Known for his ability to elicit great performances, American film director George Cukor (1899-1983) was a stylistic craftsman who made elegant comedies and dramas from the 1930s through the 1960s.He won an Academy Award in 1964 for directing the musical My Fair Lady.
Theatrically trained, Cukor liked to stage his movies with an emphasis on character, dialogue, and emotion, and a minimum of cinematic tricks or special effects. Rarely working with original material, Cukor preferred to interpret literary classics. His best films were smooth dramas and slick comedies with strong female leads and polished story lines, known in the trade as "women's pictures." He was nominated five times for Academy Awards for his directing.
From Stage to Screen
Cukor was born in New York City on July 7, 1899. His parents were Hungarian Jewish immigrants who worked in the legal profession. As a teenager, Cukor started acting in plays. After undergoing military training, he became a stage assistant in Chicago in 1918, then returned to New York and was a stage manager on Broadway the following year. In the early 1920s, he directed a summer stock company in Rochester, New York, in which Bette Davis and Robert Montgomery began their careers. From 1926 to 1929, Cukor became a successful Broadway director of plays such as The Great Gatsby.
In a 1969 interview, Cukor said, "I was very lucky because, when I was young, I didn't know what the hell a director was and I wanted to be a director. I'm a great believer in work and character and all that, but unless you have the gift, it's a sad thing." Cukor possessed both the desire and the gift. In 1929, when the motion picture industry entered the sound age, Cukor relocated to Hollywood. There, he worked as a dialogue director on the World War I drama All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930.
Cukor co-directed three films for Paramount Pictures before making his solo debut in 1931 with The Tarnished Lady, a melodrama which featured British theatrical star Tallulah Bankhead. That was followed the same year by Girls About Town, a comedy about women looking for men with money who find true love instead.
In 1932, Cukor moved to the RKO studio and teamed with producer David O. Selznick. That year, Cukor did most of the actual directing, but was not so credited, on One Hour with You. The film's official director was Ernst Lubitsch, whose sophisticated dramatic style had a profound influence on Cukor's film career.
Katharine Hepburn made her film debut in Cukor's 1932 film A Bill of Divorcement. It was the first of nine films Cukor would make with the legendary actress, including some of his most stylish social comedies. Cukor, Selznick, and Hepburn teamed up again in 1933 for the hit Little Women, based on Louisa May Alcott's literary classic. Audiences and critics loved the lavish, homespun drama. "The picture should go into the archives of Americana because it preserves something precious in our tradition that can never come back again," observed critic James Shelley Hamilton at the time. "Here the simple sturdy virtues live as we liked to think they lived in earlier times … intrinsic in a film that on the surface is above everything else entertaining, and appealing." Cukor was nominated for an Academy Award for his meticulous directing.
Cukor and Selznick next moved to MGM Studios, where they collaborated on most of Cukor's films until 1950. Their first project was a Broadway theatrical adaptation, Dinner at Eight, starring Jean Harlow. The film earned Cukor another Oscar nomination but also garnered criticism from reviewers who felt he had merely filmed a play. "He set up his camera on a stage, and photographed Dinner at Eight just exactly as it appeared in the Music Box Theatre last year," wrote Pare Loretz of Vanity Fair, who charged that the picture moved "slower on the screen than it did on the stage." It was a criticism that would dog Cukor throughout his career. Other reviewers, however, appreciated the economy of his straight-ahead style. Henri Colip noted, "Cukor is static, he leans on dialogue and acting. But the admirable continuity of his films, their smoothness, makes for excellent cinema. His films are carefully done, consciously artistic, literary, poetic to the point of being effeminate."
Also in 1934, Cukor directed a film adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield. When Cukor wanted Maureen O'Sullivan to produce real tears for a deathbed scene, he twisted her feet to make her cry. New York Times critic Andre Sennwald called the film "a gorgeous photoplay which encompasses the rich and kindly humanity of the original so brilliantly that it becomes a screen masterpiece in its own right … the most profoundly satisfying screen manipulation of a great novel that the camera has ever given us."
In 1936, Cukor tackled Shakespeare with a new film version of Romeo and Juliet. It was not as well-received as his previous literary adaptations. Critic Alberto Cavalcanti said it was out-of-date: "It is impossible to realize how bad this film was unless you reflect upon how good it might have been." The novelist Graham Greene called it "unimaginative, coarse-grained, a little banal." Nonetheless, the film was nominated for an Academy Award.
A Woman's Director
In 1937, Cukor directed the legendary Greta Garbo in a version of the Alexander Dumas drama, Camille, a nineteenth-century French theatrical staple about a dying courtesan who falls for an innocent young man. It was a pairing of a screen goddess at the pinnacle of her popularity with a director who had a special gift for working with actresses. "Cukor had shown a sensitivity and particular aptitude for bringing out the best in women," noted film critic Bosley Crowther. "He was what Garbo required." The National Board of Review called Garbo's work "a performance hardly equaled, never exceeded in the history of the screen."
