Sunday, January 10, 2016

RICH AND FAMOUS (MGM 1981) Warner Home Video

Cribbing from an occasionally bawdy and shoot-from-the-hip screenplay by Gerald Ayres – at times, more interested in the pleasures of the flesh than the art and craft of the cleverly spoken diatribe - but imbued with a melodious underscore by Georges Delerue, the last film George Cukor made before his death, Rich and Famous (1981) manages to cap off one of the truly iconic movie-land careers dating all the way back to the infancy of Hollywood’s golden age. If the resultant comedic-melodrama bears only marginal resemblance to John Van Druten’s enduring stagecraft, Old Acquaintance, from whence it derived its inspiration, and proved even less of a masterpiece than the memorable 1943 movie version co-starring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, Rich and Famous nevertheless manages to successfully update Druten’s tried and true material about the enduring friendship between two collage roomies whose ambitions and lives run a rocky parallel course. Sassy dialogue abounds, mostly doled out with equal aplomb by Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergan; respectively stepping into the roles once played by Davis and Hopkins. The biggest alteration is to Bisset’s sultry and occasionally salty sexpot/cougar, Liz Hamilton, indiscriminately flirting with her best friend’s husband, bedding an underage male hustler (Matt Lattanzi) she picks up off the street, and, seducing the twenty-something Rolling Stone interviewer, Christopher Adams (Hart Bochner) with noblesse oblige; she bears no earthly resemblance to Bette Davis’ rather mousy and equally as chaste ingénue from the original. On the whole, Bergan’s trash-talking authoress of lurid exposés, Merry Noel Blake, is a close counterpart to Hopkin’s spoiled brat, ever so slightly more lowbrow, and played to the hilt for comic relief.
Unlike Old Acquaintance, which stuck very closely to the ribs, blood and guts of what made these polar opposite women’s friendship click for more than twenty years, Rich and Famous expands upon the roster of extracurricular activities each gal engages in her spare time apart; arguably, a miscalculation from which the picture never entirely recovers. For although ‘opening up’ the theatrical premise devotes more screen time to illustrate each woman’s passions and pursuits apart, it also tended to water down the electric byplay between these two frictional sticks of kindling, destined to give off more than a little R-rated flint. Rich and Famous was not well-received when it was released; the critics unanimously conceding a spark of the old Hollywood magic still to be had in the loaded barbs and double entendre being bandied about, although decidedly lacking the same level of class and sophistication utterly essential to sell this enterprise as high art. Rich and Famous isn’t a failure, per say and yet it tends to veer wildly between exactly the sort of compelling ‘woman’s picture’ for which Cukor’s golden era career was justly celebrated, and the sort of tits and ass brashness a good many films from the 1980’s are renowned. For the most part, Cukor kept Liz’s sexual trifles tasteful; her seduction by a married man in the bathroom of an airplane about to land is played for ribald chuckles; her latter experiences with the nameless hustler, shot in extreme close-ups of her face pressed firmly against his naked pelvis, with only a modicum of butt crack briefly glimpsed to suggest the impending acts of fellatio and penetration. 
There is some genuine on-screen chemistry between Bisset’s introspective author of integrity, and Merry’s maven, committed to popular pulp fiction a la Jackie Collins; Cukor, known for drawing out intimate performances from women, performing another minor miracle herein. But the picture is hampered by some less than stellar acting from its supporting cast; Richard Selby as Douglas Blake (originally called Preston in Druten’s play and the 1943 movie, and played then with nobler charm by John Loder), is a wan ghost flower and very-weak kneed sister to Loder’s wounded and intelligent gentleman, spending most of his time desperately clinging to Liz’s every word, utterly devoured by his emasculating wife, and all but cast out of paradise by the unusually as cruel Liz. Of course the real problem with Liz isn’t she cannot find the right man. It’s that she is drawn to the stereotype of the dark-haired Adonis too many years her junior to fully comprehend her deeper emotional needs and desires. Douglas having accepted a research position for NASA in Texas, leaves Liz un-tethered from the orbital plain of a love affair that might have endured; her tragic abandonments, particularly with Christopher, who can go slumming with his idolized authoress but cannot understand her idiosyncratic and middle-aged angst, especially when confronted by the energetic flightiness of Merry’s daughter, Debby (a very young Meg Ryan); a girl, more ideally suited to his temperament and level of (im)maturity, leaves Liz out in the cold.
