Rich and Strange

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 ~


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…

David Melville

(1) Pauline Kael, Taking It All In, Arena, London, 1987, p. 248

18 Responses to “Rich and Strange”

  1. Great juxtaposition of the two very different takes from the Davids. I was wondering if David W. wanted to expand on the idea of Cukor’s almost invisible visual style, as I’m not sure if I’m misunderstanding him? I’ve come across this idea before, so much so that when I saw his film “Holiday” earlier in the year I was startled by the wonderful, and showy, gliding shots up and down the spectacular staircase that’s a major element of the film, or by the amusing shot that ends the film, with a hand emerging from offscreen to grab Katharine Hepburn. Of course, that may simply be a reflection of what I understand by invisible style!

  2. Cukor’s style adapts to circumstance. Susan and God, which David W and I enjoyed at Edinburgh Film Fest a few years ago, seemed to foreground its theatrical nature in a way that Gaslight doesn’t (partly due to all that opening out, on top of that already done for the British movie).

    “Opening out” really is the worst invention movies ever came up with, by the way.

    Haven’t seen Holiday yet, but the offscreen hand seems in keeping with Cukor’s antic side, which sometimes has fun with his staging.

  3. Look everybody, Mr. Cukor was gay. John Van Druten was gay too. The canard that gays were creating parts for women that were “really” just gay men is profoundily unfair given the fact that the culture refused to allow Teh Ghey to be discussed at all, after the production code came in. Rope was a major example of “slippin’ one past the goalie.” It’s the gayest of all studio era Hollywood films yet the word is never mentioned nor are and same-sex deeds done on camera. Off-camera the screenwriter, Arthur Laurents, was having an affair with one of the stars — Farley Granger. John Dall was gay too as was the prodcution deisgner — who was gay bashed in Long Beach while the shoot was taking place. Jimmy Stewart is of course NOT gay. He took the part when Cary Grant turned it down, for reasons that are screamingly obvious. But when Kazan shot A Streencar Named Desire scriptwriter Oscar Saul was called in to give Blanche a speech totally obscuring the fact that the young man she loved who killed himself was gay. Thankfull when Suddenly Last Summer was made several years later Joe Mankiewicz allowed Tennessee 9with the help of Gore Vidal) to let her rip.

    Jackie Bissett tells me that she was looking for Rich and Famous to have a touch of Autumn Sonata to it, but Mr. Cukor insisted on playing up the comedy. She tells me she didn’t likt the idea at the time but now, as the years pile up, she has come to the conclusion that Mr. Cukor was right.

    The spectacular ass seen in the scene where Jackie joins the “Mile High Club” belongs to Matt Lattanzi — who went on the marry Olivia Newton-John. They are now divorced.

    Gerry Ayres who wrote the script of R&F was a great pal of Jacques Demy’s.

    If you look close in a party scene you can see Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy.

    As for those Sunday afternoons at Mr. Cukor’s home, John Rechy who attended (he was still hustling at that time) says they were quite staid. All the El Primo Rent Boys were in attendance (nothing “low rent” for Mr. Cukor) but nothing more than flirting was tolerated. Everyone was certainly encouraged to make dates for later, but those who tried for a little action on the spot were shown the door and told never to darken it again.

  4. Also at the party: Ray Bradbury, Frank (The Entity) DeFelitta, Gavin Lambert and Nina Foch! An earlier Malibu party features Roger Vadim and Paul Morrissey. I only spotted Bradbury, alas.

    I’d say that in some Cukor films the women are purely women, in some they also stand in for gay men — he was smart enough to know when this would work. At its best, the device adds another layer of richness.

    Rich and Famous is unique because, as critics complained, the characters make more sense as gay men than they do as women. In the days of the code, any gay input had to be covert. Here it’s more overt, but still coded — it would have been incredible to see Cukor given a project where the subject was addressed openly. What we’re left with is a film that feels not quite of its time, which is what seemed unsatisfying to me. The movie can exploit new freedoms of language and imagery, but still can’t directly address the subject Cukor seems to have on his mind. I certainly believe if he’d wanted to AVOID a gay subtext in this one, he was talented enough to do so. He chose to smuggle it in, in an era where a more direct approach was at least conceivable. It reminds me of Richard Lester’s analysis of Billy Wilder’s decline: he was so skilled at circumventing censorship, when you removed the censorship it was like his dance partner was gone.


