On Cukor, by Gavin Lambert, edited by Robert Trachtenberg. Rizzoli, 208 pp., $50.00.
One day in the early 1980s, George Cukor, the octogenarian director of such celebrated Hollywood films as Dinner at Eight, Camille, The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib, My Fair Lady, and the Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born, unexpectedly appeared at the American Film Institute headquarters in Washington, D.C. Accompanied by a retinue of young male admirers, Cukor had come to the Kennedy Center to lobby unabashedly for the AFI’s Life Achievement Award. The award had been presented to such of his peers as John Ford, Orson Welles, and William Wyler, but Cukor, whose rich body of work unquestionably qualified him for the honor, was at a disadvantage, for he had never achieved a degree of public recognition commensurate with his talent. The AFI could have satisfied its television audience by drawing from a spectacular array of Cukor stars to give testimonials to his subtlety and daring as a director. But it was not to be.
Trying to elicit some sense of why Cukor was bypassed, I mentioned to an AFI staff member that Cukor would have been the AFI’s only gay honoree. “How would we know?” came the sensible reply. More likely the AFI was negatively influenced by the longstanding critical condescension toward Cukor as a “woman’s director.” Until recently, most American film critics had a cultural bias against “women’s pictures,” seeing them as less serious by definition than films revolving around male preoccupations. The labeling of Cukor as a “woman’s director” — promoted by the MGM publicity department, particularly after he directed an all-female cast in The Women (1939) — also served as thinly veiled code for “gay.” Today, however, thanks to the feminist movement’s influence on film historians, women’s pictures (sometimes colloquially referred to as “chick flicks”) are seen as deeply expressive of social undercurrents and psychological complexities. This welcome trend helps to account for the current upgrading of Cukor’s standing in the critical canon.
With his non-doctrinaire, instinctively feminist sensibility, Cukor usually filmed from the viewpoint of his female protagonist. This is as strikingly evident in his Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy romantic comedy Adam’s Rib(1949) and the Judy Holliday-Aldo Ray domestic drama The Marrying Kind (1952) as it is in more obviously female-centered stories such as Little Women (1933) and Gaslight (1944). This concentration on women, along with Clark Gable’s discomfort over Cukor’s homosexuality, helped account for the director’s firing from Gone With the Wind by producer David O. Selznick. But discerning critics have long recognized that Cukor’s body of work contains nearly as many memorable male performances. They include Lowell Sherman’s alcoholic director Max Carey in What Price Hollywood? ; John Barrymore’s second-rate actor Larry Renault in Dinner at Eight; Cary Grant’s insouciant social dropout Johnny Case in Holiday; Ronald Colman’s obsessed Shakespearean actor Anthony John in A Double Life, who lives his role of Othello off-stage; Tracy’s affable but exasperated prosecutor Adam Bonner in Adam’s Rib, perpetually jousting with his wife, a fiesty public defender; James Mason’s self-destructive movie star Norman Maine in A Star Is Born ; Rex Harrison’s fiercely misogynistic Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady; and Laurence Olivier‘s lovelorn barrister Sir Arthur Granville-Jones in Love Among the Ruins, rekindling his youthful passion for a flighty actress (Hepburn). All these actors discovered new dimensions to their screen personalities under Cukor’s shrewd and sympathetic direction.
Cukor further belied the “woman’s director” label by demonstrating his versatility over a wide range of film material. Part of what distinguishes his body of work is his habitual blurring of genre boundaries, making many of his films difficult to categorize. Is A Star Is Born primarily a musical or a drama? Doesn’t Dinner at Eight (based on the Edna Ferber-George S. Kaufman play about ill-assorted guests at a high-society dinner party) flip-flop effortlessly between farce and drama, especially in Barrymore’s failed suicide attempt? Is Judy Holliday’s madly publicity-seeking New Yorker Gladys Glover in It Should Happen To You the heroine of a charming romantic comedy or the centerpiece of a sharply pointed social satire? And how to categorize Heller in Pink Tights, Cukor’s visually opulent Western starring Sophia Loren? Cukor biographer Patrick McGilligan describes that improbable adaptation of a Louis L’Amour novel about a troupe of itinerant frontier entertainers as “a handshake between Toulouse-Lautrec and Frederic Remington.” Rather than being seen as a virtue, Cukor’s directorial versatility often has been held against him, much as if it were seen as a crime for an orchestra conductor to be ambidextrous.
