Have yourselves a Jackie Bisset Christmas!
Fiona and I watched George Cukor’s last movie, RICH AND FAMOUS. Alas, it left us somewhere in that hinterland between aghast and agog, with a bunch of broiling reactions we couldn’t do much with. It was kind of interesting to see a more “out” Cukor, casting lots of untalented prettyboys, while indulging in sex and profanity through a tale of female friendship — despite being made in 1980 and taking advantage of the greater freedoms, there are still no gay characters, and everything is just as “coded” as in the ’40s. Admittedly, the fact that there was no longer a Production Code prohibition on mentioning homosexuality did not mean that Cukor could have made his film about two gay men, even if he’d wanted to — supposed commercial barriers would have prevented a Hollywood studio from embracing such an approach.
The real difficulties seemed to me inherent in the material and the period — I couldn’t believe Jackie Bisset as the author of an intellectual book, not because of the actress so much as because of the dialogue she’s given, which is mostly unbearable, and I couldn’t believe Candice Bergen as anything: what a collection of tics and tropes. Though not as bad as Miriam Hopkins in the original version of the source play, OLD ACQUAINTANCE. The only explanation for Hopkin’s performance in that movie is that she’s actually a life-sized automaton being operated from within by a miniaturized crew of psychotic cases, and some of the levers have jammed or broken off. Bergen is just tricksy and overemphatic, but that blows a hole in the entire relationship, the very subject of the film.
There’s also the problem of Cukor tackling a story which purports to follow two women through the social upheavals of American society from 1959 to 1980 — a rich field, except that an octogenarian gay male director might not be our ideal Virgil for that particular journey. I don’t get the impression that the social changes amused Cukor as much as the possibility of having Candice Bergen call Jackie Bisset a cunt while they wrestle over a teddy bear, a high-camp melo moment which may explain why Pedro Almodovar likes this film so much, but didn’t do much for character credibility.
Finally, there’s the opening credits, which distinctly contain the words “Meg Ryan”, which left Fiona and I with a sickly dread percolating through our beings for most of the movie, as we waited for the perky horror to make its appearance. Meg Ryan isn’t always wholly a bad thing, but if you’re going to have her in a film it makes sense to bring her in early, so we can get acclimatized. If somebody’s going to be perky in front of me, I’d rather they just got it over with. Making us wait an hour with the threat of her imminent appearance hanging over us accurately simulates the sensation of being strapped to a steel slab while a figure in surgical attire dances about with a bone saw to the accompaniment of Huey Lewis and the News.
BUT! Help is at hand, because here’s special guest Shadowplayer David Wingrove with his rather more sympathetic take on this neglected film ~
THE TRANSPARENT CLOSET
Rich and Famous (1981) was the swan song of director George Cukor (1899-1983) – an unassuming Old Hollywood craftsman who, in a career spanning over five decades, made his name as a ‘woman’s director’. Officially, he owed this label to his track record with some of Hollywood’s most formidable leading ladies. Greta Garbo in Camille (1936), Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944), Judy Garland in A Star Is Born (1954), Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964). And of course Katharine Hepburn in ten films, from A Bill of Divorcement (1932) all the way to The Corn Is Green (1979). Not forgetting the entire female payroll of MGM in the ‘all-girls’ catfight comedy The Women (1939).
Yet to Hollywood insiders, the term ‘woman’s director’ was code for the fact that Cukor was gay. No big thing in itself, only Cukor (unlike Vincente Minnelli, Mitchell Leisen and others) refused to mask his private life in the trappings of a heterosexual marriage. For a director whose visual style was discreet to the point of invisibility, Cukor was remarkably up front about his home life. On Saturday, he might host the cream of Hollywood at a lavish garden party. On Sunday, he would invite a motley crew of hustlers, male models and aspiring bit-part actors to eat up the scraps. George Cukor was that most fascinating and contradictory of beasts – an establishment rebel.
Only rarely did the public and the private Cukor meet on screen. Early in his career, he made the picaresque comedy Sylvia Scarlett (1935). Here Katharine Hepburn spends most of the film masquerading as a boy, and a lovelorn Brian Aherne confesses to having “a queer feeling when I look at you.” But that film was a resounding flop, which both director and star chose to forget. Not one of Cukor’s films over the next 45 years would ever dare so much.
