“GEORGE CUKOR, women’s director.” It was partly a veiled way of saying he was gay, partly a way of acknowledging that he did indeed have a way with women on-screen, given his productive collaborations with such actresses as Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Judy Holliday, and, most especially, Katharine Hepburn.
But what about the men in Cukor’s life? His professional life, of course.
The truth is, Cukor was as accomplished in working with men as with women. Three major male stars: James Stewart, Ronald Colman, and Rex Harrison won their only competitive Oscars for performances directed by Cukor. And he directed multiple well-received films starting two of Hollywood’s greatest, Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy.
“The most erroneous misconception about Cukor was that he worked better with women,” writes biographer Emanuel Levy in “George Cukor: Master of Elegance.” “While he undoubtedly enjoyed exceptional rapport with actresses, he also worked extremely well with men.” Cukor himself disliked the label, saying, “I don’t think I behave any differently when I direct a woman; you talk the same to a man as you do to a woman.”
Well, undoubtedly some directors of Cukor’s era were tougher on women than they were on men, and since sexism hasn’t gone away, there are surely male directors these days who treat men better than women. But the egalitarian Cukor certainly drew wonderful performances from both sexes.
Jimmy Stewart was the first actor to win an Oscar in a Cukor project. Sure, there are many things that go into a performance: the actor’s innate talent, suitability for the role, the script, editing, and yes, the director. And there are many factors that affect Academy Awards voting. Stewart’s win for playing journalist Macaulay Connor in “The Philadelphia Story”
( 1940 ) is often considered compensation for the fact that he didn’t win the year before, for “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, and it robbed his friend Henry Fonda of a well-deserved Oscar for being the perfect Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath.” The stiff competition for Best Actor of 1940 also included: Charlie Chaplin, Laurence Olivier, and Raymond Massey.
But Stewart’s performance is certainly wonderful; “The Philadelphia Story” undercuts any stereotypical conception of him as merely the stammering nice guy. He beautifully conveys Connor’s journalistic cynicism, then his underlying romanticism as he falls for Hepburn’s Tracy Lord: “You’re lit from within, Tracy. You’ve got fires banked down in you, hearth-fires and holocausts.” Plus he’s hilarious; no one could forget him drunkenly awakening Cary Grant’s character with shouts of “C.K. Dexter Haven!” His Oscar is a too-rare example of the Academy recognizing an achievement in comedy.
And Cukor’s handling definitely had something to do with it. As Levy tells it, Stewart was having trouble with the “hearth-fires” line. “Unfortunately, just before Stewart got his line right, Noël Coward stepped onto the set and the actor nearly collapsed. Aware of Stewart’s shyness, Coward went up to him and told him how fantastic his acting was. ‘Roll them,’ said Cukor, taking advantage of this genuine flattery.”
Seven years later, “A Double Life” ( 1947 ) brought Colman won his only Oscar. He portrays an actor so obsessed with the part he is playing onstage, Othello, that he starts behaving like Othello in real life. It could be argued that Colman’s win was something of a lifetime achievement award; he’d been a star since the silent era, becoming a bigger star in talkies because he sounded as good as he looked, and he’d been nominated twice before.
But Colman, usually cast as heroic characters, was a revelation as dangerously deranged actor Anthony John. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it “the role of his lengthy career,” adding, “The only question is whether Mr. Colman is more spectacular as the mentally distressed star of Broadway or as the bearded Venetian Moor. In either case, he plays an actor cocked and primed for romantic tragedy.” ( Complete review here. )
Crowther had kudos for Cukor as well, saying the director “amply proves that he knows the theatre, its sights and sounds and brittle people.”
Also, according to Levy, he helped Colman overcome his gentlemanly restraint. In one scene, he is supposed to choke Signe Hasso, who’s playing his actress ex-wife, and he worried about hurting her. Cukor had some difficulty persuading Colman to embrace his character’s violent side. “But the last time we did it,” Hasso said, “Ronnie really dug deep into my throat. By the time George said, ‘Cut,’ he had almost choked me to death.”
Cukor also brought in an acting coach, Walter Hampden, to help Colman with the Othello excerpts; Colman was daunted by them because he hadn’t acted in a play in many years. “This was indicative of George’s work,” Hasso told Levy. “He was very thorough.”
Speaking of literacy, “My Fair Lady” is certainly one of the most literate musicals out there, being based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”, and adapted for stage and screen by the greatly talented Alan Jay Lerner, who also wrote the lyrics for Frederick Loewe’s music. When it came time to film the Broadway hit, there was some outcry over the casting of Audrey Hepburn ( producer Jack Warner’s choice ) as Eliza Doolittle over Julie Andrews, who originated the role, but purists couldn’t complain about Rex Harrison reprising his stage role of Henry Higgins. Harrison was cast after negotiations with hot new star Peter O’Toole fell apart and Cary Grant ( who had quite a good singing voice ) turned the part down, saying he wouldn’t see the movie if anyone but Harrison played Higgins.
Harrison was excited to work with Cukor, and they got along well, personally and professionally. For one thing, Cukor helped Harrison dial back his stage performance for the more intimate medium of film. “The essence of screen acting is thinking rather than projection,” Harrison said. “The moment I started to project big, George would tell me.”