Cukor emerged from the glittering New York theater scene of the 1920s, and one of his credos was respect for the original author’s text; late in life he received an award from the Writers Guild of America for his rare degree of fidelity to the written word. Yet this admirable trait has led many critics to regard Cukor as an impersonal Hollywood craftsman rather than as an artist whose personality is expressed in his work. In the pre-confessional age Cukor inhabited as a partially closeted gay man, his public modesty and discretion served him well, enabling him to navigate the complicated social and professional position he occupied in Hollywood. Cukor strictly divided his socializing at his walled West Hollywood home between his celebrated friends from the worlds of film, literature, and high society, who visited for small lunches or dinner parties, and his loyal coterie of lesser-known gay friends and their handsome young hustlers, who would gather for pool parties on Sundays. Cukor’s habit of not proclaiming the secrets of his private life in public kept him a shadowy figure and contributed to the deceptively self-effacing quality of his direction.
At the beginning of the original edition of Gavin Lambert’s 1972 interview book On Cukor, Cukor declares: “I’m not an auteur, alas. And the whole auteur theory disconcerts me. To begin with, damn few directors can write. I have too much respect for good writers to think of taking over that job. Also, to be frank, not all directors can direct.” Lambert observes in his introduction to that edition, “In making his films, and in talking about them, Cukor’s first instinct is to defer — to his actors, his writers, and so on. The ‘I’ exists but doesn’t care to advertise itself.”
The auteur theory is often misunderstood by its opponents as unfairly claiming for journeyman directors the same kind of authorship as that practiced by such celebrated writer-directors as Billy Wilder, Ingmar Bergman, and Woody Allen. But Cukor is precisely the kind of Hollywood director for whom François Truffaut and other young French critics originally devised their “politique des auteurs” in the 1950s. They did so largely to account for the recognizable visions of such individualistic Hollywood directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Cukor, who managed to put their stamp on their work without writing their own scripts, even if this reliance on other people’s material led to an unevenness in their output. “Perhaps I should make the following confession,” Truffaut wrote at the time. “I believe in the ‘politique des Auteurs,’ or, you might say, I refuse to accept the theory, which is so valued in motion picture criticism, of great directors ‘aging,’ or becoming ‘senile.’ . . . This theory, based on Giraudoux’s statement ‘There are no works, there are only authors,’ consists in denying the axiom dear to our elders, which maintains that films are like mayonnaise, you either succeed in making them or fail.”
Cukor may not flag his characteristic themes as obviously as other directors, but his personal preoccupations stand out clearly when one surveys his body of work. Perhaps most strikingly, Cukor always gravitated to socially adventurous, rule-breaking characters. The most outré example of such transgressiveness is Hepburn’s title character in Sylvia Scarlett (1936), who masquerades as a boy, attracting the sexual attention of a woman (Dennie Moore) and two men (Cary Grant and Brian Aherne). So ahead of its time that it became the director’s most notorious flop, Sylvia Scarlett has been embraced by modern audiences more sympathetic toward its gender-bending drollery.
Like Sylvia Scarlett, many of Cukor’s people act for a living, but even if they follow other professions, as do the married lawyers played by Tracy and Hepburn in Adam’s Rib, they instinctively practice theatricality as a way of life, a means of creating their own individualized roles in the human comedy. Cukor helps his actors navigate gracefully and delightfully between their public roles and “off-stage” moments of more private emotion. His roster of flamboyantly larger-than-life yet always believable characters spans a vast range of life experiences, as disparate as those embodied by Hepburn’s adventurous New England writer Jo March in Little Women, W. C. Fields’s sublimely daffy Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield, Greta Garbo’s dying courtesan Marguerite Gauthier in Camille, Holliday’s shrewdly dumb Billie Dawn inBorn Yesterday, Tracy’s Runyonesque athletic trainer Mike Conovan in Pat and Mike, and Maggie Smith’s defiantly eccentric Aunt Augusta in Travels With My Aunt.
