female attention. Evans found this in abundance, devoting as much or more time to secret teenage liaisons as to his fledgling acting career. Without such extreme moxie, a person can’t call Faye Dunaway and have a serious conversation. With it, the most rewarding connections can be impaired. Evans unfortunately went unchecked for life. His schooling became a nuisance, discarded. Divorce costs money, causes pain, and, done often enough, makes a mockery of a reputation. In The Kid, Evans reports 4 divorces; since then, 3 more have occurred (one of those, apparently, is technically an annulment). He has 1 child. Whether he has ever been in love is doubtful. Whether he ever walked a child to school or coached a Little League team is more doubtful. He expresses most admiration for Ali MacGraw, yet the story of the twosome behind “Love Story” feels little more than a quickie. It is clear Evans adores his son, but even on that subject the longest anecdote involves settling a score with Steve McQueen. Eventually the references to another date, another fling (nameless or not), just get old.

For all of his dalliances, Evans writes of celebrity with curious polarization. The biggest names in Hollywood appear, and reappear, and reappear again in this text. Yet accounts of the party scene are minimal. Evans rarely mentions Oscars or other awards ceremonies; his accounts of certain movie premieres usually center around last-minute problems with guest lists, etc. This is not Liz Smith material.

What becomes clear is that Evans, a man of enormous confidence, is not completely sold on his own stature. The name-dropping is relentless. Whenever there’s a lull in The Kid, either Jack Nicholson or Warren Beatty is summoned for an anecdote. These are the only two characters treated exclusively with deference. They provide encouragement, entertainment, companionship and an occasional break. It’s fair to conclude an acknowledgment here that in this small universe, they are a bigger deal than Evans.

A onetime movie star, Evans’ photo collection figures to have considerable appeal. The book contains 3 sections of them. (A quality movie version of The Kid largely consisting of Evans’ photos, TV footage and audio-book narration was done in 2002.) It is in fact a modest gallery, images of Evans as well as the acquaintances in regular, everyday poses. Vanity in check. The Kid is about the words, not the pictures.

A few characters are decidedly villains. Steve McQueen, Bill Macdonald, Richard Zanuck, John Travolta, Robert Gordon, much of the cast of “The Sun Also Rises.” One senses that most relationships are not polarizing, but fleeting. Coppola was explosive in one collaboration, toxic in another. Kissinger by the ’80s wasn’t relevant enough for preserving a fractured friendship. It seems that the need for Sidney Korshak’s protection waned against Evans’ success.

As The Kid is a book for sale (the new introduction was presumably spurred by the 2013 publication of a sequel, The Fat Lady Sang), even decades after publication this page will not reveal all of the juiciest gossip. It feels there’s a concerted effort to include an anecdote on every A-lister Evans might’ve dealt with (see the lengthy list of references below), to the point of nonchalance toward Sharon Tate’s party invite on the murder night (wishing her “sweet dreams” hours beforehand) and casting himself as the protector of Roman Polanski at that time, and silliness in asking Cary Grant for an autograph. The section promising most and undelivering most is clearly the account of Evans’ breakup with Ali MacGraw, in which virtually nothing occurs but a few unanswered phone calls. The Kid works best as an insider’s account of difficult movie productions.

Just as with his sexual shenanigans — at some point, even a prolific writer runs out of new ways to explain how he impressed a date — Evans’ celebrity contacts over the years fade in excitement and stature. There is a fascinating arc in which Evans is on virtually no one’s speed dial (if it had existed) in the mid-1960s, then on everyone’s speed dial, then unable to get invites to a cast wrap party. Late in life, this is not Rupert Murdoch or Clive Davis, but a maestro of the ’70s permanently ensconced in that universe.

Evans’ career resembles a real-life person he should’ve played — Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis. Though Davis was not a handsome movie star, Evans physically resembles him in a slight way. Both are from New York and hit it big in California, around the same time. Most important is that both were renegades who had the magic touch for a certain window of time. Why Evans could put together “Love Story,” “The Godfather” and “Chinatown” (as well as several other hits) in the span of about 5-7 years, and never approach that level of critical success afterwards, is one of life’s mysteries akin to Davis engineering 15 great years out of the Oakland Raiders before ultimately presiding over a perennial laughingstock at the time of his death in 2011. Somehow, whether engineering movies or building sports teams, no one can be No. 1 forever. Perhaps success is bad for human beings’ judgment, or maybe the law of averages catches up with them.

