In 1981, George Cukor gave his final lesson in film acting with Rich and Famous, a remake of Vincent Sherman’s underrated 1943 Old Acquaintance. The nearly 40 years separating the two versions did not necessitate major plot changes but rather a reformulation of its casting.
Both films tell the story of two female writers who, despite being close friends of long standing, have grown to be exact opposites in their professional and personal lives. In the earlier version, Bette Davis plays the prestigious, sensitive, and intellectual novelist, while Miriam Hopkins is the wealthy, conventional, and loud author of best sellers. In Rich and Famous, Cukor avoids the classical formula of the studio era that tended to match the actress’s persona to the character’s personality, and instead inverts that relationship to create a different dynamic.
Candice Bergen, an actress who embodies sophistication, modernity, and effortless charm, assumes Hopkins’s grotesque role as Merry Noel Blake. While Jacqueline Bisset steps into the Davis part with a fluid naturalistic acting style, Bergen cannot take the same tack without flattening both her character and her performance. Instead of aiming for spontaneity, she works for a sense of imposture that is a pleasure to watch.
Rich and Famous
Bergen makes a feast of her off-key casting. Playing Merry as a young adult in colorful California, she shows excitement with a muscle-aching smile and trembling knees. The more mature Merry displays her anger toward her ex-husband by hitting a rock concert—in full mink. Cast as a classical genre character in the early Eighties, Bergen turns out to be twice as effective in her comic reach.
A scene at the end of the film provides a suitable metaphor for Bergen’s delightfully unnatural role. Rushing into the street scantily dressed in the middle of a New York winter, Merry asks the hotel’s concierge to lend her his giant overcoat. This piece of clothing works as a double gag, proving an ill fit for both the character and Bergen. Through a novel dialectic between the old and the new, Cukor and his actresses beat a path to a vivid contemporary charm.