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Robert Evans: Life is suite

Robert Evans poolside with Roman Polanski.

"You don't know me," said the great-looking blonde in the wraparound fur, "but I know you."

"You know something?" said Robert Evans, smiling "You're absolutely right."

"All right, then -- who am I?"

Evans frowned as if he'd missed a beat. "... Uh," he said, "that I don't know you."

"But you're Bob Evans!"

"Now there you're right," Evans said.

"That's what I said," said the blonde. "We're going over to the Pump Room right now, if you happen to be going over to the Pump Room later."

"I'm having dinner here," Evans said. "Like you to meet Roger Ebert. We're doing an interview."

The great-looking blonde in the wraparound fur turned and regarded me. "--'o," she said.

She turned back to Evans. "The Pump Room," she said. "Got ya," said Evans.

The blonde paused on the edge of a dramatic exit.

"You still don't know who I am, do you?" she said. "I'm afraid not," Evans confessed.


She was gone. Evans looked after her. "Christ," he said, "Chicago is as bad as the coast."

"She didn't even go so far," I observed, "as to say she didn't know me. All I got was hello."

"She's probably from out of town," Evans said serenely. "Let's get something to eat."

Of course, if you're a great-looking blonde in a wraparound fur on your way from the Whitehall to the Pump Room, one of the few people you would tarry for (I reflected) would be Robert Evans. He is not only handsome, he is not only charming, he has not only been married to or associated with some of the most beautiful women in the world, but he is also the most successful movie studio head of modern times.

A list of the pictures made at Paramount during his reign sounds like Variety's Top Ten list: "Love Story," "Rosemary’s Baby," "Chinatown," both "Godfathers," "Romeo and Juliet," "The Odd Couple." Even his flops became cult pictures, like "Harold and Maude." Even (I reflected further) his real flops became the stuff of legend, like "Paint Your Wagon" and "Darling Lili," which went untold millions over budget.

Yes, a great-looking blonde in a wraparound fur might well tarry a moment on her way to the Pump Room.

"They put me in a great suite," Evans said, as soon as we had been ushered to a table. He sounded as enthusiastic as a Boy Scout at Yellowstone. "It's not the biggest suite I've ever had, but it's the nicest. That's the great thing about working in pictures and going out on tour. You get to stay in hotel suites that you could never afford to pay for yourself."

"That you could never afford to pay for?" I asked, making a mental note that "Love Story" alone had earned $100 million on an investment of $2 million. "Hell, no," said Evans. "I didn't have a piece of any of those big pictures at Paramount. I was the head of production. It was a job, and I got a salary. It was a nice salary, sure -- but let me tell you a story. You take a picture like 'Love Story.' Nobody wanted to do it. I was sold on it because I thought, you know, a man-woman picture, people love them.

"And I thought it was great for Ali McGraw. Three directors turned it down. There wasn't an actor in town who wanted to play the boy. I finally, for Christ's sake, finally went to England and tried to cast Michael York in the goddam thing, with some kind of reasoning that, what the hell, maybe we could make the kid be from England. And York said he'd love to work with me but, frankly, the story was a piece of crap.

"So anyway... " A brief pause to order the endive and watercress salad and before that comes, a double whisky sour, please... "So anyway, the picture makes a hundred million. Arthur Hiller, who finally did direct it, walked off it for a weekend on the grounds it was a soap opera. Hiller made enough off that picture to make him, let's say, independent. I made nothing. Didn't have a piece. 'The Godfather,' 'Rosemary's Baby', the same story.

"Finally I went to the studio, I said I wanted to produce a picture myself. 'Chinatown.' They let me -- this is a board of directors, you understand, that once when I was head of the studio one of the directors advised me to see a barber, my hair was too long, for chrissakes -- make it, and 'Chinatown' is a big hit.

"Right away there's trouble. People on the lot say it's not fair the studio head makes a hit, he's not looking out for the other pictures. We had a picture at the same time, 'The Parallax View,' with Warren Beatty. A good picture, but it did nothing. Warren's a friend of mine, but he's mad at me because 'Chinatown' does business and 'Parallax View' doesn't. I'll tell you something: You can only do so much for a picture, and then either it works at the box office or it doesn't."

Evans surveyed the Whitehall's menu, considering the lobster...the steak Diane, the...lamb chops? The waiter regretted that the watercress she was finished. Boston lettuce was deemed an acceptable substitute.

"So the studio says I can stay as head of production and take a percentage of everything, or quit as head of production and they'll give me a contract to make pictures for them. I take the second choice. I'm a filmmaker. I was sick and tired of the endless board meetings, anyway. But I still don't want to make dozens of movies. Dino De Laurentiis has a dozen pictures going at a time. Ray Stark has eight Elliott Kastner -- Elliott's a friend of mine, but he's got deals going right and left. He makes the deal and not the picture. I wanted to make the picture.

"So since I concentrated on producing, I've made two pictures. 'Marathon Man' and 'Black Sunday.' I know every frame of both pictures by heart. I've stayed with them. I've worked with the directors on every detail -- casting, locations, rewrites. It's paid off. Last week, 'Marathon Man' broke every house record in New York. Lines around the block. We had to put on an extra 3 a.m. show. The crowds were a better show than the movie! It's going to be the same story here in Chicago."

