George Cukor was known as a “woman’s director” helming films with such legendary and grande actresses Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Vivienne Leigh, Greta Garbo and Audrey Hepburn. His last feature film, 1981′s Rich and Famous pairs two of the 1970s most stylish leading ladies: Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bisset. The movie spans about 30 years as it follows the lives of Mary Blake (Bergen) and Liz Hamilton (Bisset). Liz is a tortured, brilliant writer who is toiling away at her art, being very self-consciously intellectual and artistic; Mary, on the other hand, is a blowsy Hollywood hausfrau who pens wildly successful trashy novels, inspired by the goings-on of her famous neighbors. Each woman is jealous of the other: Liz covets Mary’s smart, brooding husband and Mary wants the critical plaudits that Liz enjoys.
The movie opens in the 1950s in Smith College. We’re asked to buy Bergen and Bisset as college coeds. Mary drops out of school to marry the lovely Doug (David Selby). The film then jumps some twenty years, and Mary and Liz are reunited in Hollywood, where Mary settled into her life as a bored stay-at-home mom, while Liz has built up a cult following among earnest female college students. During an evening of catching up and drinking, Mary reveals her first novel. She reads it to Liz, shyly proud of her work. The latter responds with jealousy over her friend’s seemingly effortless ability to produce work so quickly, and refuses to help her with literary contacts because the book’s a piece of trash. This sparks one of the many shouting matches the two women engage in – it’s a common scene to have Bissett and Bergen try to chew up the scenery. More years zip by and Mary has evolved into a Jacqueline Susann-type, while Liz has become Fran Lebovitz. As was the fashion of late 1970s “female pictures” Liz finds herself by bedding a much-younger man.
While not consciously so, Rich and Famous is a camp artifact of women’s pictures of the second wave feminist period. Cukor was never celebrated for his subtlety – instead, he hit his audience with emotions like a wrecking ball. Thankfully, there are peppered moments of comedy that cut through the thick swaths of sentimentality. This is mostly achieved by Bergen’s broadly hilarious performance. This was a moment in her career, when she was transitioning from leading lady to a resourceful comedienne – this was on the heels of her Oscar-nominated turn as a tone-deaf pop singer in Starting Over as well as her well-received appearances on Saturday Night Live. For Rich and Famous, she produces a funny, abrasive performance. She squawks with a grating Southern accent, and gets to do some nifty physical comedy. She’s willing to look absurd and the film’s stylists and costumers dress her in some ridiculously nouveau riche outfits. Bisset’s performance is more problematic. It’s kind of hard to buy her as this brilliant artist. The artistic, “I’m so smart” pronouncements don’t come out of Bisset’s mouth naturally.
There are lots of questions when watching this movie – the main one being why are Liz and Mary friends? Mary’s a nightmare. She’s selfish, self-involved and self-conscious. She screeches at everyone and alienates herself from her husband and daughter (Meg Ryan in a nice film debut). While Liz is class personified, Mary is appallingly tacky; Where Liz speaks with impeccable elocution, Mary sprinkles her speech with folksy colloquialisms; and despite moments where the two actresses look deeply in each other’s eyes with meaning, most of the time they’re sniping and screaming at each other.
Which brings up the main problem of the film: despite it being about women, it’s a pretty sexist movie. In this universe women cannot be friends, without toxic envy and jealousy – and despite a relationship of over 30 years, a man can fracture the friendship in a matter of moments. In the more histrionic moments, Rich and Famous resembles those fabulously trashy nighttime soaps of the 1980s, with the near-operatic screaming and absurd catfights.
Still, the film is still a fun watch. Bergen injects a lot of the humor and Cukor’s direction, despite is very advanced age, displays an affection (if not misunderstanding) of women. It’s quaintly old-fashioned, despite some trendy (though now, dated) references. Still, it’s a great precursor to standard chick-flick weepies like Terms of Endearment or Steel Magnolias.