Cukor was the original director of the 1939 classic Gone with the Wind, but lead actor Clark Gable got him removed because he complained that Cukor paid too much attention to the female roles. Cukor, replaced by Victor Fleming, received no credit on the final cut of the box-office behemoth. Yet the film's stars, Vivian Leigh and Olivia DeHavilland, continued to get instruction from Cukor by visiting his home during filming. "He was my last hope of ever enjoying the picture," Leigh later said.
Cukor had established a reputation for being able to handle the most temperamental actresses. He was chosen to direct a cast of 135 actresses in MGM's all-female cast of The Women in 1939, including a trio of easily ruffled leading ladies, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell. Cukor was careful never to call any of them to the set first, making sure they were treated equally, to the point that he would dispatch several assistants to knock on their trailer doors simultaneously.
In 1940, Cukor directed Hepburn with Cary Grant, in The Philadelphia Story, about a stuffy heiress who gets her comeuppance. Halliwell's Film Guide calls it "Hollywood's most wise and sparkling comedy, with a script which is even an improvement on the original play. Cukor's direction is so discreet you can hardly sense it, and all the performances are just perfect."
Cukor always allowed his actors to play to their strengths, giving them the freedom they needed to thrive. Film critic, Andrew Sarris, noted: "W.C. Fields is pure ham in David Copperfield, and Katherine Hepburn is pure ego in The Philadelphia Story, and Cukor is equally sympathetic to the absurdities of both … Cukor is committed to the dreamer, if not to the content of the dream. He is a genuine artist."
In a 1969 conversation, Hepburn told Cukor, "You are a very generous director because you let the actor put his mark on what he's doing and you don't have to have a big sign on your back saying 'This is a George Cukor Film.' At times I used to think, 'Gee, I wish George would put more of a "stamp" on things.' Well, your own stamp, of course, was the performances of your people. You never had to put a label on the bottle, it was unmistakable. Your interest was in character. You didn't get wedded to material, you got wedded to people."
Hits and Misses
Throughout his career, Cukor had his share of flops. In 1941, a second matchup with Garbo on the disastrous Two-Faced Woman so infuriated Garbo that it prompted her to retire. But Cukor continued to coax amazing performances out of his leading ladies, including an Academy Award for Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 thriller, Gaslight. And Cukor flourished with his classic Hepburn-Spencer Tracy romantic comedies, such as Adam's Rib in 1949 and Pat and Mike in 1952. Of Adam's Rib, a courtroom comedy about husband-and-wife lawyers on opposite sides of a trial, the film review magazine BFI Bulletin noted, "Cukor has directed with a deliberate, polished theatricality which emphasizes the artificiality of the piece. The camera often remains anchored for quite an appreciable time so that the screen becomes simply a frame for the two stars."
Cukor displayed his suave mastery of domestic conflict in these and other films. Sarris noted, "when characters have to thrash out their illusions and problems across the kitchen table, Cukor glides through his interiors without self-conscious reservations about what is 'cinematic' and what is not."
Cukor continued to be the director who set actresses' careers into motion or put them in high gear. He first worked with Judy Holliday in Adam's Rib, then directed her in the 1950 classic Born Yesterday, for which she won an Oscar. In 1954, Cukor made his first film for Warner Brothers, directing Judy Garland in the musical A Star is Born. His next musical was Let's Make Love, a 1960 flop starring Marilyn Monroe. Cukor also worked with Italian superstar, Sophia Loren, directing her best Hollywood comedy, a Western spoof called Heller in Pink Tights, in 1959.
In 1964, Cukor directed the musical hit My Fair Lady, starring Audrey Hepburn. Though he won an Oscar, he also got his share of criticism. Sarris noted, "As a longtime admirer of George Cukor's directorial style, I had expected something more in the way of creative adaptation. With justice less poetic than prosaic, Cukor, long slandered as a 'woman's director,' will probably receive an overdue fistful of awards for one of his weakest jobs of direction." The film was a box-office winner, and garnered five Academy Awards, including best picture.
Though his string of hits eventually ended, Cukor continued working into his old age. At 77, he directed the first joint US-Soviet co-production, The Blue Bird. Cukor's last movie, directed at the age of 82, was Rich and Famous, starring Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen. He died in Los Angeles on January 24, 1983.
Cukor's legacy continued to grow with retrospectives of his work and a renewed interest in the social comedies of the World War II era. "There is an honorable place in the cinema for both adaptations and the non-writer director," noted Sarris, "and Cukor, like Lubitsch, is one of the best examples of the non-writer auteur."
Further Reading on George Cukor
Brewer's Cinema, edited by Jonathan Law, Market House Books, 1995.
Crowther, Bosley The Great Films: Fifty Golden Years of Motion Pictures, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1967.
Film Directors: A Guide to Their American Films, edited by James R. Parish and Michael R. Pitts, Scarecrow Press, 1974.
Halliwell's Film Guide, edited by John Walker, Harper Collins, 1991.
The International Encyclopedia of Film, Crown Publishers, 1972.
A Library of Film Criticism, edited by Stanley Hochman. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1974.
Sarris, Andrew, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1968.
The World Encyclopedia of the Film, edited by John M. Smith and Tim Cawkwell, Galahad Books, 1972.
Los Angeles Magazine, March 1997.