Keeping It Up
The week Austin Powers in Goldmember opened, I went to Loring Park to see Billy Wilder's 1964 movie Kiss Me, Stupid. Not five minutes into the film, Dean Martin pronounces baby with a cynicism so vast it makes Mike Myers's Yeah, baby! franchise look earnest. Martin plays himself with keen derision; his swingin' Dino is a drunken slut, and not a very smart one at that. Perhaps Martin could sense the tide turning away from the Fifties' breed of swinger. Perhaps, piling cynicism upon cynicism, he saw this role as a way to seduce young cynics. In any case, it didn't work: The public wasn't ready for such ugliness.
Nor were they ready to see through the surface glamour of the male swinger--not then, not now. This year the press is rolling over for Hollywood Lothario/producer Robert Evans and The Kid Stays in the Picture, the smarmy documentary based on his memoir of the same name. I honestly can't explain why. The saga of Evans's rise to Seventies prominence as the head of Paramount and his cocaine-laced crash strikes me as arrogant, self-aggrandizing, pitiful, and, worse, tedious. From what I hear, it's true to its subject.
Documentarians Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein claim to have decided early on that they "were going to try to direct the film as if Evans was directing it." They got Evans to narrate. "There are three sides to every story," he declares at the start. "My side, your side, and the truth. And no one is lying." An endearing admission of personal subjectivity? No. It's more of a warning: Forget any attempt to unearth other perspectives. At one point, the filmmakers show an excerpt from a promotional short Evans had made to convince corporate heads to release Love Story in 1970. Their entire film feels like that promo: Its goal is to convince viewers of the subject's importance, to seduce us into accepting the version of history in which Evans is a mythic Icarus, a god who had it all and lost it. And who would seduce you now to get it all back.
I guess it's working. Newsweek's David Ansen has confessed himself seduced "shamelessly, transparently, happily. By a real pro"--adding that last bit in hopes of distancing himself with irony. (The filmmakers try the same tactic with their virtual gallery of one-dimensional photo cutouts, to no avail: Irony, per the retro cocktail craze of the Nineties, provides little protection from the reactionary lure of certain gender icons.) Why Ansen swoons is transparent indeed in his portrait of Evans's life: the "beautiful women," the "astonishing" career moves, the wooing of powerful men, the dropping of familiar names, the "drugs, scandals and strokes"--the assonance turning the sordid into a slippery press-kit attraction.
Strip away the craving and the story reads differently. A child actor. A young man invited into Evan-Picone, his brother's successful women's slacks company. Wealth and the beauty it brings. (Young Evans resembles a cross between Cruise and Reeve.) Another dalliance with acting. The realization that power in cinema, as in clothing, comes from creating the product. (Wealth again--and the opportunities it brings.) Paramount Pictures: Rosemary's Baby, Harold and Maude, Serpico, The Godfather, The Conversation (but also--ugh--Love Story). Youth and its sensibility, at a time when youth was all. Addiction. The inability to maintain a relationship (he's an old-school chauvinist). Drug arrest, and a slap on the wrist (wealth again--and the privilege it brings). Failure, and a complete collapse, as if the man were boneless. Self-pity for years. Powerful friends. Resurrection.
That story, too, is part of The Kid Stays in the Picture, but it's buried beneath an allure as static as its collection of still photographs. Morgen and Burstein want to stress that Evans's rise and fall depended on "image," but they don't appear to notice or care that they've been manipulated by that very thing. They let him exaggerate (interminably!) his battles and triumphs, loves and losses, tempered only by a sort of affectionate wink. They totally swallow the idea that he was brought down by the media's coverage of his scandals. But what if the importance of those scandals is a visual effect, an illusion?
In other words: What if his genius was limited to a particular time and place? What if it wasn't genius, but opportunity? (Why should I believe him when he says he "forced" Coppola to make The Godfather great?) Post-comeback projects such as Sliver (1993) and The Saint (1997) don't exactly argue for Evans's aesthetic sensibility. What if he flew to the sun on other people's wings? What if he's just another wasted user?
Who cares? Swingers are cool. Let's all time-travel to the Seventies and watch one pretend to save the world.
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