The Kid is hardly a Hollywood business story, though that too would be fascinating. There is frustration here in Evans’ frequent references to points and ownership rights. It is only natural to wonder, how much did he make on this one; how much did he lose on that one. A reader comes away with the undeniable notion that movie financing is a very, very complicated endeavor done over layers and years, several parties negotiating and picking sides before the project has started, then sometimes different parties entering as the project gains steam, and finally battling over what will be the final cut (in every sense of the term). Given that the press never sees the canceled checks, one wonders whether reported salaries and costs in Hollywood articles are even remotely accurate.

The 1992 film “The Player,” directed by Robert Altman (who is given high marks in The Kid), mocks the industry as a destroyer of artistic values serving only to line the pockets of incompetent boobs who listen to pitches all day. Evans by contrast seems very comfortable with the system, painting it as a meritocracy and legitimate business model. It’s a Wild West at the critical basic level, jockeying for ownership of the hottest ideas before everyone’s aware of them, the way baseball scouts pre-1960s scratched and clawed for the next bonus baby, and then there’s the further obstacle of adequately developing them. Many of those hot ideas will fail, big investments lost. If you can’t produce a hit, you don’t work. Evans stands tall. His sensitivities here are impressive. Never does it seem he is cutting artistic corners, nor is he going to sink a studio with a couple of farfetched disasters. He wants to make a great picture that people will like and pay to see. He lives fast, but has a heart.

It is strongly implied that a handful of hits made serious money for Evans while others constantly pushed him to the brink of foreclosure or bankruptcy. He jokes about several missed opportunities for great wealth and his propensity to gamble and, at least for a time, use drugs. There is an impressive passion here for film as art, worth the expense (no matter who is paying) to get it right. Yet one can infer that at best, Evans was slipshod with his money and at worst, downright incompetent. Details of his stint with Evan-Picone are scant. Was it his brother and associates who got women into pants, or was Evans an unusually successful salesman? It is important to note that with 4 divorces at time of publication, it is likely in his best interests to plead poverty.

The best passages of Kid are those from Chapter 14 through 26, recounting Evans’ seemingly fluky appointment as Paramount's European production chief, then rapid promotion to head of the entire studio. There is still today a sense of awe in seeing the Gulf + Western logo usher in “The Godfather” or “Chinatown” or any of the batch of Paramount’s seminal late 1960s and 1970s works that reset artistic boundaries.

No brief era in the arts is as significant as the decade spanning roughly 1965-1975, some might say from the Beatles to Watergate, during which occurred an explosive re-evaluation of what was presentable in media. Beforehand, married couples slept in separate beds; afterwards, gay characters appeared in sitcoms, and blood could appear just about everywhere. Evans, with a certain reverence for Old Hollywood but utterly untethered to it, was the right guy at the right time. Paramount, through its upstart head of production, found itself at the vanguard of change that resonates today.

Given Evans’ unique position in history, the text balances uneasily between an old-school memoir and a counterculture tale. Several passages, including recollections later in the book, refer to names and standards of Old Hollywood, Norma Shearer, Irving Thalberg, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Tab Hunter, iron-fisted studio contracts, a protective press, a time of uppers and alcohol, not cocaine. Interestingly, changing standards of film content (he presided during the introduction of the ratings system) are given no acknowledgment in this text. Whether 1939, 1969 or 1989, a movie is a movie is a movie, as Evans would say.

Hollywood polarizes. Incredible drama, and incredible excess. Evans wears that dual crown as well as anyone. Notice the picture above, the glasses, the movie-star persona. Some would say it looks slick, phony even. Most, though, like it. They appreciate the statement. This renegade is for real.