As in the original play, Rich and Famous is generally concerned with the winter of discontent women of a certain ilk and age face after the bloom of youth has been ever-so-slightly rubbed off; Cukor giving us the nuts and bolts of this reality with characteristic sincerity and unapologetic frankness. Owing to the conventions of the time, Merry and Liz are plagued by some very feminist-driven time-clock ticking angst; Merry’s sexual frustrations as a divorced mother, attempting to manage her slightly rebellious teen, and, Liz’s innate fear of becoming an old maid, holdovers from Druten’s play – are more unvarnished and obviously expressed in this remake. While Merry wants a man, Liz desperately needs one – or rather, one who needs her just as urgently in return. At the age of eighty-two, Cukor could have done much worse than Rich and Famous; although, in hindsight, he might just as easily have contented himself to leave well enough alone after 53 years of iconic picture-making excellence. Rich and Famous is decidedly a subpar entry to mark his swan song. No one could ever confuse Rich and Famous with Cukor’s top-tier peerless entertainments from that illustrious past; a considerable girth of classics made from the mid-1930’s to the late 60’s with such trail-blazing classics as Camille (1936), The Women (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), A Star is Born (1954) and My Fair Lady (1964) mere highlights marking his very impressive career. Still, Rich and Famous has its moments, most of them owed to Cukor’s impeccable pacing and his intuitive understanding of what makes unfulfilled women tick; such clairvoyance often attributed in retrospective biographies to his own closeted homosexuality.   
It was, after all, an open secret in Hollywood that Cukor was gay, if discreet about his lifestyle; a celebrated bon vivant whose weekend parties were frequented, not only by Hollywood’s A-list straight community of life-long friends, including such glitterati as Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford Gene Tierney and Stanley Holloway, but also by a vast assortment of other closeted celebrities – playwright, Noel Coward and composer, Cole Porter among them – also, an ever-evolving roster of attractive young men Cukor courted from the local bars and gyms for their cache as eye candy. By the late 50s, Cukor’s involvement with a considerably younger man, George Towers, became the stuff of ruminations in the tabloids; Cukor paying for Towers’ law degree. After Towers married, their relationship took on the inklings of a proud papa and his favorite son, and, for the remainder of Cukor’s life the two were steadfast in their enduring friendship. Yet, Cukor’s greatest admirer was Frances Goldwyn; movie mogul, Samuel Goldwyn’s second wife, who considered the director to be the great ‘platonic’ love of her life.
Rich and Famous is more frankly dishonest and analytical about human sexuality; Cukor occasionally stopping the show with turgid little diatribes devoted to the deconstruction of male/female heart-sore amour. Alas, discussing sex is not altogether as satisfying as performing the act; and neither are Cukor’s infrequent breaks from all the discussion to flash us a little charitable male nudity, arguably, to satisfy his own sexual predilections.  The language is more crass; the barbs cynical and sharp as shards of broken glass. One wonders exactly what there is to keep Liz and Merry together, except their mutual understanding that, in all likelihood they are destined to remain alone – save one another – in their emeritus years. This penultimate realization, that while men come and go, the true sisterhood of their friendship will likely last a lifetime, is mirrored in both the original play and movie and lovingly preserved in Cukor’s remake; save a chaste shared kiss between these two ladies at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, something Hollywood’s code of censorship in 1943 would have never permitted, even under the guise of preserving a decidedly nonphysical friendship.
After a prologue set in windswept and snowy New York, Liz helping Merry to sneak out of her college dorm room and elope with Douglas; Merry giving Liz her prized teddy-bear moments before the train for the coast departs from the station as a reminder of how much Liz’s friendship has meant, Rich and Famous settles into a rather unconvincing California vignette, in which we meet Merry after the passage of nearly four years; now, a happy caftan-wearing hausfrau to Douglas' Speedo-clad beach bum, living in a modest Malibu beach house frequented by second string and has been celebrities who have lurid stories to tell. After championing the publication of Liz’s first novel and supporting her at a lecture at Berkeley, Merry decides to throw Liz a welcoming party. Alas, Douglas has other ideas, ushering the guest of honor away to an isolated stretch of beach and leaving his wife to the hostess duties. It seems Doug has always harbored feelings for Liz, readily reciprocated. Still, Liz is quite unwilling to betray her best friend by sleeping with her husband.
A short while later, Merry confides in Liz she has been taking notes on the comings and goings of her celebrity friends, jotting down their tawdry tales with plans to compose her own first novel. Over a night of serious wine-drinking, Merry reads her manuscript to Liz who is both shocked and appalled by its lowbrow content. Nevertheless, as a favor, Liz promises to show the cobbled together trash to her publisher, Jules Levi (Steven Hill), unhappily surprised when he not only agrees to publish it, but the scathing ‘tell all’ with veiled references to some very high profile celebs, becomes a runaway best seller; immediately followed by a slew of other scandalous books that transform Merry and Douglas’ modest existence into the sort of uber-glamorous lifestyle Merry has been pining after for quite some time. Alas, Douglas does not much care for being the man behind the throne. Again, he makes his love for Liz known and again, she quietly refuses him. It isn’t sexual frigidity that is stopping Liz from having her way with Douglas, but honor and devoutness to her friendship with Merry. To quash her sexual frustrations, on the plane ride back to New York, Liz allows herself to be taken advantage of by a fellow passenger, Max (Michael Brandon) inside the cramped lavatory; the amiable fellow exposed as a married father of two once the plane has landed, met at the terminal by his wife (Ann Risley) and their kiddies in Liz’s presence.
