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Case Number 15297

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Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story

A&E // 1987 // 307 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // December 21st, 2008

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All Rise...

Judge Christopher Kulik was born a poor little rich girl, and just look at how far he's come!

The Charge

The true story of the original million dollar baby.

Opening Statement

"It is precisely because Barbara had so much money and was willing to spend it so frivolously that her ongoing saga aroused such intense interest. The details of her existence provided a momentarily diverting excursion for the less fortunate into a cosmos they could only dream or read about. Despite their avowed distaste for the spectacle of such a lifestyle, people were endlessly fascinated by Barbara Hutton. There was evidently something irresistible about the knowledge that stupendous wealth did not necessarily mean stupendous joy."—C. David Heymann, Poor Little Rich Girl

Facts of the Case

In 1912, Barbara Hutton (Farrah Fawcett, Logan's Run) was born. Since she was the granddaughter of Franklin W. Woolworth (Burl Ives, The Big Country)—a man who single-handedly created a business empire with a chain of "five and dime stores"—she was destined to grow up rich. However, the suicide of her mother and abandonment by her father Frank (Kevin McCarthy, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers) resulted in Barbara growing up with friends taking advantage of her and not a single note of love or affection. The only true comfort with another human being was with her cousin Jimmy Donahue (Bruce Davison, Breach); they both made a vow to be together forever.

While Barbara would marry young, her turning point came when she inherited $50 million dollars (the equivalent of $1 billion today) on her 21st birthday. Hutton literally became a tabloid star, one of the wealthiest women in the world. However, her tumultuous life would eventually be marked by excessive spending, extreme dieting, depression bouts, suicide attempts, and dependence on a wide variety of pills and drugs. In time, she would marry seven men (including film actor Cary Grant), all of which ended in divorce. She would have countless lovers, many of them much younger than she, and all of them would discover the impossibility of consummating a relationship with the heiress because of her self-destructive, contradictory nature. Hutton died when she was only 66 years old, but her haggard body looked as if she had lived another thirty years; at the time of her death, there was less than $3,500 in her checking account.

The Evidence

Utilizing Heymann's 1983 provocative biography, Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story seems compelling on the surface, with a polished treatment most mainstream films deserve. Ultimately, it suffers considerably because of one fundamental faux pas: ignoring the golden rule of Less is More. Granted, most television miniseries screw this up, as they seem determined to make its subject as complete and multi-dimensional as possible. What happens instead is the unpleasant material bogs down the characterizations and wears down the viewer to the nth degree. It's almost as if the filmmakers want us to suffer as much as Hutton does, and it's not only unnecessary but also unfair, because it fails to make us understand what exactly made this stupendously spoiled woman tick. The book, which I finished reading recently, does a much better job of fleshing out Hutton, even if the execution is just as exhausting.

Despite the fact that Poor Little Rich Girl won three Emmys and a Golden Globe as Best Miniseries, I was thoroughly unimpressed with it. To me, there were many blunders committed along the way (thanks to a weak teleplay adaption by Dennis Turner), including the so many questions left unanswered. Aside from Hutton, the only other people we get to know are most of her husbands; everyone else is largely inconsequential to the point of confusion. For instance, Hutton's constant "friends" and "companions" are never defined or explained, instead acting as mere ghosts soaking up the heiress' high taste in living and partying. Many of the scenes played out are not even mentioned in Heymann's book, and instead act like scripted soap fare passing itself as proposed, unproven conjecture. Too much of the miniseries is devoted to Hutton's disintegrating health and dangerous addictions, which seems like a desperate attempt on the part of the filmmakers for us to actually sympathize with this woman.

Every expected element of a successful miniseries is here: fame, fortune, love, tragedy, sex, drugs, deception, and drama. What's missing is a reason why we should care. I can't deny that it's easy to look at Hutton in the beginning with a sad eye, as she never asked for a fortune and the mistreatment by her "friends" would make her think the only way to reach out to someone is to buy them. The first two marriages yield pain and heartache, complete with insults and violence, which is also difficult not to be affected by. However, it eventually becomes crystal clear that much of Hutton's problems were brought upon by herself and no one else. Neglecting her son, ignoring her husbands, hardly ever eating, the alcohol/drugs, giving up her U.S. citizenship, her endless descent into despair—they were all her doing. Even her numerous contributions to charity were tainted, as they seemed to be made out of either desperation (to save her image in the public eye) and convenience (giving away her first husband's assets, instead of fighting for them in court).

It also doesn't help matters when the lead actress is miscast. I've read that Fawcett is certainly capable of acting, I just haven't experienced it yet. By 1987, the only thing she was really known for was Charlie's Angels., and she only did it one year. Her Barbara Hutton is often cold, distant, and unimaginative. Still, she does have her moments, particularly near the end of the film when she is trying to come to grips with her own physical and mental meltdown. It just seemed like the movie would have aroused much more interest with a better actress in the role. Cheryl Ladd, perhaps?

The supporting cast largely consists of unknown television veterans. Among the more recognizable faces are McCarthy and Davison, who give the miniseries more marquee value than anything else. The late Burl Ives is positively thankless in his five-minute cameo as Woolworth, and Oscar-nominee Brenda Blethyn (playing Hutton's lifelong maid Tiki) is given practically nothing to do. If you do stick with it, expect to see Fairuza Balk (Almost Famous) as a 12-year-old Hutton as well as ill-fated child actor Jonathan Brandis (SeaQuest DSV) as Hutton's son Lance in his pre-teen years. Of all the actors, James Read fares best in an acceptable clone of Cary Grant, the one husband who left Barbara as rich as he when he met her.

Originally shown on NBC in four parts, this version of Poor Little Rich Girl is the longer, international cut, a clue as to the miniseries' repetitiveness. A&E presents the film in its original ratio of 1.33:1 full frame, and the print is much better than expected. Colors are reasonably bright and crisp, and flesh tones are palatable, bringing out the most in Fawcett's beauty. Grain is still evident in many instances, but it never becomes a huge distraction. One huge quibble: do we really need to see the same opening and closing credits (as well as the original broadcast previews) six times?! The DD 2.0 stereo track is adequate, giving the hopelessly maudlin score an appropriately sonic workout. Dialogue is easily heard for the most part, as no subtitles or closed captioning is available. All that's offered in the way of bonus features are some cast biographies. Ho-hum.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Earlier, I quoted Heymann from his book. There's a reason for it, and it should be obvious by now. I can't help but admit that the miniseries does follow Hutton's life somewhat and touches upon its many colorful and fascinating details. She may remain an enigma, but it's difficult not to be perplexed about her decisions and discuss them afterwards. Thus, Poor Little Rich Girl at least succeeds in one way: it's never boring. In addition, the opulent production is almost impossible not to notice, as it's evident the filmmakers spent a lot of money on the final product. It may have been all for naught, but it will at least open your eyes during the more dull, soapy shenanigans.

Closing Statement

Overcooked and a genuine challenge to get through, Poor Little Rich Girl is recommended only to the sincerest and the most curious, but we recommend reading the book instead.

The Case


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Scales of Justice

Video: 86
Audio: 88
Extras: 10
Acting: 67
Story: 62
Judgment: 71

Perp Profile

Studio: A&E
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 307 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Biographical
• Drama
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Cast Biographies


• IMDb

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