GEORGE CUKOR, the director of Rich and Famous, guided The Philadelphia Story to its elegant conclusion almost half a century ago. There Cukor's interpretation of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant's marriage ceremony freezes into a gossip glossy for a national magazine. Hollywood labelled Cukor "the woman's director," because he presented women in his films, like Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo, as strong, commanding human beings. His men frequently took the passive role, and Rich and Famous takes this further, into the realm of a feminist film. Jacqueline Bisset, the film's star, also co-produced it, which may help explain why this "Cukor Film" sees men with feminine eyes.
Cukor and Bisset spread before the audience lavishly lit shots of male musculature curving with sinuous grace, while Bisset's now famous breasts (remember the poster for The Deep?) remain unexposed, indeed, barely acknowledged by the costume designer. Bisset herself gives a bold yet detailed performance, wariness creeping into her observed glance, frustration, anger and love expressively clogging her voice. Unfortunately, Bisset's creation, the character of Liz Hamilton, novelist, stands out from the otherwise murky mess created by Gerald Ayres' screenplay. Unintentionally, despite the laughs, Rich and Famous becomes a tragedy of a fascinating woman with neither a friend nor a lover worthy of her.
Ayres based Rich and Famous on the Van Druen play, Old Acquaintance, also the title of the 1940s melodrama based on it which started Bette Davis and Miriam Hopk
AYRES' SCREENPLAY bares primary responsibility for Merry's monstrosity. Liz's first novel met with critical raves; she now suffers from severe writer's block on her second. Meanwhile, Merry has compiled the histories of her famous Malibu neighbors, who came to her for tuna and consolation. She changes their names and calls it a novel. She then emotionally blackmails Bisset into bringing this litter-box lining to her prestigious publisher. Not merely a supportive friend, but a good neighbor; that's Merry Noel Blake. The film seems unaware of just how appalling Merry's behavior is; it certainly doesn't take it very seriously. Needless to say, Merry quickly joins the ranks of milionaire trash novelists like Jacqueline Sussann and Judith Krantz.
Although Cukor has a history of weak male performances when he doesn't work with the very best, he can't be blamed for the pathetic males of Rich and Famous; they were not his choice. And in any case, Ayres condemns Bisset to remain alone. After the breakup of her marriage, Liz falls in with a pseudo-intellectual journalist who proposes to her; Bisset snipes at the offer, obviously afraid to commit herself to anyone, let alone this infant. Finally, after a conference with Bergen, the sole time we see Bergen at all supportive, Bisset decides to accept. She goes to meet him. There is some hint that her boyfriend Hart Bochner has involved himself with Bergen's daughter (the melodrama again), but the film never clarifies this point. It actually matters little. More importantly, he makes some remark about marriage, and she responds with, "Is that what you think marriage is?" He doesn't answer this question; he can't. In Hollywood romantic comedies, the couple traditionally uses conversation to parry and thrust, to test one another. The man who can match Hepburn's words can win her. Bisset even refers to this in Rich and Famous--the dying art of conversation. She describes listening as an obscenely personal act. Well, Bochner is tested and found wanting.
Rich and Famous condemns Bisset to a loverless existence. She has Bergen; but the film makes clear what a prize she is. Bisset and Ayres intend this film to be an affirmation of female friendship. Well, there should be a film affirming female friendship, but this is not it. Bisset's last statement that Merry "is the only flesh around"--the only human, that is--is heartbreakingly accurate. The people in the movie are so alone.