Evans concedes in his introduction that memories will differ. That is an understatement. In Chapter 31, on the subject of “Chinatown,” Evans writes, “Jane Fonda was everybody’s first choice to play opposite Jack ... I immediately called Roman. ‘I know Jane’s one, two, and three on your list.’” Evans then floats Faye Dunaway as a backup option and quotes Polanski as saying of Dunaway, “I don’t want her anyway. The script’s tough enough to understand. I don’t need her mishegoss.” Yet in a 13-minute “retrospective interview” on the “Chinatown” DVD, which includes commentary from both Evans and Polanski, Polanski says, “I wanted Faye Dunaway from the start ... many people were for Jane Fonda.”

Ultimately picking his own side, Evans finally asserts in Chapter 35 that the film you see in the megaplex is the vision of the producer, not the director or writer. That may be at odds with the textbooks, and with the recollections of some of the book’s notable adversaries, particularly Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Towne. Yet there is no denying from Evans’ anecdotes that movies tend to undergo a paralyzing amount of change. Scripts are doctored or rewritten. Stars affirm interest, then back out for other projects. Directors change their minds. Producers fire directors who have a different vision or cost outlook.

Whether one prefers to credit Charlie Bluhdorn or Marty Davis or Ali MacGraw or Francis Ford Coppola for Paramount’s ascendancy, Evans’ place on the Rushmore is secure. There are busts, and there are excuses. More than once, Evans recalls himself complaining to others that “a great movie has been shot here; it’s just on the cutting-room floor.” Nowhere is that gripe more evident than with “The Cotton Club,” Evans’ out-of-control 1980s project that spiraled into a financial albatross helmed by Coppola. Despite Evans’ objection to the final product, Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars, though the New York Times’ Vincent Canby tended to share Evans’ concerns.

Whether winning or losing the battles, Evans illustrates an impressive balance of power in Hollywood that most would underestimate. Rather than a world where the suits exploit everything — in some cases this is certainly true — The Kid subtly reveals a professional courtesy of sorts among the financiers and artisans and those in the middle. Scripts and dailies are contemplated objectively, sensitive negotiations are conducted and re-conducted, people are allowed to have moments of loopiness. That there is (at best) chicanery and (at worst) deception in production decisions and compensation agreements does not negate the general concern among all parties for the value of the art itself, an aspiration that often requires the collaboration of frenemies.

Evans’ signature corporate moment, producing a clip of himself introducing Paramount’s lineup of 1971 films for a skeptical Gulf + Western board he says was planning to close the studio entirely, includes his view of the books of Love Story and The Godfather as essentially “developed” by Paramount. This poses a fascinating question as to whether all art is improved by collaboration; what if Rembrandt or Hemingway asked for help. Art collectors would wince. Musically, we take it for granted. Even solo artists use session pros. Cinematically, we’ll never know, as these productions take far more resources and expertise than a single auteur can provide. Despite Evans’ specific conflicts over “The Godfather,” “The Cotton Club” and “Sliver,” it feels like collaboration, however testy, makes films better.

One of the most satisfying refrains in the book is “I didn’t understand it.” Often it comes from Evans, sometimes from other principals. Generally it is directed at books and scripts deemed bidding-war material. This is Evans’ appreciation for the masses, calling out certain esoteric offerings as something that won’t work not just in Kansas City, but in his screening room. Few tales in The Kid burnish Evans’ credentials to lead a major studio as do these. He freely admits the projects he missed, not fighting successfully enough for “Funny Girl” and the future blockbusters he had a chance to call his own.

Evans’ writing style is refreshingly unique. Choppy, folksy even, often with a certain omission of necessary background until later in the anecdote. Sometimes the reader will be through a half page wondering who he’s just been reading about, only to have Evans inevitably supply the answer a few paragraphs away. This approach takes some getting used to, such as slipping into a mildly cool swimming pool, but in fact provides a certain authenticity to the anecdotes. Evans could stand to sharpen the geographical references. Sometimes, realizing whether he's writing about a New York or Southern California incident takes too much effort.

Memoirs, for better or worse, tend to be scripted as timelines, written by retirees who are feeling good and/or ignored. The Kid is as straightforward as any 120-page script Evans has read. A young playboy makes the most of his good fortune, hits the top of the world, suffers a pair of embarrassing setbacks, only to recover for a happy ride into the sunset.

