"Rich and Famous" sounds like an irresistible title. The only conceivable improvement might be "Rich, Famous and Sexy," but the "sexy" is probably implicit. The new movie adorned with this sure-fire title happens to be a tacky and disreputable attempt at a sophisticated comedy about women writers.
The latest refinement in misbegotten remakes, "Rich and Famous" aspires to update "Old Acquaintance," a John Van Druten play that supplied Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins with a richly entertaining movie vehicle in 1943. Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen are the unfortunate victims stuck in the muck of time warps, shallow characterizations and kinky distractions.
George Cukor belies his age -- 82 -- with a chipper job of direction, and the movie has a crisp, luminous sheen, but the classy aspects are superficial. Ultimately, the shabby text undermines the valiant efforts of the hard-working costars and their stylish director to revive the pleasures of a vintage Hollywood women's picture.
Bisset and Bergen are introduced as classmates at Smith in 1959 on the occasion of the latter's elopement with David Selby, a young professor vaguely connected with the sciences. They reappear 10 years later. By that time Bisset's character, Liz Hamilton, has established a promising literary reputation with an award-winning first novel, "Night Song." After a speaking engagement at UCLA, she stays at the Malibu home of Bergen's character, Merry oel Blake, who is still married to her professor, Doug, a faculty member at Cal Tech, and is now the mother of an 8-year-old daughter, Debby.
Merry Noel confesses that she, too, has literary aspirations and regales Liz with an all-night reading of her secret manuscript, "A House by the Sea," a roman a clef about the surrounding Malibu film colony. Sensing a best seller and rising above her annoyance, Liz agrees to show Merry Noel's novel to her publisher. The story resumes in 1975 and finds Merry Noel the queen of the best sellers. However, her marriage is on the rocks. Doug, feeling neglected and drinking to excess, finally walks out during a promotional trip to New York, after confessing to Liz that he's always loved her.
The concluding act brings us to 1981. Merry Noel has written her first "serious" novel. It's in contention for the prestigious National Writers Award, and Liz is one of the three jury members. While Merry Noel lobbies for the prize, entertains fond delusions of reconciliation with Doug and frets about Debby, now grown and consorting with a Puerto Rican writer whose notorious reputation worries her mother, Liz plunges into a whirlwind affair with a young interviewer from Rolling Stone -- Hart Bochner as an outrageous dreamboat called Chris Adams, who suggests a fantasy amalgam of Richard Gere and Alan Alda -- and seriously considers his proposal of marriage.
Confiding in Merry Noel, Liz solemnly recalls an old love affair in language that suggests a spoof of Hemingway: "I used to be very young. Paris was very old. He was very intense. I was very shy. I let him do all the work . . ." It's difficult to imagine how a supposedly trashy amateur like Merry Noel could improve on such stuff. What does unite these women emotionally and separate them intellectually? The lack of definition leaves the entire movie feeling scattered and bogus. Screenwriter Gerald Ayres tends to overcompensate for the amorphous characters by throwing in flamboyant spats and erotic tidbits, but there's no dramatic foundation for these highlights either.
The problem with arguments between Liz and Merry Noel is that they never seem sufficiently well-acquainted to get into shouting matches. On the sexual front, Ayres' sense of humor runs to gags of excruciating staleness -- for example, Liz grabbing an Erica Jong-style quickie in the bathroom of a jet or Merry Noel leaving Doug to fume in bed while she jumps up to make some notes for her book. One solemn episode in which Bisset is shown being seduced by a teen-age gigolo is so gratuitous that it would never be missed -- except by connoisseurs of the absurd -- had Cukor elected to cut it.
Given my own perplexity about the basic drives and character attributes of Liz and Merry Noel, it would be presumptuous to fault the actresses for compounding the confusion. Still, Bisset and Bergen reminded me of the sensation I felt while watching Faye Dunaway try to act up a storm in "Mommie Dearest": There's something missing. Attractive and sincere as they appear to be, they also seem to lack the physical and vocal authority necessary to put across arch, flamboyant material. I don't think it's sheer nostalgia that inclines me to believe that Davis and Hopkins in their prime were more imposing and entertaining talents.