The Philadelphia Story, Camille, My Fair Lady, The Women, It Should Happen to You, it surprised me to learn how many of the films I love shared the same director. When I realized how many of George Cukor’s films were favorites of mine, I actively started seeking out his pictures and have now seen the majority of them. But still, I didn’t know much about this film legend who is often known as the “women’s director.” I recently happened across a copy of Patrick McGilligan’s biography George Cukor: A Double Life and took it as a sign that it was time for me to learn more.
All drama, Cukor thought, ought to be tinged with comedy. That was how he viewed life. pg. 145
George Cukor was born in New York into a close extended Jewish Hungarian family. He had a happy, relatively stable family life growing up. It was in these early years, that he developed an affinity for social gatherings. Unbeknownst to me, Cukor was very well known and popular for hosting parties and gatherings for friends and co-workers throughout his life.
Early on, he also developed a love of theater, which is where he began his career. He was relatively successful working his way up from assistant stage manager to director. He and his crew worked often in Rochester, New York and it was in this phase of his life that he made friends with actors, such as Louis Calhern, Frank Morgan, Helen Hayes, Bette Davis and Ethel Barrymore, who would later find success in films as well.
Cukor found that he loved picture making. He loved the slow, complicated, and sometimes torturous collaborative process…He enjoyed solving the problems, negotiating the egos. He enjoyed delegating. He didn’t mind that the cameraman knew more than he did. He didn’t care to inhabit the editing room. pg. 74
His early training served him well when he moved into films, as Cukor’s style of directing actors and actresses for the stage would follow him into his career as in film. It was surprising to learn how little Cukor actually worked behind the camera, instead working with the actors one on one to draw out exceptional performances. In this regard, he was one of the least controlling directors in cinema, allowing the rest of the crew the freedom to do their jobs without controlling or directing their work. As a frustrated writer, he viewed a script as sacrosanct and rarely deviated from it, something that endeared him to close collaborators like Donald Ogden Stewart, and Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon.
Cukor’s outstanding trait as a director was his enthusiasm…It was contagious…there was an alertness about people who acted under Cukor. Especially women, who seemed to relate to him – Helen Hayes, pg.58
Cukor was generous and would often step in to work on other directors’ films uncredited. He also had an enormous amount of patience for actresses who others found difficult to work with, such as Constance Bennett, Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Holliday. This could be one reason why he is often cited as a woman’s director, that and the fact that many of his films portray strong woman characters on screen. Personally, since many classic film actresses were treated so poorly by the studios and directors, I’m thrilled that Cukor was a director friendly to women.
I was pleased by how the author handled the content regarding Cukor’s sexuality. He doesn’t shy away from discussing it, but also doesn’t go into lurid detail. I’m one of those, who prefers the details of the intimate moments to stay behind closed doors. Yet, McGilligan writes factually and delicately about how Cukor’s homosexuality affected his life. Though it was an open secret that he was gay, Cukor himself seemed to shy away from discussing his preferences while also cultivating a large circle of gay friends who found his home a safe place to gather. While he had a healthy interest in sex, he tended toward encounters without commitment and never had a long term sexual relationship with anyone. The fact that Cukor was gay in an era where it was unacceptable to be out, explains a lot of his choices both personally and professionally. It didn’t seem to hamper his career, although it is suspected that it did hinder his much desired military promotion during WWII when other directors were very successful making documentaries.
One thing I found very sad about his life, is that despite his sociability and success, he shied away from allowing those close to him to really know him well. And that is echoed to an extent in this biography. Though I know a lot more about him, I still don’t feel I know him, his essence. This is not the fault of the author, who clearly did his research and lays out a very factual but engaging presentation of the director. But the spirit of the man is missing.
Those who knew Cukor knew of his tendency towards explicit and vulgar language. They weren’t unfamiliar with his temper and his snark. However, they also remember him as charming host, generous in both word and deed, a man with a great sense of humor who created his own large family of sorts to whom he was very loyal, many with whom he maintained relationships with for most of his life.
Having now read about Cukor’s life, I can appreciate his pictures even more. I can see his personal touch, that need for human connection and the understanding of human emotion that allowed him to be so successful at onscreen literature adaptions like Little Women and Great Expectations. This knowledge pulled the most relatably human portrayal from Greta Garbo in Camille than was seen from her in any of her other films. It helped him draw out an extremely vulnerable and stunning performance from Judy Garland in A Star is Born and allowed him to pull out various nuances of Katherine Hepburn’s talents in their nine films together. Although he may have felt (and possibly was) underappreciated for his talent, generosity of character, and ability to connect people emotionally, his work speaks for itself in standing the test of time. This is his legacy.
One of his secrets of longevity was that he endeavoured to find pleasure in the experience of the failures as well as the successes. pg 273
This is one of several classic film book reviews I will be posting for the 2021 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel at Out of the Past.