"Princesses live happily ever after," says the kindly chauffeur to the pampered tot, not knowing she'll spend the rest of her life proving him wrong. "Poor Little Rich Girl," the two-part, five-hour TV-movie biography of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, hasn't a lot new to say, but the way it says it is both affecting and luxurious.
Farrah Fawcett plays Hutton from the age of 18 on in the film, which airs tonight at 9 and Tuesday night at 8 on Channel 4. During the course of the movie Fawcett runs the gamut like a marathoner -- flirtations, romances, infidelities, indiscretions, indulgences, mad scenes, tantrums and slews of rueful mornings-after. It was a sad life, but not a dull one.
Dennis Turner's screenplay flirts repeatedly with profundity and here and there comes close to achieving it. Truth be told, it's always rather fascinating to watch a fortune being squandered. The movie reinforces one old consoling bromide (a great deal of money can bring a great deal of misery) and adds another: However one may envy them their plush and privilege, the rich will always be condemned to the company of one another.
Farrah Fawcett must know something about degradation. Three years of living with Ryan O'Neal can't have hurt. She now specializes in roles that require her to wallow and grovel, sometimes to such embarrassing excesses as "Extremities." But for much of "Rich Girl," she looks ravishingly unsullied, a breathtakingly glamorous figure -- a sight for sore lenses that the real Barbara Hutton never really was.
Movies that depend on clothes and furnishings usually aren't worth much attention, but here the production's opulence contributes to the dramatic impact. And in scene after scene, outfit after outfit, Fawcett is an exceedingly luminous vision. This isn't to slight her acting, which is consistent and accomplished throughout. She strives to make one care about Hutton even when the woman is behaving like a soiled brat.
Turner's script, too, helps us see the redeemable essence inside a notorious hedonistic spendthrift. The impression one gets is that the deck was stacked against Hutton, that she deserved better, that she was a victim, like the fictitious Charles Foster Kane, of too little love early in life. There is even a kind of "Rosebud" symbol, a little carrousel music box that is at the bedside of Hutton's mother when she kills herself early in the film.
The story opens in New York of 1917, as F.W. (Wooly) Woolworth (Burl Ives) opens his 1,000th store. The suicide soon follows and Hutton is entrusted to the care of her wastrel, profligate, absentee father Franklyn Hutton, played with true and insightful complexity by Kevin McCarthy, one of Hollywood's most taken-for-granted old pros.
Barbara is soon "the richest little girl in the world," Daddy tells her -- but so unhappy! As a 12-year-old, Hutton is enchantingly portrayed by Fairuza Balk. Twenty-one minutes into the film, as she stares out a rainy window, she turns into Farrah Fawcett, while a band plays "That Certain Feeling." Hutton's career as a fabled heiress begins for real.
The film, a Lester Persky production (directed by Charles Jarrott), sets off on a dizzyingly extravagant globe-hopping bender. First it's over to Elsa Maxwell's place in the south of France, then on to Venice, back to the United States, over to London, to South Carolina, to Beverly Hills, to Paris and so on. Tucson to Tangier, this lady had one dog-eared passport.
Tucson? Yes, in Part 2, Hutton accompanies her young son Lance Reventlow to Tucson, where he will attend school. This precipitates some particularly, and strangely, pungent imagery. A huge, shiny black roadster pulls up to a drive-in restaurant. A carhop on skates wheels over to the car. The back window rolls down and there is Fawcett as Hutton looking like something in excess of $40 million.
She says to the carhop, "A large order of fries, heavy on the catsup, honey. Got it?" The carhop is so bowled over by the sight that she rolls right into a colleague and they both fall to earth.
All over the globe, husbands are acquired. Most are men who, by this telling, fell in love with Hutton's money but not with Hutton. Prince Alexis Mdivani (Nicholas Clay, sleek and seedy) woos her passionately and then, in bed after the wedding, whispers in her ear, "Barbara, you are too fat." Apparently the real Hutton was something of a chub. In that sense, Fawcett looks nothing like her.
Rich American women had weaknesses for titles, even meaningless ones, in those days, or so Sheilah Graham writes in this week's TV Guide. Prince Mdivani hands Hutton off to the Danish Count Court Haugwitz-Reventlow (the imposingly continental Amadeus August) with the advisory "Go ahead, sleep with her. You think it's cold in Denmark!"
This nominal nobleman is an imperious male chauvinist who instructs his wife "not to give orders in bed" and declares, "I am master." After the birth of son Lance, the pair go to Wimbledon for a tennis match that impishly intercuts old color footage of a real match with simulated shots of an actor doing the returns. That turns out to be Baron Gottfried Von Cramm (Sascha Hehn), but Hutton doesn't marry him yet. First he has to be imprisoned by the Nazis and sent to the Russian front.
And she, in the interim, has to marry Cary Grant (James Read, doing a passable impersonation) while attending a fundraiser for the British war effort in L.A. To one of her remarks, Grant says, "That's a pretty leading question," and she says, "You're a pretty leading man." Once married, she balks at his Hollywood pals, he abhors her pseudo-aristocratic cronies. After one fight she shouts, "I hate Cary Grant," and then, after he has left the bedroom, whispers, "I love Cary Grant."
The marriages, divorces, disappointments and degradations pile up. It does get to be a trifle repetitious. But something keeps you glued. A longtime friend called Pauline (Stephane Audran, sort of a mini-series good-luck charm) helps addict Hutton to drugs with the hazardous invitation "Here, take one of these." Son Lance, when grown, finds his mother stewed to the gills, calls her a "drunken slut" and soon enough has the bad fortune to be inside a small airplane that has a close encounter with the side of a mountain (it looks like the plane crash from the Jessica Lange film "Sweet Dreams").
"You know how I feel?" Hutton says to a friend. "Worth millions, and worth nothing." Fawcett's most powerful, most frightening scene has her freaking out on champagne and pills while in the bathroom of an airplane during a flight to Tangier.
Under layers of gloomy makeup, Fawcett portrays Hutton near the end of her life, ensconced in a Beverly Wilshire Hotel suite, her fortune largely vanished. Read as Cary Grant comes to visit, but his makeup makes him look more like George Reeves, the star of "Superman," had he lived to be an old man.
All those husbands, all that jewelry, all that money and all those hours on the air -- what did it all accomplish? "Poor Little Rich Girl" is a heavy dose of the blues, but an entertaining one nevertheless. There's a choice, or at least ripe, scene lurking after every commercial. Fawcett is fascinating and the supporting cast top-drawer, and the production persistently glistens.
You could ask for more but, given the realities of network television these days, you probably aren't going to get it. Might as well pull up a hassock and submerge.