The 67-year-old actress, a five-time Emmy winner for the CBS sitcom Murphy Brown, took the stage at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City last week to introduce Cukor’s RICH AND FAMOUS, the 1981 MGM release in which she stars as Southern belle novelist Merry Noel Blake.
“We started with another director,” Bergen said, referring to Robert Mulligan, who was replaced after “strain on the set” a few weeks into production. “We had shot in New York on location and that was all thrown out and George came on.”
Mulligan had wanted to make the story of two lifelong friends who compete in both their personal and professional lives “darker and moodier,” Bergen said. Cukor preferred a more classically Hollywood approach.
“He brought his art director that he worked with for a long time and he made everything very glamorous,” she said. “George (wanted) very glamorous houses and he boosted the clothes and the wardrobe up. He wanted everything done differently.”
For the director of THE WOMEN, ADAM’S RIB, BORN YESTERDAY and countless classics that crackle with rapid-fire banter, Bergen said pacing was a primary focus. And RICH AND FAMOUS, based on the 1941 play Old Acquaintance, is basically two hours of talking — most of it between Bergen and co-star Jacqueline Bisset.
“What he said the most was, ‘At a good clip, ladies,’” the actress remembered. “He and I got along great, he and Jackie Bisset didn’t get along as well. He was impatient when she would be doing her hair.”
Bergen added, “He was always saying, ‘Can we go now?’ because, at 81, how many more films was he going to make? Time was of the essence.”
After a prolific career that began on Broadway and transitioned to Hollywood with the advent of Talkies, the New York City native had not directed a major studio release in more than five years when he received the call for RICH AND FAMOUS. Bergen said the rigors of production took their toll on Cukor.
“To be a director takes incredible stamina; you’re on call for 18, 19 hours a day, and it wore him down. He got somewhat disoriented,” she said. “We were (shooting) at a train station outside New York City and it was snowing and very bitterly cold and he said, ‘Are we in Chicago?’”
Bergen said that Cukor’s health declined to the point that he was unable to complete principal photography on what was to be his final film.
“The last two or three weeks of shooting were assumed by our First A.D. and script supervisor because he became unwell and exceedingly frail,” she said. “81 in those days is not what it is today.”
Whatever issues may have been at play behind the scenes, RICH AND FAMOUS is a perfectly polished valedictory, with scenes no viewer would imagine were helmed by an octogenarian. Cukor may not have gotten along with Bisset, but he does a stellar job shooting her in steamy situations, such as a sex scene in an airplane lavatory and a seduction by an 18-year-old hustler. Clearly, we’re not in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY anymore.
RICH AND FAMOUS also marks the film debut of an adorable Meg Ryan, as Bergen’s 18-year-old daughter. David Selby, star of TV soaps Dark Shadows in the 1960s and Falcon Crest in the 1980s, is excellent as the conflicted husband and lover who comes between the two friends. And the film is filled with a parade of cameos from notables like Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, Nina Foch, Roger Vadim, Ray Bradbury, Christopher Isherwood, and Frances Bergen, mother of Candice and wife of Edgar, the ventriloquist who became a radio and film star.
But the movie belongs to Bergen and Bisset and, of course, George Cukor.
“It was lovely working with him,” Bergen said. “It was a privilege.”
The Discrete Charm of George Cukor continues through January 7 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. For more info click here.