The autobiography The Kid Stays in the Picture, by Robert Evans, the co-auteur of Love Story and Chinatown, boasts the very last quality you would expect from the guy whose incoherent garrulity is said to have inspired Dustin Hoffman’s comic mobster Mumbles in Dick Tracy: a prose style with the snap of the Catwoman’s lash. It’s as good as Julia Phillips’ legendary Hollywood gossip romp You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, but with a longer attention span and, alas, a lower venom count.
Credit Evans, but also his editor, Craig Nelson, who turned Evans’ thousand-page doorstop into a killer read of 412 pages that fly by like calendar leaves in an old-time movie dissolve. The book’s antic, telegraphic literary style combines the virtues of Ben Hecht, Elmore Leonard, and Robin Leach.
From his first days as a punk pretty-boy actor impersonating pretty-boy mogul Irving Thalberg in The Man of a Thousand Faces to his reign as the Thalberg-sized greenlighter of 25 major studio movies a year, Evans inhabited a binary world of catastrophic failures and even more titanic victories. He almost died with Sharon Tate; he says his Sliver star, Sharon Stone, feared he would have her ”knocked off.” And his acting! As an aspiring male starlet at Fox, claims Evans, ”except for Elvis Presley, I was getting more fan mail.” He says that at one point, only Paul Newman received more scripts than he, even though he actually appeared in only four major movies. And he insists that an opening of a play he once did was ”the biggest thing to hit Philly since Ben Franklin…. You couldn’t hear a pin drop when the curtain parted.”
Cecil B. DeMille couldn’t have made a bigger production of his life than Evans does here. The average guy might complain of back trouble; Evans’ sciatic nerve gave him ”a pain that makes a thousand toothaches a kiss to build a dream on.” Dames? He scored Ali MacGraw, Phyllis George, and Liv Ullmann. Novelists? Evans could buy the best-from ”Rona Jaffe the hottest new face in literature” to Vladimir Nabokov (”Forget…Lolita Laughter in the Dark was one of my five favorite books”). Politicos? Hank Kissinger gave him a private tour of Nixon’s bathroom. Tennis court architects? Evans hired Gene Mako, who’s only ”the premier designer of hard surface courts.” How did he do it all? Holding fast to his trusty collection of Yogi-Berra-on-crack maxims: ”Possession is 99 percent of ownership” and ”Never cop to a woman, even if she catches you in the act.”
Widely rumored to be up for a starring role in the real-life trial of Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood Madam, Evans claims he actually battled prostitution by renting Mustang convertibles in 1969 for 14 beautiful girls — because if she is carless in L.A., he notes, ”no matter how decent a girl is,” she winds up facing a fate worse than Warren Beatty. Why does Evans tell us of his largehearted largesse in the field of trollop prevention (abruptly terminated upon his nuptials with MacGraw)? ”Today,” he proudly relates, ”of the fourteen girls, six have become internationally famous stars, none earn less than a million bucks a year. Four married men whose wealth is such that their state tax is more than I make in a year.” Now tell us, Bob — how is it you saved them from prostitution?
Evans evinces a total recall of ancient conversations that rivals Bob Woodward’s, but he’s a much sharper storyteller. He makes repartee between him and Ali MacGraw sound like William Powell and Myrna Loy sparring in The Thin Man, when in reality, they probably sounded like woozy doofuses with ego where their neocortex used to be. And the dirty rat-a-tat of his power chats with studio suits is worthy of comparison with the noir dialogue of the two eternal masterpieces that would not have happened without Robert Evans: The Godfather and Chinatown.
The Kid Stays in the Picture features reams of fun factoids about trivial lives and important film history; some of it may even be strictly true. He certainly could have dined out much more on what he knows about Jack Nicholson, Mia Farrow, Faye Dunaway, and the L.A. demimonde. But one suspects that Robert Evans has every intention of having lunch in that town again. Who knows? Maybe he’ll even be buying. A