“You never had to put a label on the bottle, because it was unmistakable,” Katharine Hepburn once told Cukor. “All the people in your pictures are as goddamned good as they can possibly be, and that’s your stamp.”
If the primary virtues of a Cukor character include poise and independence, the flip side of those qualities is the self-destructiveness seen in the alcoholics who appear with surprising frequency in his films. Besides the characters played by Sherman, Barrymore, and Mason, other memorable alcoholics in Cukor films include Lew Ayres’s wealthy young lush in Holiday, whose speech (by playwright Philip Barry) about the joys of drinking is one of the most finely shaded monologues in screen history; and Claire Bloom’s suburban “nymphomaniac” in The Chapman Report(1962), a performance of such startling intensity and sensual abandon (even after the studio’s recutting) that it suggests how powerfully Cukor could have responded, if he had been given more opportunity, to the increasing sexual freedom in films.
Cukor’s preoccupation with the double life of alcoholism, which he often shows as affecting characters of social distinction, has been traced back to his friendship with Barrymore, whose roistering and hospitalizations provided traits and anecdotes that were adapted for What Price Hollywood? But the theme of alcoholic self-destruction is so pervasive in Cukor that it more likely traces back to some lost aspect of his own past or stands as a metaphor for a disruptive side of his personality that he managed to hold in balance. Cukor was sparing in his use of liquor but struggled for much of his life with his weight and was subject to emotional volatility. His understanding of the vagaries of the human psyche ensures that people are rarely reduced to stereotypes in Cukor movies, but are three-dimensional human beings with unpredictable emotions and behavior.
Cukor sometimes displayed the rare self-confidence to keep his camera not only self-effacing but also motionless for long stretches of time, such as when the feminist lawyer in Adam’s Rib, Amanda Bonner (Hepburn), plots the defense of a dopey woman (Judy Holliday) who tried to kill her cheating husband. As Hepburn interrogates Holliday, cannily manipulating her into the role of a defensible victim, the actors are allowed to inhabit and explore their roles in all their nuances from ridiculous to sublime. Often the emotions Cukor evoked from his players are delicately shaded; just as often they are raucously comic; and sometimes they are raw and violent. Cukor excelled above all at exploring the dramatic tensions between people’s outer and inner lives. Serving as both a confidant and a cajoler of his actors, he prodded them, usually gently but sometimes with bracing harshness, to delve deeply into emotional areas they usually kept safely hidden.
Cukor told Lambert that with a first-rate actor, a director need not give line readings. Instead, “you make a climate in which he can work and find things out for himself. Then you say, ‘That’s it, you’ve got it.'” One of the most striking examples is James Mason’s scene of emotional breakdown preceding his suicide in A Star Is Born. “James is a highly talented man but a reserved, rather enigmatic person,” Cukor said, “and I knew that his last scene in the picture, when he breaks down and decides to commit suicide, would be a case of letting him find out things for himself. So I let the camera stay on him for a very long time, and all his feelings came out and he became so involved, in fact, he could hardly stop.”
In the same film, Judy Garland gives an equally harrowing outburst of emotion. Garland was a much more flamboyant personality than Mason, but Cukor still managed to tap into depths of feeling beyond any she had ever displayed on screen. Cukor told Lambert:
“Toward the end of shooting we had to do a scene when she’s in a state of total depression after her husband’s suicide. While we lined it up she just sat there, very preoccupied. . . . Just before the take I said to her very quietly, ‘You know what this is about. You really know this.’ She gave me a look, and I knew she was thinking, ‘He wants me to dig into myself because I know all about this in my own life.’ That was all. We did a take. If you remember the scene, she has trouble in articulating anything, she seems exhausted and dead. A friend, played by Tommy Noonan, comes to see her to try and persuade her to go to a benefit performance that night. He chides her about not giving in to herself, he even gets deliberately rough with her — and she loses her head. She gets up and screams like someone out of control, maniacal and terrifying. . . . She had no concern with what she looked like, she went much further than I’d expected, and I thought it was great. . . .
