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George Cukor

George Cukor: A Double Life

Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    George Cukor
    Book Description:

    One of the highest-paid studio contract directors of his time, George Cukor was nominated five times for an Academy Award as Best Director. In publicity and mystique he was dubbed the "women's director" for guiding the most sensitive leading ladies to immortal performances, including Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Judy Garland, and-in ten films, among them The Philadelphia Story and Adam's Rib-his lifelong friend and collaborator Katharine Hepburn. But behind the "women's director" label lurked the open secret that set Cukor apart from a generally macho fraternity of directors: he was a homosexual, a rarity among the top echelon. Patrick McGilligan's biography reveals how Cukor persevered within a system fraught with bigotry while becoming one of Hollywood's consummate filmmakers.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8487-8
    Subjects: Art & Art History, History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[x])
    (pp. 1-20)

    George Cukor believed that his life story actually began before he was born—in genes and chromosomes, in the tangled roots of his ancestry, and in the essential traits of his immediate family.

    “You’d like to think you’re pretty much an original,” the world-famous film director was fond of saying, in a reflective mood, “everything about yourself distinctive and individual. But it is surprising to realize to what extent you echo your family, and how, from childhood, you have been shaped and molded. . . .”

    Cukor made a point of surrounding himself with literary lions, the pantheon of the...

    (pp. 21-46)

    With the pretense of law school and his military obligations out of the way, the eighteen-year-old Cukor began to do what he really wanted—scouting talent agencies and stage doors, looking for his first job in show business.

    The Better ’Ole was a droll musical entertainment based on Captain Bruce Bairnsfather’s World War I cartoons. The show had originated in London and proved such a hit that it was playing in England, Canada, and Australia, with four concurrent road companies in the United States. Klaw & Erlanger, the theatrical producers with a stranglehold on much of the touring circuit, needed...

    (pp. 47-72)

    While Cukor was establishing himself upstate, summers in Rochester, he was also making headway on Broadway.

    The 1920s were Broadway’s heyday, a decade in which the glorious past and optimistic future of show business rubbed up against each other and threw off sparks. It was a decade of innovation and promise in the theater, as well as of vanishing forms and emotional last hurrahs of turn-of-the-century legends. A phenomenal influx of talent from England and Europe filled the stages. Eugene O’Neill and Philip Barry exploded on the scene. Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman formed a collaboration. Other new playwrights...

    (pp. 73-110)

    Apart from everything else, Cukor was unusual among stage directors from the East Coast enticed to Hollywood for talkies, in that he found moviemaking—indeed California itself—immensely stimulating.

    He had arrived with the usual New York mental resistance, sporting a black overcoat and matching fedora—very fashionable back East—which he insisted on wearing despite the warm climate. Cukor was chagrined by the distances between places, and had to take driving lessons. (He had his usual mechanical nonchalance when it came to handling an automobile, and when he was not being chauffeurdriven, then as later on, Cukor was a...

    (pp. 111-128)

    In the scores of published interviews and the newspaper and magazine articles about Cukor, the first one to take stock of his “woman’s director” reputation occurs just as he arrived at MGM. That was MGM’s publicity thrust. But Cukor went along with it.

    At times, especially in the early 1930s, the “woman’s director” advertising was to serve the director well. Other times—when it typecast him, when its meaning was narrow and demeaning—it hurt him, professionally as well as psychologically.

    The initial article was in Screenland, in April of 1933; interestingly, it was written by Ida Zeitlin, a fan-magazine...

    (pp. 129-154)

    The filming of Camille was clouded by two events: the deaths of Cukor’s mother and Irving Thalberg.

    Helen Gross Cukor succumbed after complications that arose from surgery for stomach cancer in June of 1936. Her decline was swift, and Cukor was devastated by the loss. He telephoned Stella Bloch on the day of his mother’s death and asked to go over and visit with her. Cukor arrived alone and stayed for several hours, unusually subdued.

