Robert Evans was a power player in the New Hollywood of the ‘70s. Starting out as a matinee idol in forgettable features, Evans shunned the spotlight and moved behind the scenes. He would be made the head of production at Paramount Pictures, and under his watch the studio went from being one of the least profitable to one of the most successful, garnering box office success and critical acclaim as well as a number of Oscar wins. As happens with meteoric rises, Evans was due for a crashing down. First he left his job a Paramount and struck a deal with the studio that allowed him to produce his own movies, which included Chinatown. But Evans would be busted for cocaine trafficking in the ‘80s and his output as a producer slowed considerably as the producer would find himself embroiled in various controversies.
The life of Robert Evans is featured in the documentary by Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein, The Kid Stays in the Picture, which adapts Evans’ autobiography. Evans smoky voice and boundless ego make him fair game for Documentary Now!, which will conclude its glorious second season with a two-part episode lampooning The Kid Stays in the Picture, Mr. Runner Up: My Life as an Oscar Bridesmaid. Bill Hader steps into the role of Jerry Wallach, a producer modeled on Evans. Mr. Runner Up is another wonderfully absurd entry in the annals of Documentary Now!, which continues to be one of the best comedy shows on television and an endless delight for fans of classic documentaries.
Jerry Wallach’s youth originated in the Pollack Beach section of Brooklyn. When he was stricken with Magenta Fever, the young Wallach was rendered bald at the age of five. However, the young man soon found his refuge in the cinema. Sitting in awe at his local theater, the young Wallach was mesmerized by the earning potential of the movies, calculating the grosses of single show without including the lucrative concessions.
“I went to college, but I have no stories from that time,” Wallach intones in a voiceover before getting to his early days in Hollywood. Starting at the William Morris Agency, Wallach is a beast of pure ambition, no morals or scruples to hold him back. “I signed the biggest names in Hollywood and none of ‘em read their contracts,” he gleefully recalls. Success, power, and women are all in the cards for the upstart Wallach, and he savors every minute of it.
Eventually, Jerry Wallach abandons William Morris to run Pinnacle Pictures, which ranks ninth among the major studios. Unable to secure premiere American talent, Wallach sets his sights on “the Italian Chaplin,” Enzo Entolini (Fred Armisen), who is at the forefront of the emerging new genre “Italian sexy neorealism.” This relationship between Entolini and Wallach is meant to mirror the relationship between Robert Evans and Polish director Roman Polanski, and Hader’s affectionate intonation lends credence to the similar bond. The executive recalls the tight bond between the two: “I called him El Wopo. He called me racist.” The box office success brought by Enzo Entolini wouldn’t be enough for the ever-ambitious Wallach. Oh no, he wouldn’t be satisfied until he held Oscar gold in his hands.
In his first move to obtain a coveted Oscar, Wallach produces his Biblical epic that should compete with the works of Cecil B. DeMille. However, the rights for the Bible were bought by another studio, so the executive struck a deal that his studio acquire the rights to the controversial Gospel of Louis. The ensuing film, Friend of the Son of Man, was a box office smash, packing them in the theater for nearly two years. But the critics weren’t so kind to the film with Paulene Kael publishing Wallach’s home address in her scathing review in the New Yorker. For all his efforts, though, Friend of the Son of Man didn’t take home the coveted awards. But that’s not going to stop Jerry Wallach from trying to capture his white whale, the Oscar for Best Picture.
Wallach scours the bookshelves for the next story that’ll take home the Oscar and comes across the novel She Cried for Justice, which tells the story of a young woman who discovers a Gestapo officer living in America. After a bit of tinkering and casting his good friend in the lead, Wallach releases the film under the new title Blondes, Blondes, Blondes, and a Millionaire. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take home top honors that year.
But the studio head of Pinnacle Pictures faces a new threat to his throne – his studio has been taken over by a new conglomerate, the CIA. Much like when Robert Evans faced scrutiny when Gulf & Western took over Paramount, Wallach must make his case to his new overlords. Wallach makes the case to the redacted overseers of his beloved studio, imploring them to continue funding the studio with the all the promises of Oscar gold. As the Oscar night loses mount, Wallach is soon ousted from his studio.
Written by Hader and John Mulaney, Mr. Runner Up once again picks up the tone of its source material. Like Evans, Wallach is brash and his egotism hasn’t been diluted an ounce over the years. Hollywood icons make amusing cameo appearances, including Mia Farrow, Peter Fonda, Faye Dunaway, and Anne Hathaway. The most amusing cameo comes from famed director Peter Bogdanovich, who cautions the audience at the start of Mr. Runner Up that Wallach is prone to lying. Even better, Bogdanovich later confesses to a bet with Wallach, a bet Bogdanovich lost and has had to wear a bandana on his neck for the next 50 years. There’s also plenty of humor that is mined from the sheer arrogance of Jerry Wallach, with him berating talk show hosts in archival footage among other bad behavior.
As they’ve done all season, Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono recapture the visual style of The Kid Stays in the Picture, with seamlessly recreated photos placing Hader beside the Hollywood royalty of yesteryear. Even the opening shot of The Kid Stays in the Picture, with a vibrant set of lights illuminating his massive estate, is lovingly recreated as Hader’s heavily accented narration chimes in. As with every episode of Documentary Now! this season, Mr. Runner Up is another visual triumph, a loving blend of homage and spoof that is buoyed by the technical knowhow to achieve the vision – be it the most glossy cinematography or recreating grainy 16mm footage and faded video from the ‘70s.
Perhaps the best joke in Mr. Runner Up is the episode’s coda. After creating a philanthropic endeavor where he bestows cameras and boom mics to inner-city gangs, Wallach gets the Academy to present the Jerry Wallach Humanitarian Award. Though nominated, Wallach loses to his dear friend Enzo Entolini. Just as he thinks it’s all over, Wallach has a sudden burst of inspiration – he’s going to make a movie about racism. Then a title card emerges and informs us that Jerry Wallach finally got his Best Picture Oscar for producing Crash, commonly known as the worst film to ever win Best Picture. It’s that final punch that closes out a brilliant season of Documentary Now!