For a while it bears parallels to Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” the 2004 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes. More significantly, “The Aviator” was “produced” — there is considerable dispute over that designation — by Evans’ nephew, Charles Evans Jr. An upstart through fluky circumstances finds himself running a movie studio, dates the world’s hottest actress, loses her to one of the world’s leading movie stars, then suffers a downward spiral stemming from a purported physical breakdown. The Kid readers will be relieved to learn that unlike Hughes, Evans allowed his friends to bail him out. The blockbusters slowed to a trickle, but the marriages continue(d).

The Kid entertains, but is not funny. Evans does not have that gift or inclination. He comes closest in relaying a story of how Johnny Carson showed up at his home for a 9 a.m. tennis match while Evans had been up until 6 a.m., and while he’d prefer in this situation to just give the guest “a G” to leave, he couldn’t do that to Johnny Carson. But the rest of the story is another of Evans’ frequent brag scorecard, handily defeating Carson while experiencing a severe hangover.

Not a rebel, but a risk-taker, Evans in his later years allowed life in the fast lane to get the better of him, perhaps like Vito Corleone in Evans’ signature project, the old man gradually lost his touch. He spends more than enough wearisome pages defending himself in two stories that are less interesting than “Popeye.” He was convicted of a misdemeanor cocaine charge (that’s a shocker in Hollywood) and was very loosely summoned as a witness in a very forgettable murder case barely linked to “The Cotton Club.” It’s a necessity for him to present the basic facts of these embarrassments but the only way these incidents would become interesting is if the prosecutors were telling the stories. Evans’ minutiae about Robert Shapiro’s work in the latter case seems mostly there to appease Shapiro for working for free; in fact Evans concedes Shapiro vetted those sections.

There is a curious element to Evans’ cocaine punishment, which included producing an anti-drug commercial. Evans takes great pride in this project, dubbed “Get High on Yourself,” and its acceptance by the White House. Today, while fine in spirit, the clip and its message are hopelessly dated, linked to the days America began to discover the extent of cocaine usage and fearing its immersion in schools and possible production of a generation of junkies, similar to terrorism concerns of the early 21st century. Thankfully that didn’t really happen, for reasons of perspective far more than public-service ads. Evans doesn’t seem to see it that way, but give him his due.

Bob Evans contributed mightily to this world as an entertainer. You do not hire him as your accountant or social worker. His greatest skill is impressing a woman. Not far behind is his ability to judge art. He went for both in the most spectacular ways, suffered the consequences, and moved a mountain of pop culture.

