The Kid Goes to Sundance

The invitations had arrived the day before with much fanfare: A 21-year-old Mormon knocked on my condo door and gingerly handed me two large white envelopes. God knows how I would have gotten the things if I hadn’t been home watching cartoons. From the precious, reverent way that he passed them to me, it was clear that he never would have laid the crisp white envelopes down on the squishy, wet doormat if I hadn’t been around. In white text against black, and set within the elegant frame of two deep red velvet curtains drawing open as if for the first time, the invite read: “USA Films, Robert Evans, Graydon Carter, Brett Morgen & Nanette Burstein invite you to celebrate the premiere of The Kid Stays in the Picture , Friday, January 18.” I can only imagine the conversation between the delivery man and his dispatcher that had inspired this level of awe. “If Joseph Smith had been a studio chief …. ” “What’s a studio chief?”

Anyway, the event was to take place at La Pasch at Stag Lodge in Park City, Utah. It would be the swankiest party at the Sundance Film Festival, which despite its reverence for independent filmmaking was sponsored this year by AT&T, Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, the Coca-Cola Company, HBO, Entertainment Weekly and American Express. Given Graydon Carter’s famed Vanity Fair party after the Oscars, and given that he was both one of the film’s producers and the leading force behind turning Robert Evans’ autobiography into a documentary film, I was ready for a night of what one starry-eyed Sundance filmgoer called “a celebration of the Hollywood glitterati.”

Maybe it was the fact that the snow in Park City kept women from wearing their Manolos, or maybe it was that all the big names had been lured away to the Chrysler House, where they got to play the new Nintendo GameCube in a black-lit romper room while looking out the window at the new hulking Chrysler “concept car,” but the party had none of the satisfaction of an exclusive Hollywood event. There was a surging crowd at the door: bouncers and security men, girls with guest lists chastising those with dates who didn’t have a “plus one” next to their name, etc., etc. However, as soon as I stepped into the steel-clad, heavily mirrored elevator that took me up to the main event, something felt wrong. No sense of anticipation. None of the nervousness I tend to have before joining other groups of human beings in the act of socializing. No reverberations of the electricity I can usually feel even in a cold, steel-and-mirrors elevator nine floors from a room full of people where something is happening.

The room beyond the elevator was relatively empty. Patrick McMullan was there with a few cameras, and his flash went off every now and then, but there really wasn’t anyone to take pictures of. I walked upstairs, making my way far too easily through the very thin underbrush of non-glitterati, and was greeted on the wide landing at the top of the stairs by a waiter with a tray of small, beautifully prepared lamb chops. No one was taking the mutton. No one was even on their cell phone.

I felt a small charge of current coming off a little room near the landing, and headed in to find the action. There was Graydon Carter and Brett Morgen, the co-director of the film, and Robert Evans himself, looking a little frail but nonetheless still tanned and standing. The three were standing around talking. The only man who seemed to be generating any heat was an old-timer with an attractive middle-aged blonde sitting on his lap. Thirty years ago, he would have been one out of a 100 such types at a Bob Evans party.

When I caught the film at noon the next day, Mr. Morgen walked up front and apologized in advance for the film’s sound quality, which he felt had hampered a lot of people’s experience the night before. (“I mean, you couldn’t even put that thing on late night on the E! Channel!” I had heard someone say at the party.) But he wasn’t helping things. With his greasy, aggressively unkempt hair and his constant, self-conscious cursing–is it really necessary to use the word “cock” in front of an audience that has already given you the respect of paying to see your movie?–Mr. Morgen seemed to be fashioning himself after Robert Evans. But somehow, though he had spent the last year of his life working on a movie about Mr. Evans, Robert Evans was lost on him. Robert Evans had been smooth as well as rebellious. The idea that this guy made a film about Robert Evans and now thought he deserved to cast himself as Robert Evans was bad enough. The fact that he got Robert Evans all wrong was pathetic. It boded very badly for the film.

And then the film promptly began. And it was magnificent. In the opening scene, the gorgeous red curtains from the invitation swell open and the camera floats through a slow, sumptuous tracking shot of Mr. Evans’ Beverly Hills mansion. The score, ripped from the negative of a Douglas Sirk melodrama, swoops and soars. And then there’s the voice , Robert Evans’ voice, somehow gravel and honey at the same time: “There are three sides to every story–yours, mine and the truth.”

The Kid Stays in the Picture is a kitsch masterpiece. Starting with Mr. Evans’ love affair with Ali McGraw–”that snot-nosed kid” when she ignored him, “the most desirable woman in the world” when she became his wife–it moves on to Mr. Evans, as the head of Paramount, single-handedly breaking up Frank Sinatra’s marriage with Ms. Farrow by convincing her to stay in Rosemary’s Baby after Frank had forbidden it. Then it’s on to the phenomenal success of Love Story ; Mr. Evans saving Paramount from a board of directors at Gulf and Western, which owned the studio, bent on shutting it down; and then on to The Godfather , which he claims to have person-ally saved from the insufficiently ambitious hands of Francis Ford Coppola. Imagine anyone chiding Mr. Coppola, the poster boy for movie megalomania, for not being ambitious enough! Evans bests McGraw, Sinatra, Coppola, even the board of directors at Gulf and Western! The grandiosity, the self-promotion- cum -modesty, the vanity–there it all is, and somehow, despite myself, I find it as lovable today as Mr. Evans’ fans did 30 years ago.

Somehow, as Mr. Evans coos on and on, the person you could hate fades away, replaced by the character who could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge–and whom you’d still love after the deal soured. Behind all the bravado, there appears to be a deeply feeling human being–always the little kid, always trying to make good in a world constantly pulling him down. After the success of The Godfather , the film moves on to the lean Paramount years of The Cotton Club , cocaine addiction and divorce after divorce. Only the pure loyalty of old friends Jack Nicholson and Stanley Jaffe save him after he’s homeless, jobless and packed away in a psychiatric hospital. When Mr. Evans intones, “Staying power is what a winner is all about,” you believe it like never before. You find yourself laughing at him, laughing with him, and wanting to go over to that crackpot mansion to work for him for free, all at the same time.

Obviously, this is a crazy idea. The guy is as dangerous as a snake. But despite it all, he makes you believe in magic. Robert Evans, with all his bullshit and ego and Herculean self-promotion, is the kind of guy who makes the world go round. I see why Brett Morgen had to say “cock” in front of his audience. Robert Evans would have done it. And if Robert Evans had done it, it must have been all right. Unfortunately, he’s still the only guy I know who can pull it off.