“[W]hen it was over, I said to Judy, ‘You really scared the hell out of me.’ She was very pleased, she didn’t realize what an effect she’d made. And then — she was always funny, she had this great humor — she said, ‘Oh, that’s nothing. Come over to my house any afternoon. I do it every afternoon.'”
Bob Willoughby’s superb color photograph of Cukor directing Garland is the perfectly emblematic cover image of the lavishly illustrated new edition of On Cukor. As Cukor leans toward the quizzically smiling actress, his left hand is poised confidently on his lower back, his right hand characteristically coaxing a point out of the air. The director’s palpable intelligence and the actress’s rapt attention convey a shared delight in the moment of artistic creation, and their electric interaction makes for an image almost sexual in its intensity. There are many such glimpses of Cukor’s working method in the photographs contained in this edition, whose large format adds a greater degree of intimacy. Candid photos of Cukor working with such actresses as Katharine Hepburn, Garbo, Joan Crawford, Angela Lansbury, and Audrey Hepburn show his passionate, almost priestlike ability to inspire confessional moments of on-screen behavior.
The novelist, screenwriter, and biographer Gavin Lambert, a British expatriate who has lived in Los Angeles since the 1950s, is a keenly observant, wryly witty chronicler of Hollywood’s social mores and artistic achievements. His fiction — such as The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life, Inside Daisy Clover, and The Goodby People — and his biographies of the actresses Norma Shearer and Alla Nazimova are marked by a compassion toward his dreamstruck characters and an unsentimental shrewdness in examining the processes through which they court or surmount self-destruction. As an interviewer, Lambert is subtle and discreet. On Cukor is as expressive for what transpires between the lines — sometimes implicit, sometimes conveyed by stage directions ( “bristling slightly,” “the shadow of a smile,” etc.) — as for what is actually stated. It was only with a man of such urbanity and diplomacy that Cukor could fully relax beside a tape recorder.
The interview material remains virtually the same in the new edition, but Lambert has written a fuller introduction, with a somewhat franker discussion of Cukor’s private life: “As friends, of course, we knew about each other’s sexuality, but Cukor grew up at a time when discretion was obligatory. Like his good friends Somerset Maugham and Noël Coward, and several of his Hollywood colleagues, Cukor simply kept his private life private. And although he never felt guilty about being gay, he was pragmatic; and chose to realize himself in creative work at the expense of personal fulfillment. But that’s a far from exclusively homosexual choice.”
Lambert discusses the subject less guardedly in his newly published book Mainly About Lindsay Anderson (Knopf). A beautifully written and often moving memoir of his fifty-five-year friendship with the late director of If . . . and O Lucky Man!, it deals in depth with Lambert’s own life as an openly gay man in Hollywood and includes these reflections on Cukor:
“By the time I came to know him well, George had reached a point, after being obliged to live a closeted life for so many years, when he realized that he had nothing to lose by talking about his sexuality. But not for publication, as he made clear when we began On Cukor. Later he wanted me to write his biography, but I declined when he set very definite limits on what he would reveal about his personal life. Was it so important to tell everything? he asked. Not in the tabloid sense, I said, but can you separate an artist’s sexuality from his creativity? ‘It’s so good of you to consider me an artist,’ George said with an ambiguous smile, and an edge to his voice that I recognized as his way of closing the subject. . . .
“‘During all those years in the closet,'” I asked, ‘did you suffer very much when you realized that you could never have a complete, out-in-the-open love affair?’ After thinking this over, George supposed that ‘many of us suffered.’ But when there’s no choice, he pointed out, you either make the best of it or suffer even more. And during any affair, out-in-the-open or secret for whatever reason, same or opposite sex, didn’t lovers always suffer? ‘I certainly hope so,’ George said with the same deflecting smile. ‘After all, it’s what many of my pictures that you like so much are about.'”
