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Saturday 20 January 2018

Film: When Evans was the talk of the town

Maverick: Robert Evans with Roman Polanski and Jack Nicholson in 1995. Photo: Sygma
Maverick: Robert Evans with Roman Polanski and Jack Nicholson in 1995. Photo: Sygma

Paul Whitington

If one man embodies the giddy hedonism of 1970s Hollywood, it's Robert Evans. With his huge sunglasses, lofty shirt collars, high heels and perma-tan, he bestrode Tinseltown like a miniature colossus for several decades, and as chairman of Paramount was responsible for overseeing some of the best films of the late 1960s and 1970s.

You could argue that Serpico, The Godfather, Marathon Man and Chinatown might never have been made without him, and Mr Evans most certainly would. Now 83, with his handsome features held in place by a palimpsest of facelifts, he's still cheerfully trading on the glories of the past, and has just released a new memoir.

Like his good friends Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, Evans was a legendary ladies' man, and in The Fat Lady Sang he tells a story that shows dedication above and beyond the call of duty. In 1998, he suffered a series of strokes that left him so debilitated his doctors feared he might never walk again.

Just weeks later, Evans was chasing after former Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg, whom he married after wooing her with diamonds and a Jaguar car. She was 30 years his junior, and the marriage lasted eight days. "My brain was swollen still," he explained helpfully afterwards.

Oxenberg was Robert's sixth wife, and a seventh has since bit the dust. And as The Fat Lady Sang and its infinitely superior predecessor The Kid Stays in the Picture make clear, Robert Evans' life is packed with such ludicrous and absurd incidents.

But it's also a life crowded with achievement, and for Evans the off-screen excess seems to have been part and parcel of his grand plan -- to become an all-powerful Hollywood mogul. He was inspired by the examples of ruthless bosses like Jack Warner and Irving Thalberg, but by the time Robert got to Hollywood the studio landscape had fundamentally changed.

In the 1960s the stars and the directors increasingly held the reins of power, but Evans was determined to push the clock back. And after he took over at Paramount he succeeded -- for a while. He's a fascinating character, ridiculous and inspiring in equal measure, and the type of maverick who would simply not be tolerated in today's streamlined and corporate film world. Which is just as well in ways, but a bit of a shame as well.

Born into a respectable family on Manhattan's upper west side, Robert might have become a dentist like his father but always dreamt of bigger things. He grew up on the great films of the 1930s and 1940s, and fantasised about becoming a big star like Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant.

At first, it seemed as though he might get his wish. In 1956, the trim and handsome young Evans was spotted by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel by silent legend Norma Shearer. She thought he'd be perfect to play her late husband Irving Thalberg in a forthcoming biopic of Lon Chaney called The Man of a Thousand Faces (1957).

He got the part, and the same year an equally impressed Daryl Zanuck cast him in the crucial role of Pedro Romero in an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. This was against the express wishes of both Hemingway and Robert's co-star, Ava Gardner, and as it turns out they had a point.

Robert Evans couldn't act, and after a hilariously bad performance in the 1958 horror western The Fiend Who Walked the West, even he began to concede the point.

Instead of heading back east with his tail between his legs, however, Evans became determined to reinvent himself as a producer. In 1966 he astutely bought up the movie rights to Roderick Thorp's hit novel The Detective, and used it as leverage to get a spot as a producer at Fox.

"No one wanted me," he later wrote. "There's nothing worse than a pretty boy actor who wants to be a producer . . . I bought a property called The Detective to get my foot in the door. So I went to 20th Century Fox and demanded a three-picture deal and got it. Without the property, they wouldn't have given me anything."

Evans later turned The Detective into a crime thriller starring Frank Sinatra, but before that had even been made he was given a dream chance by Paramount. When The New York Times wrote a colourful piece about Evans's aggressive producing style, the article was spotted by Charles Bluhdorn. He was the much-feared boss of the multinational Gulf & Western, which had just taken over Paramount.

