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 Hopks. In its newest incarnation, Ayres supposedly follows the two women, here, Bisset and Candace Bergen as her best friend, Merry Noel Blake, from their college days in '59 up through 1981. It traces their literary careers and sexual histories up to apparent collective midlife decisions to reject men as anything other than sexual toys and to reject their own work. Ayres clutters the original melodrama at side issues like the effect of fame and notoriety in the lotlines like Bergen's alcoholic husband's secret love for Bisset. The change in title from Old Acquaintance to Rich and Famous indicates that the emphasis, at least in the film-makers' minds, shifted. The friendship is merely reduced to a series of bitchy figs. It's incomprehensible how or why these two women would remain friends. More importantly, Merry Noel Blake, written by Ayres and played by Bergen, could never be anyone's friend. She's a nightmarish ice princess turned monster: Godzilla released from the frozen island. Whereas Bisset inhabits Liz Hamilton, Bergen performs as Merry; she plays bubbly, then she looks sad, saddled all the while with a ludicrous attempt at a Southern accent. Her obvious Hollywood heritage actually starts to work in her favor, since Merry develops into a media icon; Bergen's artificiality and unbelievability become Merry's. She does slip inside Merry on occasion, when fighting with Bisset, and she pulls of some classy comic bits. But all this makes it more impossible to accept her as any kind of friend to Bisset's character.
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.