Robert Evans: Staying in the Picture

Legendary producer Robert Evans, whose career includes Chinatown, The Godfather, the new The Kid Stays In The Picture and an upcoming Matthew McConaughey flick shows off his home theater spread.

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In the opening shots of The Kid Stays in the Picture, the camera circles a richly appointed mansion as Irving Berlin music on the soundtrack evokes the splendor of another era. The moment might have come from the movie version of The Great Gatsby, and, indeed, the house's owner, Robert Evans, produced that movie and used to be called a latter-day Jay Gatsby himself. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous character, Evans is a self-invented man of mystery. He was born Robert Shapera and started his career as a clothing manufacturer before becoming a B-actor who re-created himself as the crown prince of Hollywood during the '60s and '70s. Evans went on to be haunted by a series of scandals (involving drug addiction and the infamous Cotton Club murder investigation), but having survived those he's reclaimed the spotlight as the star of the uncommonly stylish documentary inspired by his best-selling autobiography.

One of the many stories Evans told in his autobiography concerned the film adaptation of the Fitzgerald novel he oversaw when he was running Paramount. His third wife, Ali MacGraw, had urged him to make the film; she was dying to play Daisy. But after she left him for Steve McQueen, whom she met during the making of The Getaway, Evans refused to cast her in Gatsby. Another of his intriguing tales involves his fabled home, hidden away behind the Beverly Hills Hotel. Evans was staying at the hotel in 1956 when Norma Shearer spotted him and suggested he play her late husband, Irving G. Thalberg, in a film called Man of a Thousand Faces. He and Shearer went for a walk, and that is how he discovered the hideaway that Greta Garbo had once used. Ten years later Evans bought the house for $290,000, and he still holds court there today.

The heart of the house is the theater that Evans built shortly after taking up residence in 1966, when he had just been named head of production at Paramount. He installed his own screening room with two Peerless Cinearc 35 millimeter projectors and a 16-foot screen. "I built it for survival," Evans says. "I was a pretty-boy actor hired to be head of the studio, and everybody expected me to fall on my ass. But I've learned one thing in life: whether it's school or marriage or work, you gotta do your homework. I failed in the other areas, but I was not going to fail in this job. So I saw two movies every night for years. I caught up on everyone's work. Not just the actors or the directors, but the cinematographers, the art directors, the costume designers."

Evans screened rough cuts of all the Paramount movies in his home theater, and he ran other studios' movies for his high-powered buddies. "We ran the first Godfather here, and Charlie Bluhdorn [chairman of Gulf and Western, which owned Paramount at the time] fell asleep," Evans recalls with a laugh. "Another time I had all my friends here watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and we turned it off in the middle. So our judgment wasn't perfect."

The screening room has six black leather chairs in the back row, a large sofa in front and room for several giant beanbags if the crowd's big enough. A full bar is set up in one corner. The walls are decked with a Picasso lithograph, a photograph by Helmut Newton, and, of course, posters from Evans's movies--_Love Story, Chinatown, The Godfather_, and even The Fiend Who Walked the West, the picture that finished off his acting career.

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