    After much delay, my contribution to the Blogathon is ready…
    I have a shorter piece ready for tomorrow as well.

  6. So that’s what happens at the end of Holiday! I missed it when the BBC screening that I’d recorded overran by three minutes, dammit. Still enjoyed it, though. Cary Grant is on top exuberant form and although there’s no justification for the acrobatics he and Hepburn perform, who cares? The film has some pertinent things to say about the perils of wealth and conformity.

    I also have a soft spot for the anarchy of Sylvia Scarlett. If it wasn’t for the screenwriter credits, I could have sworn they were making it up as they went along.

    And now, as someone with an interest in bad 80s ‘feminist’ films, I feel the urge to see Rich and Famous, even if Meg Ryan is in it.

  7. The worst part of Meg Ryan was the wait. When she turned up she was fine, well-cast as Bergen’s preppy daughter.

    Is The Gold Diggers a GOOD 80s feminist film? I’ve been meaning to watch it.

  8. The Sally Potter with Julie Christie? Indeed it is! Far too few people have seen it. It’s quite lovely. Babette Mangolte shot it.

    Sylvia Scarlett is infinitely gayer than Rich and Famous. But that was the 1930’s when you could get away with murder.

  9. I get the feeling, from at least two of the Davids, that there’s disappointment the two protags of “Rich and Famous” aren’t male. Why? Why should Cukor be any more obliged to make ’em male than, say, Henry James might’ve been to make the child in “What Maisie Knew” male? It’s the choice of the storyteller(s), and what’s wrong with that?

    (Just discovered in the Metro vault, an early Arthur Freed musical with Ann Southern entitled “What Maisie Knew.” Complete with Virginia Weidler singing Cole Porter’s “After All, I’m Only A Schoolgirl.”)

  10. I think I’m the only David who feels any of that disappointment. David W, above, observes that critics reacted against the perceived subtext, feeling it swamped the surtext, but he disagrees.

    I do feel it a little because (1) I don’t find the women too convincing as women, although much of this is just because of the writing, rather than a feeling that they’re the author in disguise and (2) it would have been very nice to see Cukor tackling out gay characters in 1980. There would be a sense that times really HAD changed. Of course, the commercial cinema’s enduring fear of alienating straight bigots means that in Hollywood terms that change is very far from complete.

  11. For Mr. Cukor to tackle out gay characters he would have to BE an out gay character, which he wasn’t. It’s a generational thing really.

    LOVE to see that short, Chris! On one of the Ben Bagley “Revisited” albums “After All I’m Only a Schoolgirl” is sung by Alice Playten.

    Since you’re in the Metro vaults look out for the great Chuck Walters msuical short Spreading the Jam (1945) It’s about a “rent party” and done entirely in Alexandrines.

  12. A Metro jazz short directed by Buster Keaton!

  13. The Gold Diggers – of 1983 – is a rather beautiful meditation about women’s relationship to capitalism. Many of its images would reappear in Orlando and The Tango Lesson, but this is far more abstract which, I assume, accounts for it being less well known.

  14. I remember it got a snooty reaction from Barry Norman on Film 83. Dance Girl Dance was rereleased that week, and he saved his praises for that. I say, let’s appreciate both!

  15. david wingrove Says:

    Chris, please don’t get me wrong! RICH AND FAMOUS would be a vastly less interesting movie if the two lead characters were gay men. Its bizarre and unconvincing heterosexual coding is actually the main thing that makes it so watchable. Apart from that, it honestly isn’t very good.

    As for Jacqueline Bisset as a stand-in gay male…well, every teenage boy in the 70s wanted to either sleep with Jackie or BE Jackie. I view RICH AND FAMOUS as a present to ‘that’ side of her audience, and proof of the lady’s all-round class and generosity of soul.

  16. Tony Williams Says:

    Meg Ryan as “perky horror” This shows how much I’ve been missing when busy during finals week as well as the rest of the entries and comments. Now I have more time, thankfully, to read and enjoy.

  17. My New Year’s Resolution: I really must watch In The Cut. Some movies, good or bad, you can imagine what they’ll be like. That one, I really have no mental picture of.

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