THREE SIDES TO EVERY STORY - Sarah Dean
In the opening to his 1994 autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture, Hollywood film producer Robert Evans states, "There are three sides to every story: yours, mine and the truth." A brash, first-person narrative of over forty years in Hollywood, the book was a bestseller. In 2003 it spawned an award winning documentary of the same name, and earlier this year a stage play based on both opened in London.
Now eighty-six and living reclusively in Beverley Hills, Evans must be delighted that in this era of alternative facts, there is a continued interest in his "true" story. He is perhaps best known as the producer of some of the biggest films of what is considered by many to be the greatest era in US American cinema: Rosemary's Baby (1968), Love Story (1970), Marathon Man (1976) and The Godfather (1972). He knows what makes a good story, and he won't let little things like the truth or other people's opinions get in the way of thegreatest story ever told—the story of his life.
Evans started in Hollywood as an actor and by his own admission not a very good one. The title The Kid Stays in the Picture comes from a line attributed to studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who defended Evans after some of the actors involved in the film The Sun Also Rises (1957) had recommended he be removed from the cast. Through sheer charm, self-confidence, and audacity Evans managed to become the youngest ever head of a Hollywood studio taking over Paramount in 1966.
Evans tells his life story in a hard-boiled, self-aggrandizing narrative, full of expletives, hep talk and mafia slang—money is “green," women are “broads," and people don't phone, they are "on the horn." It is notable that the comedian Bob Odenkirk says that his character Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul is influenced by Robert Evans.
The book is a riveting read, full of fantastic anecdotes and set pieces so ridiculous they have to be true. He told Francis Ford Coppola that the first edit of The Godfather was too short: "You shot a saga, but you turned in a trailer!" He raised millions for the ill-fated film The Cotton Club (1984) just by getting Richard Gere to show financiers a fake poster. In the midst of the Vietnam War and Watergate, he convinced President Nixon's National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to drop everything to be at the opening night of The Godfather to boost the film's publicity. The AV Club review of the book wisely states that it reads "as the world's most elaborate humble brag."
The audio book narrated by Evans himself is also something of a cult hit. The comedian Patton Oswalt compared it to "listening to Lucifer dictate his memoir on a Sunday afternoon lying on his couch in his bathrobe with a martini." This comparison is unfair: despite all his bluster and unrelenting self-confidence, Evans is as honest about his failings as he is about his successes. He openly relates how his marriages failed due to him being a workaholic, how his relationship with Francis Ford Coppola broke down and ended up in court, and his various brushes with the law.
If you can cope with the archaic attitudes and overblown language, Evans's candid tales of life on and off set are a guilty pleasure, but more profoundly his story offers us a vicarious insight into what it's like to be a gambler, a risk taker and someone who refuses to compromise in their single-minded pursuit of artistic perfection, even when it hurts them and those they love.
The theater production of The Kid Stays in the Picture opened at the Royal Court theater in London in March 2017. The Court is where Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis premiered, where John Osborne the original "angry young man" made his name and where productions are invariably punctuated by "the Royal Court gasp”—the audible intake of breath from its well-heeled audience reacting to whatever envelope-pushing language or action has just occurred on-stage. Robert Evans's life of movie deals, drugs and womanizing is pretty tame by Royal Court standards and Evans might be a bit disappointed that the latest incarnation of his story has charmed rather than shocked London theatergoers.
The show has been created by Complicite, the physical theater company renowned for a kind of cooperative collaboration to bring complex, "unstageable" stories to life. Under the direction of Complicite's founder (and wonderful character actor in recent television and movies) Simon McBurney, the resulting performances are layered into tightly choreographed ensemble work with innovative lighting, sound, and video design.
Past work in London, on Broadway, and touring internationally has included productions of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita—complete with talking cats and the devil rampaging on the streets of 1930s Moscow; A Disappearing Number invites even the least numerate audience member to revel in the beauty of mathematics; and a breath-taking production of Haruki Marukami's The Elephant Vanishes complete with a life size elephant created with a Japanese cast who did not speak English, directed by McBurney who does not speak Japanese.
The story of one man in twentieth century Hollywood doesn't have the epic sweep of the stories Complicite ordinarily undertakes, but what it does offer is a theatrical challenge—how to tell a cinematic story theatrically?
A less rigorous stage director might have chosen to use clips from Evans's films throughout the show, but McBurney chooses to use them sparingly, preferring to explore the challenge of telling a cinematic story theatrically. What may have been a budgetary decision results in an inventive theatrical experience. The cast stage key scenes from Evans's life and films, whilst simultaneously filming the action and projecting it onto the scenery. This provides the audience with the dual experience of watching the action live, intimately in the room with Evans, his colleagues, and family, whilst simultaneously seeing the image he wants to present the world, the edit of the story he wants to tell.
Reportedly the Royal Court box office has had several phone calls from Robert Evans himself, now too frail to travel to London to see the show, asking who is going to play Robert Evans. The answer to this is everyone. Complicite's collaborative approach means that actors swap in and out of roles as needed, voicing his words, regardless of gender or age.
The theatre production of The Kid Stays in the Picture is a thoughtful experiment examining genre, story-telling, and truth. It feels timely in its discussion of truth and its exploration of the behavior of an unapologetic visionary and egotist (although it should be noted that the show was in development long before Trump came to power.)
Undoubtedly Evans deserves his place in Hollywood history. The Godfather, Rosemary's Baby and Love Story were game-changing films that took risks and pioneered cinematic storytelling techniques that are now the norm e.g. complex, realistic characters, naturalistic violence, non-linear editing, and musical themes. It is notable that the truth Robert Evans shares with us in The Kid Stays in the Picture, whether on the page, on screen, or on the stage reveals that it took a lot of ugly behavior to create this cinematic beauty.
Sarah Dean is a writer, knitter and four-eyes. She was a columnist for Third Way magazine. As a comedian she was a finalist for the Funny Women awards. She lives in London.