The Cotton Club preliminary hearing (which was always referred to as a “trial”) was made to be covered by someone like Joan Didion. Its themes and issues were right in her wheelhouse. It was a Hollywood story, the intersection of two of the cultures in Los Angeles, the entertainment culture and the criminal culture. Big money was on the table. Drugs were on the table. A movie that was notorious for the money it had lost before it even opened. And one of the golden boys of Hollywood, Robert Evans, was implicated. His role was peripheral, but because he was the biggest star involved the feeling somehow became that he was involved in the murder that occurred. He wasn’t involved. But these things somehow seep “into the air”, and his reputation never really recovered (although his book, The Kid Stays in the Picture is one of the best Hollywood books ever written). Robert Evans, as head of Paramount, had been responsible for Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, you get the picture. These are great films, not just great for the day but considered classics now. He was not just a businessman. He was old-school, a producer like Hal Wallis, involved in every aspect of the productions, smart about story, smart about casting. He was the ultimate insider, partying with Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, married to Ali McGraw (whom he then lost to Steve McQueen), and wheeling and dealing 24/7. It was The Cotton Club that was his undoing. I remember the headlines. (More on Robert Evans here.)
It’s difficult to unload The Cotton Club, and Evans obviously gets into it in his book. The criminal elements that got involved in the financing of the film, and then the murder of one of them. There’s a lot of sleaze in Hollywood, it’s that kind of business, but when someone gets tainted with criminal sleaze, the repercussions, social and financial, are swift. In a matter of a year, Robert Evans (who was innocent – he had nothing to do with anyone getting murdered) became persona non grata in Hollywood, a situation that lasted uninterrupted until the publication of his terrific book, and the documentary that followed. He still did not return to the heights he had reached. Not possible. The world had changed too much. Evans was no choir boy (who is in Hollywood), but he wasn’t a murderer. But he was only one or two degrees away from the crime, and so he was the one who had to take the fall. There was also some speculation that he had been on the payoff from the killing, his name floated around far too close to all of these unsavory characters. Didion, naturally, eats all of this up. Not in a ghoulish way, but in a way that suggests her reporter spidey-sense was on high alert throughout the entire trial. She knew these people. She was a screenwriter herself. She had deals with the studios, and while she was not an insider (writers rarely are), this was a world she knew well.
She describes it as a “noir” case. She writes:
In other words this was a genre case, and the genre, L.A. noir, was familiar There is a noir case every year or two in Los Angeles.
It was hard to figure out what was happening. The case was surrounded by mystery, rumor. It seemed to tap into our fantasies about Hollywood and Los Angeles, and that (of course) is what Didion is all about. She “covered” the trial, although not for a newspaper. But she attended, and talked to people, and tried to figure out what, exactly, had happened with The Cotton Club. It’s not like there was a set answer. Nobody seemed to know. There is STILL a mystery surrounding The Cotton Club, and people are still trying to distance themselves from that project. Movies that lose money are a dime a dozen. But The Cotton Club was special. Someone was murdered. And from that point on, a fog surrounded the entire production. It is a classic insider’s story, which means it often was impenetrable to outside eyes. I remember how it was boiled down at the time. I remember the pictures of Robert Evans, and how sleazy he looked, with the glasses and the tan. But again, what, actually, had happened? It’s just a movie, right? Movies are just entertainment. Sure, but entertainment is one of our most primal needs as a human race. There is nothing “just” about them. We invest in them, we need them, they become symbolic to us, of who we want to be, who we don’t want to be. In that aspect, the entire town of Los Angeles can start to seem like a mirage, a symbol, not a real place but a factory of dreams, or nightmares. Didion wanted to get as close as she could to the action, to see how all of this operated when things (as they did with The Cotton Club) go spectacularly wrong. There was a sense that Robert Evans was a Big Dog in the Hollywood scene and this “trial” was about watching him fall from grace. And you know how we love to watch Big Dogs fall from grace here in America. It’s a spectator sport. The fact that Robert Evans did nothing, except involve investors who were sleazy (and that is certainly not unusual in Hollywood), except be successful really young (something that is looked upon with suspicion and envy), except LOOK sleazy … ended up not mattering. His reputation shattered.
The Cotton Club (meaning: the trial) was never about just The Cotton Club. It was always about the underlying narrative, which could be said to be Didion’s main interest. What is the narrative underneath the surface narrative? What are people really talking about here?
