A mini-controversy erupted when New Yorker reviewer Pauline Kael wrote about what she saw as homosexual undertones in the storytelling, but Kael’s critics blasted her review as thinly veiled homophobia directed at Cukor (because she and everyone else in the movie world knew the director was gay).
“Rich and Famous” was already a dead issue by that point, however, so the buzz surrounding the rather racy sex scenes didn’t amount to much in terms of the initial release.
It was only after the movie became a cable staple that the tale of two writer friends/rivals attracted a sizeable cult following for its over-the-top storytelling and lively, funny performances by the two leads, Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen.
Starting at the end of their college days in the late 1950s, “Rich and Famous” follows Liz Hamilton (Bisset) and Merry Noel Blake (Bergen) over the next 20 years. Liz finds early success with an award-winning and critically praised novel that makes her a literary world celebrity. Merry settles into marriage and the Malibu Colony with a handsome scientist (David Selby) and a daughter.
The real rivalry begins after Merry uses the gossip she has picked up from movie people in her community to write a series of bestsellers in the Jackie Collins vein. Merry becomes a frequent talk show guest — we see her being interviewed by Merv Griffin — but she wants the critical respect her friend has found.
The movie is juicy and fun to watch, but it doesn’t quite hang together as a story because the Liz scenes are (mostly) treated seriously and the Merry side of the movie is played for broad comedy.
Bisset is quite good but she has to deliver some really bad dialogue about Liz’s love of literature and she gets entangled in an affair with a much younger Rolling Stone reporter (played by Hart Bochner) that never makes much sense. The start of it is unbelievable and the end of it — with Bochner running off with Bergen’s daughter, played by Meg Ryan — is preposterous.
What keeps the movie’s motor running is Bergen’s comic energy. She makes Merry’s egomania and lust for New York media respect very funny. It was probably this performance which convinced TV producers that Bergen could carry the sitcom “Murphy Brown” after a movie career in which she was mostly a rather stiff beauty. The 1979 “Starting Over” combined with “Rich and Famous” launched Bergen on the most fruitful years of her career.
As the years have passed, the mixture of seriousness and camp has grown to seem less troublesome — especially after a major fan of the picture, Pedro Almodovar, would use some of Cukor’s eclectic notions in a series of great Spanish films that erased any line between comedy and tragedy.
“Rich and Famous” has also received a boost from its inclusion in the current Film Society of Lincoln Center tribute to the director, “The Discreet Charm of George Cukor.” If you check out the postings on the arts institution’s blog, you will see that more than one critic thinks this 1981 “flop” actually ended the veteran director’s career on a high note.