Week 11: The Kid Stays In The Picture (2002)

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The Kid Stays In The Picture
Directed by Nanette Burstein & Brett Morgen
Produced by Robert Evans
Written by Nanette Burstein & Brett Morgen
Narrated by Robert Evans
Distributed by Focus Features
Running time 93 minutes

Before Viewing 

I’ve always been a fan of documentaries. I love when filmmakers use their cameras and talent to document reality and show us things that we might not normally see (note: I’m not a fan of the glut of reality shows that litter our airwaves, however, because I feel they manufacture events, not document reality). Some of the most fascinating, touching, inspiring, and downright frightening things that I have ever seen on film have come from such documentaries like Woodstock, Harlan County, USA, Coney Island, The Civil War, Dogtown and Z-Boys and Gimme Shelter. Two of my favorite movies from this past decade are documentaries, in fact. I try to catch as many as I can because a personal goal of mine would be to make one some day (just gotta find a topic!). Thus, I watch as many as I can in order to learn more about the art and craft of documentary filmmaking.

I’m always on the lookout for new documentaries, eventually this one, The Kid Stays In The Picture, caught my eye. The film is the story of Paramount movie studio head/producer Robert Evans, as told in his own words. Evans was responsible for some of Paramount’s biggest hits in the late 60s-70s (Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather) and took them from the ninth ranked movie studio all the way to number one. Being a fan of movies from that era as well as of this type of filmmaking, I decided to check it out.

My Thoughts After Viewing 

The main aspect that works so successfully in The Kid Stays In The Picture is the fact that the story is being told by Evans himself. What they did was take the audiobook track from Evans’ autobiography of the same name and built the documentary around THAT. It’s great because Evans is highly entertaining. He’s funny, self-depreciating, brutally honest, and seemingly humble by the time the documentary ends. When you hear the audio, you know that the person who is telling the story is the one who actually lived it, making it all more realistic. Some might argue that this makes the point of view of the documentary suspect and even a bit one-sided, but I think that’s OK. It all depends on what you insist on from a documentary. Some people demand a detached air of objectivity, but I think documentaries like Harlan County U.S.A. show that you can pick a side, as long as you let the images and the subject matter on the screen speak for itself. Here, Evans is speaking for himself, and I appreciated the fact that he didn’t seem boastful or full of himself. Sure, he is a confident individual with goals that he set and achieved, but I never felt like he was gloating about his success- rather, that he felt that he poured himself into his work and got results. I also appreciated how candid he was in talking about his shortcomings and failures, especially in regards to his marriage and divorce to Ali McGraw. He blames himself, and he’s very blunt about it. He doesn’t fault his wife for running off with Steve McQueen because he wasn’t there for her.

As far as the visuals go, this isn’t your typical talking-head type of documentary. No one is paraded before the camera to talk about Evans, nor does Evans appear on camera to talk about himself (though he does appear briefly in a re-creation type of scene). What the directors did so successfully is combine vintage photographs along with film clips of Evans’ successes, behind the scenes footage from those same movies, and some contemporary shots of  some of the locations in the film (Evan’s palatial home is showcased from the get-go). I appreciated this fresh approach to this story. Since they were using the audiobook recording, I suppose it made it very easy to go though the records and archives of Paramount Pictures as well as Evans’ own collection and find photos that matched up to the words. This reminds me of the way that they make animated films (I’ve seen enough Disney behind-the-scenes feature to know they record the dialogue first, then design the animation around that). It makes such perfect sense to use this approach in telling Evans’ story because the resources are all there. The cinematography, especially in regards to the colors, was very vibrant. What I liked most was how they took the photographs and made them three-dimensional. Basically, what they did was take elements of a photography and layer it, creating a false sense of depth. It’s a technique I’ve seen more and more recently in documentaries (Stacy Peralta’s excellent Riding Giants comes to mind), and I think it’s a good technique because it creates interest in what you see on the screen, especially when used to create pseudo-rack-focusing. Again, some might argue that by manipulating the image you are messing with the true documentary process, but I think those elements in the photos tell the story, not the photo as an entity. It’s a bold move, and I applaud it. I’ve done it myself in some projects I’ve worked on, and although it can be time-consuming, it also can be very satisfying on-screen.

Music is used through the film to evoke a feeling for the time. In fact, there was one sequence in particular that jumped out to me. It’s a sequence where a bunch of newspaper clipping speed across the screen, quickly intercut with images of Evans and his movie projects while The Commodore’s Machine Gun is playing. The whole scene is extremely reminiscent of a scene during P.T. Anderson’s masterpiece Boogie Nights. To me, the scene plays like an homage, and it’s just as effective in showing how Evans’ life is taking off, just like it was used to show the same thing for Dirk Diggler.

The only fault I see in the film is that there are some areas on Evan’s life that get mentioned but are glossed over, and some of those  are big things. Evans’ brother is mentioned early in the movie as being a business partner, then never mentioned again. His marriage to Ali McGraw is showcased, but no mention is made of his other six wives (yes, six!). One thing I felt was really glossed over was his involvement in the Cotton Club Murder Trial, where for a time there he was seemingly considered a suspect. I mean, a murder trial demands a bit more attention than what was given. However, in the end, this is Evans telling us his story, not someone digging around to expose Evans and his dirty laundry. Evans is pinning stuff up on the clothesline himself. I appreciated seeing his life in the Hollywood studio system from his point-of-view.

Final Verdict

If you like documentaries as much as I do and you want to see a fresh, exciting new approach to the format, you really should check this one out. If you’re also interested in the Hollywood studio system, this film provides some great insight. Even if you don’t like documentaries, the subject is interesting enough to draw you in.

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