Sunday, January 2, 2011

Robert Evans - The Lost Screening Room

In July, 2003 Daily Variety ran an article by Army Archerd on a disastrous fire that broke out at producer Robert Evans’ Beverly Hills estate, destroying his screening room and trophy room.  The piece didn’t go into specific details about what was lost in the fire other than saying that prints of his classic films were destroyed along with “all his trophies and awards.”
I might not have noticed the piece, except for the fact that I’d spent an afternoon in the now-vanished screening room with Evans a few months earlier.  We’d met to discuss an upcoming tribute to him at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, screening films he’d produced or overseen as a studio exec including Chinatown, The Godfather, Harold & Maude, Love Story and Rosemary’s Baby.  Evans was riding an all-time high, image-wise, with the success of The Kid Stays In The Picture on film, book and audio-recording.  “A lot of guys have more money than me, but fuck ‘em,” as he said at the end of the meeting.  He’d neatly tapped into the public’s fascination with both unbridled, Rat Pack-style masculinity and nostalgia for the New Hollywood of the early 1970’s.  Love him or hate him, he’d become the Last of the Red Hot Moguls:  Dean Martin playing Irving Thalberg.

Evans’ house had acquired near-legendary status because it’s featured so prominently in The Kid Stays In The Picture – he makes a big deal in the book of getting his home back after he’d sold it, it’s his own personal Tara.  The house sits behind a high wall of greenery, and you enter through a small security gate, winding down a short tunnel of overhanging trees until the mansion appears on the left and you reach a circular front driveway.  I’d arrived a few minutes early for the meeting, where I’d be joined by John Hersker, the extremely affable V.P. of Distribution for Paramount who’d helped set up the tribute.  One of Evans’ small team of assistants, a dark-haired woman named Vanessa in her late 20’s, showed me to the back screening room.  While I waited for Evans to finish a lengthy phone interview I had time to check out the room which was decorated with:

A miniature cannon
Round wood table with flowers and low leather chairs
Two pairs of reading glasses on the table; a phone on the green carpet floor
A Picasso and Negulesco on the wall:  bullring and female nudes
Full bar, with a large pitcher of melted ice
A remarkable B&W photo on the wall:  a huge blow-up of a fat female hand with $500 bills, wearing a pear-sharped diamond ring and the title:  “Monte Carlo, 1982.”
Three small embroidered pillows:  “R.E. – Rejection Leads to Obsession, N.J.”; “He Knows Where You’re Sleeping”; and “I’m In A Meeting! Darling, I Can’t Speak To You Now!  I’m In A Meeting!”
Rear doors opening onto the tennis court
A Paul Klee (?) or Miro of fish on a plate
A large French poster by Lautrec
Circular pool visible outside with arcing water jets
Metal cannisters placed about with loose cigarettes and matches

After about ten minutes Hersker arrived and we sat around talking about the house, Evans’ career, bad movies about Hollywood including The Oscar, Myra Breckinridge and Evans’ own The Last Of Sheila -- and The Kid Stays In The Picture’s chances of getting an Oscar nomination (“not too good,” according to Evans himself later.)

Evans finally appeared, apologizing for being a half-hour late.  The first thing I noticed was how firm his handshake is; the second, his bronzed pot-belly poking out from his shirt when he sat like a little Buddha.  His face is the ruinous wreck of a good-looking man; he talks with the same raspy, bedroom whisper that’s become famous from Kid, and everything he says sounds like it’s been scripted by some very funny writers.

He immediately launched into a passionate discussion of how the studio’s marketing department had fucked up the trailer for his upcoming romantic comedy How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days.  “They’re selling it for chicks.  No guy is going to want to go see the film.  He’d rather stay home and watch basketball re-runs.  The poster’s not bad – except they’ve screwed up the whole point of the title.  They’ve got HOW TO LOSE A GUY in big type, and below it, in 10 Days, in small type like it’s not even part of the film.  The whole joke is ‘howtoloseaguyin10days,” they just don’t fucking get it,” he sighed.  He paused, reflecting a bit sadly on how things had changed:  “In the old days I would’ve walked in there yelling and screaming till they fixed it … but I did that on Sliver and got kicked out.”  He apologized for taking us off on a tangent, then called another assistant in to show us a video reel cut by some MTV guys that would demonstrate how Evans thought the movie’s trailer should be cut.  The assistant appeared, gave Evans a British paper with a glowing review of The Kid Stays In The Picture’s release in the U.K., then disappeared.  “Where’d the guy go??  Where’s the trailer?” Evans growled a minute later, pushing buttons on his antiquated speaker phone until the assistant came back.  “Robert Evans:  Hollywood Legend” ran about four minutes and featured speeded-up clips of Evans’ early acting role in The Sun Also Rises intercut with scenes from Chinatown, Harold & Maude etc. – all set to a rap beat.  “This is how the trailer should look,” he said, jabbing his finger at the screen, “this is what kids pay attention to.”

We finally got around to talking about details for the tribute, which Evans seemed genuinely touched and appreciative for.  He was in fact swimming in tributes, awards and accolades at the moment and couldn’t have been happier.  He pulled out a binder filled with letters of invitation from the Producers Guild to receive their David O. Selznick Lifetime Achievement Award, from Larry King to appear at his Cardiac Foundation Fundraiser, even an unsolicited note from Alec Baldwin saying how much he loved Kid – “I never met the guy before, he just sent this to me,” Evans noted – adding in the letter:  “I was married to a fragile, unbelievably beautiful actress myself, and know what it feels like to see our fairytale marriage blow away like sand,” or something to that effect. 

