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The Sonofabitch Stays in the Picture 

Robert Evans' attack of the heart

Thursday, Jan 30 2003
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"HI, LARRY, THANKS FOR COMING," SAID LARRY King to Larry Flynt, who, dapperly attired and confined to his gold-plated wheelchair, looked like the FDR of porn. The setting was last Friday's fund-raiser for the Larry King Cardiac Foundation, which drew a full house of entertainment-industry types to the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, including Pat Boone, Sidney Poitier, Sumner Redstone, Robert Shapiro and Leeza Gibbons.

The event kicked off with a cocktail mixer and silent auction, followed by an awards dinner that first honored Jon Meade Huntsman, the Utah chemical-plastics billionaire who handed King a $100,000 check after a brief and somewhat folksy speech in which he recalled having seen King's wife naked years before King had had the privilege — that is, when she was an infant. But Huntsman was no showman and his awkward attempt to connect commerce with good deeds fell a tad flat. "That's what plastics are about," he concluded, "and that's what chemicals are all about."

This was hardly the kind of Whitmanesque poetry with which Hollywood likes to gild its charitable self-image. Huntsman, a Mormon and onetime Nixon official to boot, couldn't have seemed more foreign to his listeners had he worn a spacesuit and spoken in tongues.

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AFTER THE DINNER INTERMISSION, HOWEVER, the ballroom was visited by a ghost of Hollywood Past: a man who arrived like a gust of the Santa Ana wind that was howling outside. Robert Evans, the mythological studio chief who oversaw Rosemary's Baby and The Godfather and produced Chinatown, came onstage dressed in his signature black-velvet jacket, cashmere turtleneck and silver bolo tie to accept the foundation's Spirit of Life Award. The crowd gave him a standing ovation, and why not? In 1998, Evans had suffered a series of strokes which, along with the hammer blows of a long and sleaze-splattered career, made him a survivor's survivor and, no doubt, an inspiration for many in the room. This was not some plastics tycoon or Cedars cardiologist — this was HOLLYWOOD, writ large in five-story letters on a hillside. This was six-wife, coke-bust Hollywood, private-screening-room Hollywood — the Hollywood embodied by a man who had transformed a bomb factory named Paramount into a mint, only to become a tabloid piñata and now a prodigal sonofabitch!

"This Huntsman guy had 49 grandchildren," Evans marveled lasciviously in his opening remarks. "I wanna know more about him." Evans' New York accent is leathery and sepulchral, his voice cured by decades of cigarettes and Scotch. He spoke of meeting Larry King sometime after King's quintuple bypass and marriage to Shawn Southwick (his seventh), two events that forever changed the talk-show maven's diet and outlook.

"He was so in love with Shawn," Evans rasped. "Why didn't that kind of love ever come to me? Maybe it will, I thought."

Then he narrated, in dramatic tones, the three strokes that hit him over two days in 1998.

"Not a heart attack — no," Evans said. "An attack of the heart."

The crowd loved this; it was too much. The room sensed that — yes — Evans had, in only a few minutes, become more than a man or even a legend. He had become a voice-over to some beguiling fable.

"Later," he continued, describing the time after his rehabilitation, "I threw a party and went over to a young woman and asked her to dinner. She laughed at me. I didn't like that. It was my party. 'You're 72,' she said. 'That's older than my last two boyfriends combined!'" Dessert was nothing compared to what the ballroom was eating up now. Where could Evans possibly go with this?

"I said, 'But did you have one moment of magic between those two?' That scared the shit out of her. And the crazy thing is that five months later we were married!"

Next, Evans introduced a home movie about life with his new bride, 34-year-old former Versace model Leslie Ann Woodward, a document folklorically titled A Girl Named Leslie Ann Meets a Boy Named Robert. What followed was a rapid-fire pastiche of photos of the couple, beginning when they were each young children and maturing to the present, and accompanied by a soundtrack of old torch songs. Many of Evans' childhood pictures were grainy black-and-whites, while those of Woodward were all in color. Although Evans' hair remained thick and black in all the images, one sensed a progression in time as the themes of stills evolved from Evans on Phone to Evans on Cell Phone.

SOON THE PICTURES OF LESLIE ANN AND Robert merged. Professional two-shots showed them in the shower together, lying about in robes, walking on the beach, lounging in bed. Then came a video of their November wedding in Mexico and, with it, the unsettling realization that Leslie Ann's father was quite possibly younger than Evans.

The auteur's self-tribute faded out as a title announced, "Under God's Church of Nature . . . Magic Filled the Night." That honeymoon night was left to our imaginations, although, in the best tradition of the Playboy Philosopher, Evans said he revealed to his bride the touchstones of his being, the Four L's: "Life, Love, In Love and Lust." When the film ended, a light shone on his wife, who looks a little like Candice Bergen from the 1960s, and a young couple stood and applauded her.

I thought of how Evans and Leslie Ann had appeared, during the cocktail mixer before a small corral of entertainment reporters, and of the contrast they presented. A clear-eyed Wagnerian blond who towers over the dark Evans, Woodward was athletic-looking while Evans, who hides behind a mask of Chanel glasses, took his time ambling down the steps to the ballroom. Even their tanned skin seemed at odds, a collision of parchment and silk. But the people eating their dinner in the ballroom loved him for his corny hubris, just as they loved his calling himself a visionary and the way he suddenly brought up his dead mother even as a shrugging Larry King drew laughs behind his back.

When Rod Stewart ended the evening by performing "Forever Young" and then "Maggie May," an electric nostalgia charged the room, a sentimentality shared by even the youngest present in that way that Hollywood people who are only in their 30s always seem old. For a few minutes everyone swayed and sang along, as though remembering private moments from long-ago nights in Topanga, Malibu or Laurel Canyon, when Robert Evans was king of a New Hollywood that is now past.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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