Dinner was served. Evans was talking so fast and I was taking notes so fast that, frankly, I've forgotten what he had. I had the lamb chops. Very nice. I would have recommended them to the great-looking blonde.

"What does the producer do?" Evans asked. "I'll tell you a story. The director of 'Marathon Man' is John Schlesinger, a great director. I have a theory. Hire a man who's made two great pictures and six bad ones, rather than a man who's made eight so--so, pictures. Schlesinger made 'Midnight Cowboy.' He made 'Sunday, Bloody Sunday,' he's ready for another great picture.

"But he refuses to preview a picture. He won't let an audience see his pictures until they're released. I told him: 'This one, we're previewing.' He won't hear of it. I pull producer's rank. We take it to San Jose and San Francisco. In San Jose, the audience is ecstatic. They love the picture. On our way to San Francisco, we agree -- we won't change a single frame.

"In San Francisco, the air conditioning's broken. It's 100 degrees. The audience is in revolt. During the scene where Laurence Olivier is torturing Dustin Hoffman in the dental chair we had forty walkouts. A guy stands up and shouts out, 'How could you perpetrate this outrage?' We're stunned. We go back to the hotel, we don't know whether to jump.

"You know what we did? We made 110 changes in the picture. We re-edited all the violence. In this version, you don't see the drill going into Dustin's teeth. You see Olivier approach him, and then the other guy can't stand to look, he turns his back. In the scene where the two old guys are burning in their cars, now we have one shot of them burning -- not two. Altogether, 110 changes. And now audiences are still excited, they're terrified and thrilled, but we don't get the walkouts. That's one thing a producer does: Protect a picture by bringing out its power without getting so subjective that every last shot has to stay in whether it works or not."

I asked Evans to elaborate on his theory about hiring directors -- that a director should be hired after a flop, not a hit, and that a serious director could be good on genre films like thrillers.

"You have to judge a director by his very best work," Evans said, "and then get it out of him. Schlesinger, I wanted him to do 'Marathon Man' before his last picture, 'The Day of the Locust' was released. He knew I hated it. He asked me why I wanted him. 'Because,' I said, 'with the ability you have with characters and atmosphere, if we harness it to a thriller instead of this vaporous B.S., then we'll have something.'

"Roman Polanski, the same way. I have produced Roman Polanski's only two box office hits -- 'Rosemary's Baby' and 'Chinatown.' The rest has been crap -- except for his little pictures early in his career, of course. After 'Rosemary's Baby.' he makes a picture called 'What?' Pure crap. I tell him so. He gets mad at me, but I'm right. He makes 'Macbeth.' Crap. Then we make 'Chinatown.' A great picture -- and not just because I say so. Now he's a star again. What does he make? 'The Tenant,' Pure unadulterated crap. Now I'd like to work with him again..."

What about John Frankenheimer, who's directing "Black Sunday," the story of an attempt to bomb the Super Bowl with the Goodyear blimp while the President of the United States is in the stands?

"Frankenheimer is a great director who has made pictures that couldn't even be released. He made something called 'The Extraordinary Seaman' -- even the title was wrong. Yet he's capable of brilliant work. Wait until you see 'Black Sunday.' Don't take my word. We showed it to a group of exhibitors, the hardest audience in the world -- after all, it's their money -- and they went up for grabs with enthusiasm.

"But there's another thing. Tension. On 'Chinatown,' Polanski walked off the set. Faye Dunaway slapped him. He said she had to go or he'd go. We have a meeting. She calls him a Polish degenerate. He tells her she's ready for the loony bin. They finished the film not speaking to each other. They communicated through intermediaries.

"At the same time, for different reasons, Jack Nicholson isn't speaking to Polanski either. Jack says the audience won't even know he's in the picture because that crazy sonofabitch Polanski is only shooting the back of his head. Incredible tension -- and the picture's brilliant! On 'Marathon Man,' Dustin Hoffman and John Schlesinger weren't speaking. They were both going to walk off. Now it's a tremendous hit, and they're great friends again."

Dinner was finished.

"Come up to the suite and I'll show you the two--page ad we took in the New York Times," Evans said. "If the critics praise you, spread it all over the paper. It's better they say your picture is good than that you do. Who's gonna believe you, Besides, you gotta see this hotel suite."

The ad was indeed two pages wide and filled with superlatives. The suite was indeed elaborate. It was tastefully furnished, with copies of English antiques, with a tape deck supplied with Elton John and Sir Georg Solti, with a basket of fruit and wine, with real books in a real bookcase, with overstuffed furniture and a deep-pile carpet, with a globe of the world in the 18th Century, with potted palms and color TV and a refrigerator and the obligatory phone in the john.

"Honest," Evans said, "I could never afford to live this way if the picture weren't paying for it. I don't want to get rich. That's why I make a picture every two years, instead of going wild. You want to know something? The year of 'Love Story.' I had to borrow money to pay my taxes."

I sympathized. I knew just how it was. The year of 'Love Story' I had to borrow money to pay my taxes, too. The hour was late and Evans walked me to the elevator.

"You going to the Pump Room?" I asked.

"With a suite like this?"

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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