The once-mighty studio had dropped to ninth place in the Hollywood rankings, and was generally seen as old-fashioned and irrelevant. A failed actor without a single picture to his credit might have seemed an odd choice as Paramount's saviour, but Robert Evans turned out to be just that.

If there's one thing Evans understood it was quality cinema. Time and again he had the nerve to put his faith in talented younger directors like Roman Polanski, Sidney Lumet and Francis Coppola, and within a decade he'd turned Paramount into Hollywood's most successful studio.

Evans could be interfering, and some directors have accused him of talking up his role in pictures his studio oversaw. But there's no disputing his cinematic instincts, or the fact that films like The Godfather would have been seriously damaged had he not been there to oversee them.

It was Evans who insisted that the film based on Mario Puzo's novel be directed by an Italian-American because, as he charmingly put it, he "wanted to smell the spaghetti". He also helped Coppola persuade the studio to hire the then-uninsurable Marlon Brando to play Vito Corleone, but got tough with Coppola over shooting schedules and budgets, which may have been a good thing.

During his legendary run of success at Paramount between 1966 and the mid-1970s, Evans's hits included Barefoot in the Park, Rosemary's Baby, The Italian Job, True Grit, Love Story, Serpico, The Conversation and The Great Gatsby. But however brilliant a studio boss, Evans was much less effective producing films on his own.

He left Paramount in the mid-70s, shortly after his third wife, Ali McGraw, had left him for Steve McQueen, and by the end of that crazy decade the wheels had begun to come off Evans's career.

In 1980 he presided over one of the biggest stinkers in box office history, the ill-fated comic fantasy Popeye. Shortly afterwards he was implicated in a DEA cocaine-buying sting, and in the very public fallout was forced to make an anti-drug TV advertisement. And things got worse when he tried to make a comeback in 1984 with the jazz-era crime drama, The Cotton Club.

The film was a flop, a $50m mess that failed to recoup its budget. And afterwards, Evans was falsely and ludicrously linked, by innuendo, to the murder of one Roy Radin, a musical impresario who'd been obscurely involved in The Cotton Club's financing. The ensuing scandal effectively ended Evans's days as a Hollywood player, though he did continue to produce films fitfully through the 1990s.

He's remained in the public consciousness through his enduringly spectacular lifestyle, his famous friends and his amusing and colourful memoirs. And over the years Evans has become a kind of archetype for the histrionic Hollywood producer. Dustin Hoffman's outlandish character in the 1997 satire Wag the Dog was affectionately inspired by Evans, who is said to have remarked after seeing it, "I'm magnificent in this film!"

If Robert Evans didn't exist you'd have to make him up -- and if you did, no one would believe you.


A producer at the top of his game

Chinatown (1974)

This is the film Robert Evans is proudest of, and Chinatown was his baby from the start. In 1971, Evans gave Robert Towne $25,000 to write an original screenplay inspired by the film noir classics. In 1973 Evans hired his buddy Jack Nicholson to play 1940s LA detective Jake Gittes, and persuaded Roman Polanski to direct. The rest, as they say, is history.

Marathon Man (1976)

Evans teamed up with English director John Schlesinger to create one of the best conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s. Dustin Hoffman starred as Thomas 'Babe' Levy, a New York history student who falls foul of a former Nazi who's come to town to claim a missing fortune. Laurence Olivier revived his Hollywood career with his portrayal of Christian Szell, and the film is most famous for its enforced dental session.

Black Sunday (1977)

Somewhat forgotten these days, John Frankenheimer's big budget thriller looks eerily prescient at this remove. And though it did poorly at the box office, it's now considered a cult classic. Bruce Dern played a disillusioned Vietnam veteran who conspires with Palestinian terrorists to explode a Goodyear blimp during the Super Bowl. The film's effects were widely praised, and the climax is spectacular.



Irish Independent

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