Watching The Kid Stays in the Picture is a bit like reading a book whose pages you’re reluctant to turn because you never want it to end. From the moment it begins, its inexhaustible pleasure quotient kicks in and for the next two and a half hours or so you’re on a roller-coaster ride from which you never want to disembark.
Of course, it helps to be a movie buff, given that the protagonist of this cautionary tale is one-time Hollywood heavyweight Robert Evans on whose racy, no-holds-barred 1994 memoir – thrillingly adapted by director Simon McBurney and James Yeatman – it is based.
Born in New York in 1930 to second-generation Jews from the Upper West Side, he was, at age 26, famously spotted poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel by the actress Norma Shearer, wife of the late “wunderkind” producer Irving Thalberg. It just so happened that a film about silent star Lon Chaney called The Man of a Thousand Faces, in which Thalberg would play a significant role, was in pre-production at the time, and Shearer thought that the good-looking, charismatic Evans would be great in the part. He wasn’t. The New York Times called his performance “unspeakably poor.”
Evans’ lack of talent, however, didn’t stop studio head Darryl F. Zanuck from casting him as a Spanish matador opposite Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn and Ava Gardner in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. With the exception of Flynn, the cast ganged up on him and wanted him fired. But not Zanuck. “The kid stays in the picture!” he famously said, and he did.
Evans, however, was no fool. He knew he was a lousy actor. What really turned him on wasn’t stardom but the kind of power Zanuck had demonstrated. He wanted to be the one to demand that the kid stays in the picture. A combination of luck, aggression, determination and cultivating the right people soon fast-tracked him to Paramount Pictures, where, against all odds, he became head of the studio, the youngest person ever to do so.
Catapulting both himself and Paramount to the top of the charts were several era-defining hits such as Love Story, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and The Godfather, whose initial script by Francis Ford Coppola he rejected as lacking the gravitas and complexity the subject demanded.
Inevitably Evans’ celebrity, wealth, excessive lifestyle and womanising (he was married seven times, though McBurney and Yeatman underplay the marriages) caught up with him. Apart from the catastrophic and costly failure of The Cotton Club (1984), his most damaging fall from grace was his questionable involvement with a drugs transaction and a murder in which he was marginally implicated. It was a seriously bad time for Hollywood’s erstwhile wonder boy, who, in the aftermath of failure and drug abuse, suffered several strokes. But to paraphrase a Sondheim lyric, Evans had seen it all yet he’s still here – alive at age 86, if not exactly kicking. Thanks to the generosity of his friend Jack Nicolson, he’s back in the Hollywood manse he so loved but was forced to sell to pay his accumulating debts.
McBurney and his Complicite company recreate Evans’ heady, self-destructive life through the effective use of multimedia techniques in which stills and film footage – both live and from their original sources – are projected onto the black screen that dominates Anna Fleischle’s striking, all-purpose set. The atmospheric noir-like lighting design is by Paul Anderson and it’s terrific. Pete Malkin’s sound effects, especially the insistent use of rapid-fire telephone conversations, provide an urgency to the text.
Bringing it all to life is a brilliant cast of eight who perform a multiplicity of roles. Though the programme does not identify exactly who plays whom, the three stages in Evans’ turbulent life – youth, middle and old age – are respectively shared by Heather Burns, Christian Carmargo and Danny Huston, son of the great John Huston.
Name-dropping, on this occasion, is mandatory, with some wonderfully entertaining appearances from Marlon Brando, Henry Kissinger, Francis Coppola, Ernest Hemingway, Ali McGraw (representing Evans’s wives) and James Cagney, to name a few. If ever a show had the wow factor, it’s The Kid Stays in the Picture. I’d say don’t miss it, but the entire run is virtually sold out.