Rich and Famous

Rich and Famous marked George Cukor's golden anniversary as a director. 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.

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.

In the new film, Bisset has the dowdy Bette Davis role, while Bergen wears the jewels and furs in the bitchy Hopkins part. The film begins 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.

An announcement was made on October 10 that Cukor would replace Robert Mulligan. The official statement was that Mulligan would no longer be associated due to circumstances arising from the SAG strike, but insiders knew that Mulligan left because he didn't like Bisset. Cukor had no qualms about taking over the picture.

Cukor was thrilled to do Rich and Famous; it was the kind of material he was drawn to. Following the lives of two female writers, it was a stylish comedy about women's life choices. “It's about the comings and goings of friendship and its perils,” said Cukor, “The range is extraordinary–20 years–they fight, make up, and compete.”

Rich and Famous marked Cukor's 50th anniversary as a director and his 20th film for MGM, the studio with which he was closely associated. After 50 years, one might expect Cukor's energy and enthusiasm to wane, but this was not the case. Before Cukor came aboard, all the casting had been done, including the two leads.

The sets had been originally designed according to Mulligan's specifications, but Cukor didn't want to shoot in a small set and subsequently everything was made bigger and slicker. Cukor redecorated Merry's suite at the Waldorf, putting the piano in the middle of the huge room. He also painted Liz's apartment into white, to lighten up its previously dreary look. He glamorized the sets considerably. He got a bigger house and furnished it much more lavishly.”

Mulligan wanted to do a film that was darker and more realistic, but Cukor saw it as a fast-paced comedy with a cutting dialogue and glamorous feel. Bergen felt that if Mulligan directed, the film would have been less of a comedy and more of a portrait of a love/hate friendship.

The sexuality in Rich and Famous is much more explicit than it was in the 1943 film or, for that matter, in any previous Cukor film. There are two embarrassing scenes in the picture. In one, Bisset picks up a man (Michael Brandon) on an airplane, they have sex in the restroom and become members of the infamous “Mile High Club.” Initially, Cukor wanted it out; it was a lapse of taste. The second scene showed Bisset picking up a hustler (Matt Lattanzi) on Fifth Avenue.

In directing Rich and Famous, Cukor sees his greatest challenge to stay away from the yarn's melodramatic aspects. For Cukor, it's a comedy, and he directs the film as such, changing somewhat the narrative's tone. Writer Gerald Ayres was later criticized for writing a glossy melodrama, but he claimed that they didn't shoot what he wrote. Ayres wrote his script more in the spirit of the British film Darling–the title was meant to have irony. Bisset's performance, however, is bland and humorless, there's no edge to it. Cukor accepted her interpretation, because he knew her limitations as an actress.

Distributed by United Artists, the movie went into wide release on October 9. Despite high hopes, however, Rich and Famous, received mixed reviews and didn't perform well at the box office. Cukor was deeply disappointed.