Oh well, he wasn’t exactly Liz’s type anyway. Meanwhile, Merry is resentful of the closeness between Liz and her daughter, Debby (played as a child by Nicole Eggert and teenage Lolita by Meg Ryan). Over a night of drunken frustration, Liz confesses she doesn’t think much of Merry’s authorship; the women verbally sparring for a few rounds before parting mutually frustrated, hurt and angry.  Douglas attempts to reconcile with Merry. But their love-making is chronically interrupted by Merry’s delusions of grandeur. Realizing she can never be satisfied, either with or by him – either emotionally or sexually – Doug elects to take a job in Texas; confiding the move to Liz first in her apartment, then hurrying away before Merry can question his decision. Up until this moment, Rich and Famous has more or less followed the narrative trajectory of its predecessor; Cukor, perhaps realizing he is doing something of a verbatim remake, instead veering rather far off course as he moves into his second act. While Merry concentrates on her trail-blazing career as the popular writer of pure pulp, despised by the critics but widely read nevertheless, Liz joins a literary committee responsible for choosing the next great novel of the year. One of the selections is Merry’s A House by The Sea, a trashy roman à clef that becomes the frontrunner for the grand prize.
Cukor moves away from the friendship that remained the crux of Old Acquaintance to explore Liz’s unfulfilled relationships with younger men; first, a nameless street hustler she encounters outside her rented hotel room at the Algonquin. After helping him trade in a piece of jewelry given by a previous middle-aged admirer, she invites the young Adonis up to her room for a strangely tender liaison. Shortly thereafter, Liz is visited by Christopher Adams, a reporter from Rolling Stones Magazine. Initially, she agrees to be interviewed, but then has second thoughts. Chris, however, does not give up easily, particularly after observing the consternations of Liz’s oddly familial dynamic with Merry and her teenage daughter, Debby. Mildly amused, Chris informs Liz he has been instrumental in choosing this assignment above other more high profile authoresses; his inarticulate interest in her work and career sparking some tepid romantic chemistry that gradually blossoms into an unabashedly sexual affair. Liz doesn’t take Chris seriously beyond the pleasures of the flesh, even after he lays everything on the line to propose marriage.  In the meantime, Debbie has become involved with Ginger Trinidad (Daniel Feraldo); an urban poet whose spotty run-ins with the law clearly suggest he is more the urban thug than burgeoning artiste. Nevertheless, for a short while Ginger and Debbie are an item; that is, until his recent incarceration causes Debbie to telephone Liz for advice. Unable to reach her favorite aunt, Debbie turns to Chris, who helps arrange for Trinidad’s bail. Somewhere along the way, Debbie’s fickle attraction shifts to Chris and soon thereafter Liz realizes Chris belongs with a girl of his years like Debbie instead of a middle-aged cougar such as herself.
Both Old Acquaintance and Rich and Famous spanned a period of roughly 22 years; the 1943 movie more successful at telescoping this rather lengthy passage of time and also applying subtle makeup to gracefully age both Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins into looking their parts. No such afterthoughts have crossed Cukor’s mind for this remake. Although both Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergan undergo various hairstyle changes, each remains ironically youthful throughout the movie; Bergan’s character actually appearing to have aged backwards as her success affords Merry a far more glamorous lifestyle full of diamonds and furs, and presumably, better camouflage to mask the inevitable mileage put on with the passage of time. Liz struggles to let go of Chris, informing Merry of his proposal and her rather callous rejection of it. At Merry’s insistence, and firmly believing she will not only win the grand prize for her novel, but somehow draw Douglas back into her fold after an absence of nearly five years, the women reconcile their differences for a brief moment before another inevitable fight ensues. Liz calls out Merry as a shallow woman and Merry falsely blames Liz for the demise of her marriage to Douglas; the two struggling over the teddy bear – symbolically the measure of their friendship – eventually tearing the poor stuffed animal to pieces; leaving Liz in tears.