    “For him to call up and ask to come over, by himself, without his entourage,” said Stella Bloch, “indicated to me how deeply grieved he...

  8. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 155-182)

    Almost one month to the day after he was fired from Gone With the Wind (he always put it that way—fired!), Cukor’s contract with MGM took effect, and the director reported to the set of The Women.

    The first thing he did was pose for stills with the auspicious lineup, which included Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, and others— largely castoffs, Hollywood wags noted, from the Gone With the Wind talent quest. One of the publicity gimmicks was that there was not a single man in the cast.

    Cukor and his women were photographed,...

    (pp. 183-216)

    By 1945 and the end of World War II, the “woman’s director” had learned some hard lessons and was beginning to reorganize his life to be strategically, almost brilliantly, compartmentalized. The lines had to be more strictly drawn. Cukor had to exercise more caution on the one hand and more controlling initiative on the other, in both personal and professional areas—both halves of his “double life.”

    Of course, double lives have always existed, and many people find them valuable and creative, even psychically necessary. That may be especially so among actors, and acting was one of Cukor’s most personal...

    (pp. 217-238)

    The sheer pace of Cukor’s activity proves that, regardless of his slow reputation, he often worked as fast as the fastest—and the most important—directors. Beginning with A Double Life, Cukor had turned out ten films in seven years. That was fewer than John Ford during the same time frame, but more, for example, than Hawks or Hitchcock.

    For seven years, the Kanins had had a virtual monopoly on Cukor. By now, he was besieged with offers from the other studios, even if at MGM he sometimes seemed to be persona non grata.

    If Cukor never quite hit it...

    (pp. 239-278)

    The competition of television, the divestiture of theater chains by order of the Supreme Court, the blacklist of accused Communists and sympathizers from the ranks of the motion-picture industry—all these shattering events in the 1950s threatened the very existence of the once-omnipotent studios.

    The panicky production chiefs were relying more and more on technological and publicity gimmicks (wide-screen and 3-D), inflated budgets and “safe” genres (Westerns, Bible epics, musicals). Armed with their statistical studies and marketing estimates, they tried in vain to revive dwindling profits and vanishing audiences. Yet it was a losing battle, and the average weekly attendance...

  13. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 279-314)

    The system had been good to Cukor, not always but often enough, and he was loyal to the system. The 1950s and the 1960s had tested everyone. Now, at the end of the Golden Age, for a few like him who had shown their good faith, there was a welcome payback.

    My Fair Lady was a last gasp of the studio machinery. George Bernard Shaw’s play about a guttersnipe flower girl and a professorial Pygmalion, transformed into the Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe musical, was logical territory for a director who had climbed the rungs of the social ladder himself. Although...

    (pp. 315-344)

    The Blue Bird was his absolute nadir, ten times worse than A Life of Her Own. At least A Life of Her Own might be pardoned as a studio junk product. The Blue Bird was a classic travestied, a financial and publicity catastrophe, and for a seventy-five-year-old director anxious to keep working, seemingly the end of the long road. Who would hire Cukor after that mess of a film?

    This unusual U.S.—U.S.S.R. coproduction was much ballyhooed in the preproduction stages, in late 1974, yet by the time filming began, the press was already aware of the slide toward debacle....

  16. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 345-350)

    Writing a biography of George Cukor has proven a tremendous challenge. I knew it would be difficult; that was half the appeal. But I couldn’t have guessed how difficult it would be to probe his life story, to try to find the arc and drama of it, and to tell it within bounds.

    People tried to encourage as well as discourage me. Sometimes I wasn’t sure which they were doing. “I feel sorry for you, in a way,” Garson Kanin said, “because I don’t think there is a book in George.” Katharine Hepburn put it in a different, if equally...

    (pp. 351-354)
  19. NOTES
    (pp. 355-372)
    (pp. 373-392)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 393-404)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 405-406)