The Kid Stays in the Picture: A Notorious Life, by Robert Evans (1994, 2013)
Featuring: Robert Evans (Robert J. Shapera), Sumner Redstone, Charles Bluhdorn, Martin Davis, Michele Sindona, Mike Nichols, Francis Ford Coppola, Ali MacGraw, Peter Bart, George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Korshak, Al Pacino, Sam Peckinpah, Marlon Brando, Anna Kashfi, Christian Brando, Steve McQueen, Mary Cronin, Al Lo Presti, Henry Kissinger, Nino Rota, Diane Keaton, Richard Castellano, Richard Bright, Mario Puzo, Bernice Korshak, James Caan, James Cagner, Humphrey Bogart, Florence Krasne, Archie Shapera, Abe Krasne, Izzy Krasne, Julius Krasne, Ben Krasne, Sam Krasne, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, James Stewart, Larry Frisch, Ted Williams, Patty Wheeler, Bert Wheeler, Dickie Van Patten, Terence Rattigan, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Booth Tarkington, Charles Abrahamson, Chamberlain Brown, W.C. Fields, Douglas Fairbanks, Lana Turner, Jack L. Warner, Mike Todd, Elizabeth Taylor, David Niven, Susan Hayward, Nick Conte, Richard Conte, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Martin, Frankie Laine, Phil Silvers, Dick Shawn, Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, Elaine Stewart, Benny Medford, Hal Wallis, Scott Brady, Nat Moskow, Benny Medford, William Michaeljohn, Susan Morrow, Alan Ladd, Joseph Picone, Frances (Loeb) Lear, Theona Bryant, Martin Arrogue, Norma Shearer, Irving Thalberg, Lon Chaney, Robert Arthur, Joe Pevney, Louella Parsons, Louis B. Mayer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mario Lanza, Charlie Kahn, Christina Palozzi, Darryl Zanuck, Joe Pincus, Ava Gardner, Errol Flynn, Mel Ferrer, Lew Wasserman, John Gavin, Henry King, Bill Gallagher, Peter Viertel, Audrey Hepburn, Alfredo Leal, Walter Chiari, Eddie Albert, Frank Sinatra, Luis Dominguin, Faye Dunaway, Joe Hyams, Jeff Chandler, Milton Sperling, George Chasen, Bob Taplinger, Natalie Wood, Irving Rapper, Herb Tobias, George C. Scott, Richard Burton, Barry Gray, Jack Eigen, Groucho Marx, Laurence Olivier, Bosley Crowther, Alan Hall, Orson Welles, Charlie Farrell, Ralph Bellamy, Pancho Segura, Lew Hoad, Dinah Shore, Al Capone, Henri Soulé, Jackie Kennedy, John Gotti, Elvis Presley, Troy Donahue, Paul Newman, Sophia Loren, Richard Zanuck, Brad Dillman, Rodney Dangerfield, Gordon Douglas, Tony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sal Mineo, Ray Danton, Gordy Douglas, Kathryn Grayson, Edward R. Murrow, Herbert Bayard Swope, Charlie Einfeld, Richard Widmark, Jean Negulesco, Rona Jaffe, Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Ginger Rogers, Ray Danton, Stella Adler, Harold Clurman, Jerry Wald, Marilyn Monroe, Yves Montand, Lou Schreiber, May Britt, Peter Falk, John Huston, Eiko Ando, John Wayne, Kurt Frings, Alain Delon, David Lean, Owen MacLaine, Sam Spiegel, Omar Sharif, Robert Wagner, Warren Beatty, Robert Gordon, Ketti Frings, Geraldine Page, Gene Frankel, Franchot Tone, Tony Franciosa, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher, Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Felicia and Jack Lemmon, Anne and Kirk Douglas, Sharon Hugueny, Rossano Brazzi, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Ray Danton, Troy Donahue, Walter Winchell, Louella Parsons, Paul Newman, Tab Hunter, Charlie Revson, Sheika Mosher, Milton Berle, Dr. Max Jacobsen, John F. Kennedy, Alan Jay Lerner, Porfirio Rubirosa, Yul Brynner, Gianni Agnelli, Julie Newmar, Odille Rubirosa, Jacqueline Kennedy, Renata Boeck, Adolf Revson, Dwayne Hickman, Charlie Feldman, Woody Allen, Camilla Sparv, Mamie Van Doren, George Wieser, Jacqueline Susann, David Brown, Montgomery Clift, Brigitte Bardot, Helen Gurley Brown, David Weisbart, Roderick Thorp, F. Lee Bailey, Dr. Sam Sheppard, Greg Bautzer, Lou Schreiber, Maurice Chevalier, Charles Boyer, Billy Gordon, Cliff Robertson, Richard Brooks, Dean Martin, Peter Bart, Abby Mann, Tommy Steele, Henry Fonda, Leslie Caron, Orson Welles, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand, Michael Caine, Howard Koch, Bernie Donnenfeld, Army Archerd, Mike Frankovich, Ann-Margret, Hal Wallis, George Hamilton, Clint Eastwood, David Gilruth, Greta Garbo, James Pendleton, John Woolf, Gene Mako, Paul Mano, Oscar Hammerstein, Otto Preminger, Neil Simon, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Billy Wilder, Gene Saks, James Coburn, Irving Lazar, Vladimir Nabokov, Ray Stark, Barbra Streisand, Shirley MacLaine, Charlie Boasberg, Julie Andrews, Blake Edwards, Roman Polanski, William Castle, Ira Levin, Michael Ritchie, Tuesday Weld, Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rudin, Sharon Tate, Simon Hessera, Peter Sellers, Gibby Folger, Voytek Frykowski, Jay Sebring, Joyce Haber, Richard Sylbert.


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