Merry stages a lavish New Year’s Eve party for herself at the Waldorf Astoria. Only now, she sees quite clearly, perhaps more than ever, just how purposeless and empty her literati acquaintances are; the sycophants having amassed, merely to drown themselves in her champagne and hospitality, and, prattle on about their affected knowledge of great literature. Realizing Debbie and Chris have fallen in love, her maternal instinct at last able to let go from the struggle of protecting Debbie from Trinidad, Merry grabs a bottle of champagne and hails a taxi to the Connecticut farmhouse where Liz is preparing to ring in the New Year alone. Arriving moments before the stroke of midnight, Merry and Liz reunite with bittersweet acknowledgements neither is particularly suited to be eternally happy with any man at their side. As the clock strikes the midnight hour, Liz implores Merry to give her a kiss, marking the renewal of their lifelong – if often turbulent – friendship. The women embrace and toast the coming of another year with glasses raised; spirits and chins held high by the promise of whatever unlikely prospects might appear on the horizon in the future; secure in the knowledge they will at least, and always, have one another.
Remade with more sex than substance, Rich and Famous may not win any awards for outstanding dramedy of the year – indeed, it remains a poor cousin to the 1943 film – and yet, there is something renewable, satisfying and sweetly familiar about Cukor’s reworking of Van Druten’s time-honored material. Bisset and Bergan are evenly matched; the ladies obviously reveling in the good nature of this volatile fictional friendship. It must be said Bisset is somewhat miscast; her clipped Brit accent lending worldly sophistication to the part, decidedly at odds with the sort of brass tax/no nonsense New England blue-blood Bette Davis portrayed in the original film. It isn’t that Bisset gives off airs of self-importance. Indeed, she tries – occasionally, with much too obvious anguish – to be just like everybody else.  Still, it is the chemistry between Bisset and Bergan that salvages the picture from its otherwise staggeringly lethal mediocrity.  Donald Peterman’s cinematography is pedestrian to a fault as is Fred Harpman’s production design, caught somewhere between extolling 80’s tacky chic for all things superficially glossy and a desire to fit into the grittier ilk of then contemporary film-making, unencumbered by that backlot magic so frightfully essential to make such theatrical properties like a remake of Old Acquaintance click. The drama is periodically elevated by George Cukor’s meticulous pacing – a master craftsman when staging scenes featuring no more than two people talking in a room – and composer, Georges Delerue’s superb main title, reused throughout the picture as its ‘friendship theme’ offers a superb underlay of emotional support; Delerue providing a few other memorable music cues to augment the love-making montages co-starring Bisset and Bochner.
Music this good ought to have had a better visual representation to extol its virtues on the screen. Nevertheless, something about the picture works – enough, at least, to pleasantly pass the time and infrequently engage the audience into caring about what happens to these caustic fair-weathers. In the final analysis, Rich and Famous isn’t great, but it does offer the audiences flashes of the ole Cukor perfection at work. Directors of Cukor’s stripe are no longer among Hollywood’s status quo, nor even encouraged to partake; undesirable even, in an industry mainly fascinated with assaulting the audience in a barrage of skillfully cut together edits that grotesquely deprive the audience of fundamental character development; Cukor’s kind replaced by the chop-shop music video and/or video game-styled technician who views dialogue and dramatic ‘situations’ as necessary evils and the feeblest of connective tissue to migrate a plot from sex scene to car chase to Ginsu-styled (and preferably sweat and blood-soaked) action sequence. Viewed from our present-day vantage, Rich and Famous is a throwback to a much simpler age in the star-making milieu. In Candice Bergan and Jacqueline Bisset it perhaps lacks the genuine star quality Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins undeniably possessed in spades, but it has a certain genuineness to offset this shortcoming. Not bad, but decidedly not perfect. Oh well, even an artist like Cukor is entitled to his lesser works. And it ought to be pointed out that second-tier Cukor is generally better than almost first-tier anybody else.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is the unedited theatrical cut of the film. Previous VHS editions were curiously culled from the TV edit which all but ruined some of the more caustic exchanges in dialogue. While Rich and Famous could certainly benefit from a new 1080p Blu-ray release, what’s here is, at the very least, complete, and looking fairly appealing. Colors are dated but overall, nicely balanced. The image is crisp without being artificially enhanced and contrast levels are fairly solid and appealing. Certain scenes can appear overly soft, and occasionally film grain can take on an unflattering digitized look. But overall, this presentation is adequately unobtrusive; which is about the best I can say for the story itself. The audio is basic 2.0 Dolby and, while hardly setting the world on fire, nevertheless remains faithful to the original theatrical presentation. Primarily dialogue-driven, the mix is crisp and clean. Save a theatrical trailer there are no extras. Bottom line: recommended for fans of Cukor’s work old enough to recall the master in his prime, but can still appreciate his efforts within.    
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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