Until, oddly enough, Rich and Famous – a project that did not even originate with Cukor. He stepped in as a last-minute replacement for Robert Mulligan, at the behest of producer and star Jacqueline Bisset. While it falls far short of being a masterpiece – or even, let it be said, a conventionally good film – Rich and Famous is as close to a ‘personal statement’ as the notoriously self-effacing Cukor ever made.
Based on a play by John van Druten (filmed in 1943 under its original title, Old Acquaintance, with Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins) it concerns the lifelong friendship of two writers. Liz Hamilton (a nervy performance by Bisset) is an intense, driven and hard-drinking New York feminist intellectual. Merry Noel Blake (a triumphant self-parody by Candice Bergen) is a ditzy Malibu housewife who writes bonk-busting best sellers on the side. Bisset wears sharply tailored suits in dark, muted tones; Bergen flounces about in prismatic kaftans and pink baby-doll pyjamas. Bisset holes up in the hallowed literary confines of the Algonquin Hotel; Bergen holds court in a resplendently vulgar suite at the Waldorf Astoria. It’s as if Susan Sontag had somehow become best pals with Jackie Collins.
The ups and downs of their friendship are the stuff of melodramatic ‘women’s pictures’ since the silent days. Bergen’s husband (David Selby) secretly carries a torch for Bisset, whose much younger lover (Hart Bochner) dumps her to have a fling with Bergen’s daughter (Meg Ryan, in a toe-curling early role). The two divas battle out each crisis in a succession of slanging matches – punctuated by some fabulously bitchy one-liners, and clad in a series of ever-more flamboyant gowns. A sample of the dialogue:
Bisset: I am so sick and fucking tired of you trying to live your life through my skin.
Bergen: If I had your skin I’d take better care of it.
They end in a tête-à-tête by the fireplace on New Year’s Eve, embracing and drinking a toast to friendship – a scene copied almost verbatim in The Flower of My Secret (1995) by Pedro Almodóvar, one of whose favourite films this is.
On the surface, Rich and Famous is a ludicrously old-fashioned movie for 1981. Worse, Cukor’s style lacks the flamboyance that might allow an audience to wallow in it as kitsch or ‘retro chic’. What makes it all so fascinating is the sheer transparency of the ‘women’s picture’ clichés – which have now worn so thin they can no longer hide the truth. Rich and Famous, like so many classics of Old Hollywood, tells an essentially homosexual story in straight drag.
Strictly speaking, there is nothing at all new about this. Back in 1942, Bette Davis could play a repressed spinster in Now, Voyager! She could suffer a nervous collapse, escape a devouring mother and indulge in a doomed love for a married man – and fans of a certain persuasion could ‘read’ it as a coded allegory for coming out. In the decades that followed, Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) or Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop (1956) or Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) could all be seen as cross-dressing avatars for gay male authors. But such interpretations were not essential to an understanding of the film. Each of these films is an ‘ink-blot’, allowing its audience to read whatever story it wants to project.
By the time we get to Rich and Famous, the ‘women’s picture’ alibis have run out. Bisset, frustrated in her love life and her career, consoles herself with anonymous sex in a toilet on an airplane. Later she hits the streets of New York, picks up an 18-year-old hustler and takes him back to her hotel. Cukor’s camera fondles his nude body in rapt adoration – blithely ignoring the semi-clad Bisset, who had become a pin-up for horny teenage boys with her role in The Deep (1977).
Baffling to a mainstream heterosexual audience, moments like these may explain the film’s critical and commercial failure. As Pauline Kael wrote at the time: “Rich and Famous isn’t camp, exactly; it’s more like a homosexual fantasy. Bisset’s affairs, with their masochistic overtones, are creepy, because they don’t seem like what a woman would get into.” (1) A textbook example of Kael’s ability to tell the truth, but wholly miss the point.
The last film of an enigmatic and widely misunderstood talent, Rich and Famous is a film both quaintly behind and radically ahead of its time. The missing link, perhaps, between a Warner Bros melodrama of the 40s and gay porn. Its failure might well have ended Cukor’s career, even had he not been 82 years old. Still, I can’t help but wonder what he might have done next…
(1) Pauline Kael, Taking It All In, Arena, London, 1987, p. 248