On Cukor is the closest thing to an autobiography Cukor ever gave us. He flirted with the idea of a formal autobiography in concert with various writers and even tried unsuccessfully to market a book of his correspondence, but his lifelong discretion made either kind of book too problematical to be published. Cukor did give future biographers a wealth of material by donating his papers to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library. This has led to two biographies: McGilligan’s George Cukor: A Double Life (St. Martin’s Press, 1991), and Emanuel Levy’s George Cukor, Master of Elegance: Hollywood’s Legendary Director and His Stars (Morrow, 1994). McGilligan, whose style is more felicitous, concentrates on the multiple dimensions of Cukor’s personality and on recreating the gay milieu in which he led his compartmentalized private life, finding sexual release mostly in transient relationships. Levy’s book is less interested in Cukor’s homosexuality, focusing instead on his work with actors, an aspect McGilligan tends to scant. As a result, neither book is fully satisfactory, and both should be read to get a full sense of the director’s personality.
The tension that accompanied the aging Cukor’s growing interest in self-revelation can be seen in his tentative, somewhat frustrating interchange with Lambert about the scandal caused by Sylvia Scarlett:
LAMBERT: I wonder why there was such a terrific controversy over something very charming and very lightweight.
CUKOR: I’m not putting Sylvia Scarlett in the same class, but when Carmen was first done at the Opéra Comique they picked up their chairs and threw them at the stage. . . . I’d always liked the book [by Compton Mackenzie], and it struck me that Kate had that quality they used to call garçonne, and I thought it would be a perfect part for her. . . . It seemed an impertinent thing to do, but I didn’t realize how daring. . . . (His manner wavers between affection and regret.) But then we got John Collier for the script, and he was a daring kind of writer, so I suppose I must have been thinking in that way. . . .
LAMBERT: I like very much the way you played on the sexual misunderstandings. When Brian Aherne is attracted to Hepburn as a boy and worried about it, he says, ‘There’s something very queer going on here.’
CUKOR: I don’t remember that. It’s funny.
LAMBERT: And then the maid finds Hepburn a very attractive boy and makes love to her.
CUKOR: I remember that. All that kind of thing is in the classical tradition, of course.
LAMBERT: Do you think moments like that shocked people when the picture first came out?
CUKOR: No. They just didn’t think it was funny.
Cukor eventually “came out” to a greater degree with other interviewers, particularly in an interview toward the end of his life with the gay magazine The Advocate. In those later interviews, Cukor often used more candid language than he had with Lambert, whose elegant manner tended to discourage Cukor’s penchant for coarseness. Always fond of bawdy language, Cukor used it more openly as he aged and felt more liberated from the restraints of his public image. A prime example came when I once asked Cukor what he thought of Hollywood extras. His pithy reply: “Pricks and cunts.” It’s notable that one of the modern films Cukor most enjoyed was Paul Morrissey‘s 1968 film for the Andy Warhol factory about a heroin-addicted male hustler, Flesh. In a comment used as an advertising blurb, Cukor hailed Flesh as “an authentic whiff from the gutter.” Such earthiness may have surprised those who had pigeonholed Cukor as a gentleman of the old school, missing the fierceness and tenacity that enabled him to survive in the Hollywood jungle as a working filmmaker for more than half a century.
Cukor prevailed not by pretentious self-dramatization but with humor and unquenchable enthusiasm for his profession. I experienced those qualities firsthand while having lunch with him in 1975 at the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. I was interviewing him for the Directors Guild of America magazine, Action!, about one of his most trying experiences, the disastrous Russian-American coproduction of The Blue Bird. When I asked how he had coped with the strain of that experience, he replied: “First of all, to go into the theater or the movies is folly and madness. But there is something that urges us to go and do it, and if that urge is strong enough it should sustain us. I don’t go on about things; I don’t luxuriate in suffering. You can’t. People are nattering at you, they bring their problems to you, and you have to very charmingly say, ‘Fuck that.’ . . . I think sour, disillusioned people are just bores.”
At one point in our lunch, I asked Cukor what it felt like to be fired from a picture. (What I had in mind was his departure from the 1947 MGM film Desire Me, from which I mistakenly assumed he had been fired. Cukor quit the troubled production.)
Cukor touched my forearm lightly with his right hand, leaned over toward his publicist, and said, “Notice with what finesse he avoids mentioning the title Gone With the Wind.“