Rich and Famous: Cukor's Last Film–Part One

Series of Nine Articles

Part One: Why Director Robert Mulligan Left


The most significant event in 1980, Cukor's eighty-first year, which marked his golden anniversary as a director, was an offer to direct the comedy “Rich and Famous.”


The film had been in the works since 1976, when producer William Allyn optioned the rights for a remake of “Old Acquaintance,” a 1943 Bette Davis vehicle, based on John Van Druten's Broadway play. In the original, Davis played a long-suffering writer of serious fiction, and Miriam Hopkins her shrill friend, who ended up writing potboilers and becoming more famous than her rival. 


When Universal put the film into turnaround, Allyn sent the script to Jacqueline Bisset, hoping that with her name attached to the project, he could attract financing more easily.  Bisset loved the script, and agreed to defer her salary if Allyn could raise the money for the picture.  In exchange, she would not only be the star, but also be involved behind the cameras.  In May 1980, a production company was established, with Bisset serving as one of the film's co-producers. 


When American businessmen insisted on approving every aspect of the production, which would have delayed the process, Allyn decided to seek out major studio backing.  Fortunately, MGM agreed to budget it with no deferring salaries.  The picture was set for a 55-day-shooting schedule and a budget of $11 million; it actually ended up costing less, $10.1 million.     


Robert Mulligan was signed to direct with Bisset and Candice Bergen in the lead roles. “The movie is not a remake,” Allyn said,  “It has been inspired by the play, but Gerald Ayres updated the story.”  In the new film, Bisset had the dowdy Bette Davis role, while Bergen wore the jewels and furs in the bitchy Hopkins part. 


The tale starts in 1959, when the two women are roommates at Smith College, and works its way up to the present.  Bisset is a serious writer, but she can't get her private life together and suffers from long fallow periods of depression and writer's block.  Bergen, on the other hand, writes trashy novels in the afternoon, while her kid is asleep and her husband is away.  In the Judith Krantz tradition, her works are best sellers and she's a hit on Merv Griffin.  Despite all these changes, the two women remain friends through the years.


Bisset had never worked with Bergen before.  “I liked what I saw of her,” said Bisset, “but I was a bit wary before meeting her.  My generation was reared to have a slight distrust of other women.”  Indeed, Hollywood wags predicted fireworks on a set that featured two female stars. The fireworks never occurred, however. Bergen was quick to praise Bisset's generosity and lack of competitiveness. “We were in instant sympathy with each other,” she recalled, “long typecast for our looks and ready to break out of our restrictive roles.”  “We worked closely with each other throughout the film, a tight two-women team,” she said, “I think our friendship was reflected in our performances.”


From the beginning, however, Mulligan had difficulties with Bisset. “She doesn't trust me,” he complained to Allyn, “I am unable to communicate with her.”  Her involvement behind the cameras contributed to the tension, as what exactly Bisset's “co-producer” status entailed was not clearly established.  She took the role seriously, and David Begelman, MGM's top executive, encouraged her too much. Allyn, however, did not really consider her a co-producer. “Because of that credit,” he recalled, “She had the illusion she could interfere as much as she wanted. But it was more of a courtesy to her–it was my money, my development.”


Labor disputes resulting in a Screen Actors Guild strike forced the production to shut down after only one week of shooting.  The strike would not resolve for ten weeks, and Mulligan, who was unhappy over the situation with Bisset and had other commitments, used the strike as an excuse to withdraw from the picture.