Rich and Famous: The Making of George Cukor's Last Film–Part Eight

Series of Nine Articles

Part Eight: The Shoot as One Big Party


Producer Allyn tried to make the whole experience as pleasant as possible for Cukor. As a tribute to the veteran director, he invited many of his friends onto the set. Roger Vadim, Barbett Schroeder, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, played themselves in a party scene in Malibu. And the literary party scene included another set of honorary figures: writer Ray Bradbury, Bergen's mother, and Randal Kleiser (director of Grease). It was part of the publicity campaign, but also an attempt to please Cukor, pay homage to him. 


Cukor loved people coming on the set.  One day Liz Taylor came to visit.  “Ladies, be careful,” Cukor said quite spontaneously, “there is an actress on the set who wants your parts.”  Then turning to Taylor, he said, “Look at all these diamonds.”  Taylor smiled, but she was embarrassed.  Over the years, they have become friends, even though their only film together, The Blue Bird, is, without doubt, Cukor's worst. He couldn't believe the publicity Taylor was still getting, even though her career, like his, was in decline.


Bergen found Cukor to be witty, perceptive, enormously cultivated, but also caustic.  From the beginning, she felt more comfortable with him than Bisset.  Cukor came everyday with his labrador dog, Whitney, and Bergen had at the time a mongrel dog.  “Most of our personal conversations were about our dogs.  I gave his dog a Christmas present from my dog, a big basket full of doggie toys.” It also helped that Cukor adored Bergen's husband, French director Louis Malle, who was often on the set. “My husband had a better time with him than anyone else,” said Bergen. 


According to Bergen, Cukor was not especially “generous of heart or affectionate, he may have been a fierce and loyal friend, but I didn't get to know him personally.  I don't know that he was someone I would have been too compatible with, although certainly we could have bantered at dinner parties together.”


Both leading ladies expressed serious concerns over Cukor's long-time reputation as a women's director. “I don't know that he liked women especially,” said Bergen, “I'm not sure who he liked exactly, because he enjoyed directing the men better.” Bisset also thought that the men got more direction and attention, possibly because their parts were smaller. “We had the more solid parts,” she explained, “and Candy and I had rehearsed so much together that we were pretty much off on our own gig.”  


Bergen thought Cukor had real respect for talent, wit, and strong characters.             Bisset, like Bergen, wouldn't say that he was “the most understanding” of women. What Cukor was attracted to was the women's characters.  The material was perfect for him–it was really a Cukor material.” The women he liked in his life were like the women in “Rich and Famous.” “These two girls are humdingers!” he would say about the heroines. “He wanted them to have grace, wit, and guts,” Bisset said, “He didn't want them to be soppy or weak.”


Both actresses readily acknowledged their gains from working with Cukor. Bergen gained a “lesson in behavior” rather than technique: “He never hesitated to speak out his mind, but he was also abusive to people. He would tell people exactly what he thought and they would come back for more.  He said exactly what he felt about everything, and not only got away with it, but also was respected for it.”               


“Rich and Famous” gave Bergen a new perspective on her career, a new confidence in playing comedy.  When she first read the script, she found Merry “unsympathetic and unnecessarily strident and shrewish,” but after working harder than she had on any character until then, she had great time with it: “I loved finding the character, I could have played her forever.”


Bisset singled out Cukor's “strong sense of what was visually right.” “He understood beauty and style, he wasn't just assuming that it would be there because there was a camera in front of you.” However, the experience left Bisset baffled and hurt. “I was hurt by his closing down the hatches so abruptly. Occasionally, George was rude, and I replied.  I didn't want to take it, so once or twice I talked back–he hated it.” 


In directing “Rich and Famous,” Cukor's challenge was to stay away from its melodramatic aspects.  Asked whether it was comedy or drama, he typically answered, “it's a comedy, of course.”  And he directed it this way, changing somewhat the narrative's tone.  Ayres was later criticized for writing a glossy melodrama, but he claimed that “they didn't shoot what I wrote, I didn't write it as a Hollywood movie.”  It was hard for Ayres to talk about it, because of his respect for Cukor. “Here was this master of cinema, and I was so flattered that he directed my story.”  At the same time, Cukor changed it into “something else.”  Ayres wrote his script more in the spirit of the British film Darling–the title was meant to have irony. Bisset's performance, however, was bland, there was no edge to it.  Cukor accepted her interpretation, because he knew her limitations as an actress.


The cutting and editing of “Rich and Famous” took longer than the usual.  “George had me sit and watch a rough cut of the film,” Ayres recalled.  Cukor liked Ayres's suggestions so much that he told him, “you work with the editor and show me the results.”  In this manner, about 12 minutes of the movie were deleted.


One day, Cukor announced that Hepburn was coming to see the film.  Now that her house was sold, she stayed with Cukor.  He was in a curious state of anticipation for her remarks.  At the end of the screening, after a moment of silence, she said, “George, you have made a very sexy film.”  “But let me tell you how I would play the last scene,” she then proceeded, grabbing Ayres' shoulders, “I would kiss her on the mouth and laugh.” 


Once business was over, the two veteran friends reminisced down memory lane.  Cukor recreated his first meeting with Hepburn, when she arrived in Hollywood as a big society girl wearing white gloves.