After Henry, ‘L.A. Noir‘, by Joan Didion
It was the contention of the Los Angeles County District Attorneys office that Lanie Greenberger had hired her codefendants to kill Roy Radin after he refused to cut her in on his share of the profits from Robert Evans’s 1984 picture The Cotton Club. It was claimed that Lanie Greenberger had introduced Roy Radin, who wanted to get into the movie business, to Robert Evans. It was claimed that Roy R adin had offered to find, in return for 45 percent of the profits from either one Evans picture (The Cotton Club) or three Evans pictures (The Cotton Club, The Sicilian, and The Two Jakes), “Puerto Rican investors” willing to put up either thirty-five or fifty million dollars.
Certain objections leap to the nonprosecutorial mind here (the “Puerto Rican investors” turned out to be one Puerto Rican banker with “connections”, the money never actually materialized, Roy Radin therefore had no share of the profits, there were no profits in any case), but seem not to have figured in the state’s case. The District Attorney’s office was also hinting, if not quite contending, that Robert Evans himself had been in on the payoff of Radin’s killers, and the DA’s office had a protected witness (still another Flynt security man, this one receiving $3,000 a month from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department) who had agreed to say in court that one of the defendants, William Mentzer, told him that Lanie Greenberger and Robert Evans had, in the witness’s words, “paid for the contract”. Given the state’s own logic, it was hard to know what Robert Evans might have thought to gain by putting out a contract on the goose with the $50 million egg, but the deputy district attorney on the case seemed unwilling to let go of this possibility, and had in fact told reporters that Robert Evans was “one of the people who we have not eliminated as a suspect.”
Neither, on the other hand, was Robert Evans one of the people they had arrested, a circumstance suggesting certain lacunae in the case from the major-money point of view, and also from the district attorney’s. Among people outside the criminal justice system, it was widely if vaguely assumed that Robert Evans was somehow “on trial” during the summer of 1989. “Evans Linked for First Time in Court to Radin’s Murder,” the headlines were telling them, and, in the past-tense obituary mode, “Evans’ Success Came Early: Career Epitomized Hollywood Dream”.
“Bob always had a premonition that his career would peak before he was fifty and fade downhill,” Peter Bart, who had worked under Evans at Paramount, told the Los Angeles Times, again in the obituary mode. “He lived by it. He was haunted by it …. To those of us who knew him and knew what a good-spirited person he was, it’s a terrible sadness.” Here was a case described by the Times as “focused on the dark side of Hollywood deal making,” a case offering “an unsparing look at the film capital’s unsavory side,” a case everyone was calling just Cotton Club, or even just Cotton, as in “‘Cotton’: Big Movie Deal’s Sequel in Murder”.
Inside the system, the fact that no charge had been brought against the single person on the horizon who had a demonstrable connection with The Cotton Club was rendering Cotton Club, qua Cotton Club, increasingly problematic. Not only was Robert Evans not “on trial” in Division 47, but what was going on there was not even a “trial”, only a preliminary hearing, intended to determine whether the state had sufficient evidence and cause to prosecute those charged, none of whom was Evans. Since 1978, when a California Supreme Court ruling provided criminal defendants the right to a preliminary hearing even after indictment by a grand jury, preliminary hearings have virtually replaced grand juries as a way of indicting felony suspects in California, and are on e of the reasons that criminal cases in Los Angeles now tend to go on for years. The preliminary hearing alone in the McMartin child-abuse case lasted eighteen months.
On the days I dropped by Division 47, the judge, a young black woman with a shock of gray in her hair, seemed fretful, inattentive. The lawyers seemed weary. The bailiffs discussed their domestic arrangements on the telephone. When Lanie Greenberger entered the courtroom, not exactly walking but undulating forward on the balls of her feet, in a little half-time prance, no one bothered to look up. The courtroom had been full on the day Robert Evans appeared as the first witness for the prosecution and took the Fifth, but in the absence of Evans there were only a few reporters and the usual two or three retirees in the courtroom, perhaps a dozen people in all, reduced to interviewing each other and discussing alternative names for the Night Stalker case, which involved a man named Richard Ramirez who had been accused of thirteen murders and thirty other felonies committed in Los Angeles County during 1984 and 1985. One reporter was calling the Ramirez case, which was then in its sixth month of trial after nine weeks of preliminary hearings and six months of jury selection, Valley Intruder. Another had settled on Serial Killer. “I still slug it Night Stalker,” a third said, and she turned to me. “Let me ask you,” she said. “This is how hard up I am. Is there a story in your being here?”