Like any good producer, Evans expressed concern for getting a big audience for the film tribute:  “Maybe you should mention it’s a tribute to the recipient of the David O. Selznick Award from the Producers Guild, that sounds impressive,” he suggested, then grabbed the phone and dialed his publicist.  “I never had P.R. guy before, never needed one – but I’ve got to have somebody to say ‘no’ these days,” he added.  His publicist sounds like a character actor playing a hammy impersonation of a P.R. rep from a 1950’s film, he says things like “this won’t just be a home-run, it’ll be a MEGA home-run.”  Evans launched into another tangent, ranting on the phone about the placement of his tribute ad to Sumner Redstone in a recent issue of the trades:  “I’m the only one from the studio who took out an ad, can you fucking believe that?  And look where they put it, in the back of the paper, across from some guy I never heard of.  It looks like I’m paying tribute to this asshole, not Redstone.  The sonofabitches woke me up at 3 AM in London about this ad, made me send a check right away.  An apology won’t do, I want my money back!” he howled.  His publicist promised to get right on it, and Evans hung up.  He punched another button for his assistant Vanessa:  “Ask Emmanuelle to come back here, there’s some people I want here to meet,” he said, then stood and walked into the back bathroom. 

“C’mere, there’s something I want to show you,” he said from around the corner.  Hersker and I sat there, confused.  “Hey, I said come here, you’ve gotta see this,” he ordered.  We duly followed him into the bathroom, where he proudly pointed out two certificates hanging over the toilet from the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress:  “I’m the only producer alive with two films on the National Registry.  You should put that in the press release, it sounds impressive.  This one says, ‘To Robert Evans, producer of Chinatown.’  And this one, ‘To Robert Evans, creator of The Godfather.’”  He stressed “creator” twice, like he was particularly pleased by it.  Hersker noticed a framed note from Bernie Myerson of Loews Theaters on the wall and mentioned that Myerson had just recently passed away.  “He did?  Aw Christ, I’m really sorry to hear that.  I would’ve come to the funeral if I’d known but I was in London … Bernie cost me $6 million once, I called him The Six Million Dollar Man.  Somebody wanted to buy me out of my percentage on Black Sunday.  Bernie told me not to sell.”  The note from Myerson was, in fact, glowing praise about Black Sunday and ended with the prediction “It’ll be bigger than Jaws!!”  “It wasn’t bigger than MY jaw,” Evans chuckled. 

His assistant Vanessa’s voice interrupted from the other room – “what do you want?” he shot back, until she reminded him that he’d asked for Emmanuelle to come back.  “Emmanuelle” is Emmanuelle Seigner, wife of Roman Polanski and star of Bitter Moon and Frantic.  She was standing in the outer screening room, patiently waiting for us to emerge from the bathroom.  Evans introduced us, we shook hands politely and then Evans put a fatherly hand on her shoulder.  “What are you doing tonight?” he asked.  Seigner, bottle blonde and a little shy, replied that she was going out to dinner with Evans’ son, Josh.  Evans nodded, then added after she left, “Roman likes her to stay here when she’s in town, he knows she won’t get into trouble.”

As the meeting wrapped up Evans led us around the circular pool with arcing water jets – but instead of taking us into the main room, he led us into his bedroom.  It seemed a bit odd, like he wasn’t entirely sure which way to go – I had to remind myself that he’d suffered a devastating stroke in 1998.  Even Hersker, an old studio friend, cautioned him to slow down his non-stop schedule of travel and personal appearances.  “Yeah, I want to be around for the tribute, right?” Evans joked.  He led us back into the main room of the house where Hersker pointed out a beautiful architectural detail:  through an ingenious trick of design, the fireplace is vented off to each side so the architects could place a pane of glass right above it which looks out across the circular pool to the back screening room, which was has its own brightly roaring fireplace.  “It’s an optical illusion, the two fires,” Hersker said – a casual comment that took on a sadder meaning a few months later when fire gutted the screening room.  “Yeah, but you’re not seeing the illusion right,” Evans countered, as he struggled to light the fire in the main room.  After fiddling unsuccessfully with the gas he called for Vanessa, who didn’t know how to get it lit either.  “Once you get started with something you’ve got to finish it,” Evans said as he wandered off looking for long matches.  He finally succeeded in getting the fire blazing in the living room, and we stood there for a long moment admiring the illusion, and the very real but somehow artificial-looking moon hanging perfectly over the circular pool outside.  Evans asked his assistant to get him a drink, and as she left he sighed “I feel like a gynecologist in a whorehouse I’m so busy these days.”  Hersker assured him that How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days would be a big hit (which in fact it turned out to be.)  “Yeah, I just don’t want to get hit in the balls,” Evans grinned as we walked out.

As I walked back to my car I saw Seigner and Evans’ son briefly pulling out in a sports car headed to dinner, and for an instant thought that Evans would be left alone in his sprawling mansion.  Then I remembered that he’d just been married a few weeks earlier – “my sixth, her first”, Evans noted – and his new wife was somewhere in the house; Hersker said he’d greeted her briefly when he arrived earlier, wearing a bathrobe.  It was dark in Beverly Hills when I wound back through the tunnel driveway and headed towards Sunset Blvd.  The thing that stuck most in my mind was one of Evans’ many tangents during the meeting:  “You want to see the arc of my life?,” he asked unexpectedly.  He turned and pointed to two plaques hanging on the wall in his trophy room.  On the bottom was an award for Most Promising Newcomer of 1958 from Photoplay magazine – and above, a certificate for Evans’ star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2002.  “That’s me,” he said, then shook his head.  “1958.  Christ, that’s a long time.”

No comments:

Post a Comment