The 1964 release took home eight Oscars, including Best Picture as well as Best Director for Cukor and Best Actor for Harrison. It was the first and only Oscar for each man, on Cukor’s fifth nomination ( the other four were for “Little Women” [ 1933 ], “The Philadelphia Story” [ 1940 ], “A Double Life” [ 1947 ] and “Born Yesterday” [ 1950 ] ) and Harrison’s second. The lavish musical’s main competition in most major categories was another lavish musical, “Mary Poppins”, the historical drama “Becket” and the revolutionary “Dr. Strangelove…”, which was undoubtedly too far out there for Academy voters. “My Fair Lady” is the type of movie the Academy likes to honor but it was a high-quality production and remains highly enjoyable, making Harrison and Cukor’s awards well-deserved.
Oscars aside, Cukor’s expertise with male stars also shows in his multiple collaborations with Grant and Tracy. Cukor directed three of Grant’s four films with Katharine Hepburn: the oddball “Sylvia Scarlett” ( 1936 ), the charming “Holiday” ( 1938 ), and “The Philadelphia Story,” a classic by any measure. ( The other Grant-Hepburn picture, 1938’s wacky and hilarious “Bringing Up Baby”, was helmed by a very different but equally brilliant director, Howard Hawks. )
Up until “Sylvia Scarlett”, Grant had been known as just a conventional leading man, but the whimsical tale of roving rogues showed he was more than a handsome face. As Cockney con man Jimmy Monkley, “Cary Grant practically steals the picture,” a Variety reviewer wrote at the time.
On set with Cukor and Lubitsch
Levy credits Cukor with bringing out Grant’s comedic side, although the ability was undoubtedly there all along. Cukor himself was more modest, telling Andrew Sarris of Grant, “During the shooting, he felt all his talents coming into being, maybe because it was the first part which really suited his background. He suddenly burst into bloom. It was a wonderful performance.” Hepburn credited both Grant’s talent and Cukor’s casting expertise. “It was Cary Grant’s first decent part, because George knew Cary and cast him as a character comedian, which is what he made his career on,” she told film historian Gary Carey.
Grant delivered wonderful performances for Cukor again in “Holiday” and “The Philadelphia Story.” In the 1960s, British critic Penelope Gilliatt delivered a retrospective rave for Cukor’s handling of Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart in the latter: “All three give performances of such calm comic judgment that one wonders whether Cukor’s legendary reputation as an actress’s director does him honour enough.” Well, it doesn’t.
Spencer Tracy, who through Hepburn became great friends with Cukor, Gordon, and Kanin, worked with Cukor on even more movies than Grant: five. They vary in quality, although Tracy is always worth watching. “Keeper of the Flame” ( 1942 ), Tracy’s second pairing with Hepburn, is an interesting but overly melodramatic tale of a reporter uncovering a national hero’s secret fascism. In “Edward, My Son” ( 1949 ), co-starring Deborah Kerr, another melodrama, is a rather stodgy one about a father’s continual bailing-out of his no-good son. “The Actress” ( 1952 ) is a fairly good adaptation of Ruth Gordon’s autobiographical play “Years Ago”, with Tracy as a retired sea captain who at first discourages but then supports his daughter’s acting ambitions.
But then there were “Adam’s Rib” (1949) and “Pat and Mike” (1952), two delightful romantic comedies with Tracy and Hepburn at their most Tracy-and-Hepburnish. Both were scripted by Gordon and Kanin, and both cast Hepburn as a strong, independent woman ( lawyer and athlete, respectively ) with Tracy as the man who may sometimes wish she were more conventional but ultimately appreciates her as an equal.
No less than Hepburn has confirmed that Tracy and Cukor had a great rapport. “Spencer liked to work with George very much,” she told Levy. “George understood him. Spencer was not interested in a lot of intellectualizing about why a character did this or that.” Cukor said that his strategy was generally to step back and let Tracy be Tracy. A director, he once said, needs “to know when to shut up and to know, when you see it happening, not to give a lot of hot tips.”
Teresa Wright, who played Tracy’s wife in “The Actress” ( playing mother to Jean Simmons, only 11 years her junior ), saw Cukor’s work with Tracy as belying the “women’s director” reputation. “I don’t understand why he is called a woman’s director,” Levy quotes her as saying. “He has had some great male performers. Certainly you cannot get many actors better than Spencer Tracy.”
“It’s quite a nice label, al-though I’ve never under-stood the reasons for it,” Cukor once said of the “women’s director” tag. “Perhaps it’s because in
the 1940s the emphasis was on movie queens, and I did work with them all.” But with plenty of kings too. In addi-tion to the aforementioned, there were John Barrymore, James Mason, William Holden, Charles Boyer, Jack Lemmon, and plenty of others. The more appropriate tag for Cukor would be “equal-opportunity genius.”
Other quotes are from Levy’s book or cited in the Pyramid book on Cary Grant.
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CINEMAVEN’s NOTE: Trudy’s essay is written in conjunction with the Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon ~ January 23rd and 24th, 2016.