La Furia Umana
  • I’m not like evereybody else
    The Kinks
  • E che, sono forse al mondo per realizzare delle idee?
    Max Stirner
  • (No ideas but in things)
    W.C. Williams
DAN SALLITT / George Cukor: A Life of Grand Gestures

DAN SALLITT / George Cukor: A Life of Grand Gestures

Originally published as an obituary in the Los Angeles Reader, February 4, 1983. Republished with the kind permission of the author.

A few weeks ago, when the editor and I were trying to come up with ideas for a film column during an empty week, we jokingly speculated that perhaps an old-time film maker would die before my deadline and solve the problem. On January 24, 1983, George Cukor obliged us, putting me in a moral position akin to that of Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train. Well, if Cukor’s death should become an excuse for me to write about one of America‘s greatest directors, I can at least say in my defense that the medium encourages such callousness. The immortality that the cinema conveys upon its artists is some compensation for the fact that the loss of a film maker never completely registers upon us. Film buffs all over the world will go on speaking of Cukor in the present tense.

Has anyone noticed, by the way, how much trouble film critics have been having saying anything distinctive about Cukor in their obituaries? This vagueness is not due to a temporary lapse of critical power: Describing Cukor’s elusive style has always been one of the major stumbling blocks of film analysis. The politique des auteurs, which first turned critical attention toward directors in the fifties and sixties, was intended to elevate personal artists and demote directors with no apparent stylistic or thematic obsession. Yet, though none of the founding fathers could satisfactorily explain why Cukor should be considered a more personal director than such bêtes noirs as Huston, Wyler, and Zinnemann, collective intuition preserved his reputation and bracketed him with more assertive artists such as Preminger, Minnelli, and Sirk. Seemingly vulnerable to downward reevaluation, Cukor has remained respectable over the years, withstanding both the periodic assaults of revisionists and the equivocation of his defenders. What makes his reputation so insecure is the single-minded emphasis that auteurists have always placed on visual expressiveness, an aspect of film making that Cukor never chose to ram home to audiences.

Born in 1899 in New York City, Cukor made a reputation as one of Broadway’s top directors while still in his twenties. He was brought to Hollywood in 1930, when studios were importing East Coast theater talent wholesale to help them cope with the introduction of sound. Cukor’s first two films are of no particular interest; his third, The Royal Family of Broadway (1930), an adaptation of the Ferber-Kaufman play about the Barrymores, is an entirely mature effort and one of his finest works. Though his style was to go through many changes, Cukor’s basic attitudes were to remain constant to the end of his career, and Ina Claire’s rueful meditation on abandoning the theater for marriage in Royal Family is almost exactly reproduced in Jacqueline Bisset’s good-humored existential desperation in Rich and Famous (1981), Cukor’s last film.

Cukor directed nineteen films before the thirties ran out, including What Price Hollywood? (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Little Women (1933), David Copperfield (1935), Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Romeo and Juliet (1936), Camille (1937), Holiday (1938), and The Women (1939). His 1932 film A Bill of Divorcement marked the debut of Katharine Hepburn, whose ten-film association with Cukor is the main reason for the director’s celebrity. I’ll stop short of making the outrageous claim that Cukor created Hepburn the actress, but the fact remains that Hepburn became famous for an acting style that Cukor elicited from nearly all of his important actors both before and after his work with Hepburn.

Cukor’s direction of actors is characterized by the opposition of two psychological impulses. On the one hand, the actor is encouraged into immoderate emotional self-revelation: Cukor’s films often display a continuous, rapturous outpouring of emotional fantasy such as would weaken unto death a normal human being. But along with the emotionality – and here is the essence of Cukor’s approach – comes a self-consciousness that continually pulls the actor back from fantasy into an awareness of being observed. The two pulls operate simultaneously, and as a result Cukor’s actors acquire a much greater sense of realism than if they had simply drifted unchecked into rapture: With Cukor, we never assume that extreme reactions are simply a matter of dramatic overkill, because the performer always refers us back to the reality of the everyday with a shy smile, a breakdown of speech, or a nervous motion of the eyes. And because Cukor has found a way of assuring us that his characters’ emotions are grounded in the context of real human interaction, he can afford to push his players further into stylization without breaking the illusion of naturalism. He values the self-consciousness for its own sake but also uses it as a clever cover for his love of theatrical extravagance.

That Cukor always directs our attention back to the reality that contains his characters, or at least to the characters’ awareness of that reality, makes us question the traditional view of Cukor put forth by Andrew Sarris. (One cannot discuss the style of any American director without either borrowing from or reacting against Sarris, which is a tribute to that critic’s influence.) To quote the essay on Cukor in Sarris’s The American Cinema: “The director’s theme is imagination, with the focus on the imaginer rather than the thing imagined. Cukor’s cinema is a subjective cinema without an objective correlative. The husbands never appear in The Women, and Edward never appears in Edward, My Son.”

At the least, it should be noted that the extremity of this dramatic ploy in The Women and Edward, My Son (1949) is a sure way of drawing attention to the missing objects of the characters’ concern. Even if we restrict ourselves to the thirties – Cukor’s later development is inexplicable in terms of Sarris’s analysis – the concept of Cukor as a purely subjective director doesn’t satisfy. If I run down a list of my favorite scenes from Cukor’s early films – Hepburn’s painful first flirtation with artist Brian Aherne in Sylvia Scarlett; the fascinating, erotic moment when Garbo yields to impulse and kisses Robert Taylor’s face in Camille; Hepburn’s New Year’s Eve dance with Cary Grant in Cukor’s masterpiece Holiday – I find that in every case the point of view is external and incorporates the reactions of both characters, and that in every case but one the characters are more remote and inscrutable to us than in the surrounding scenes. I certainly won’t deny that Cukor often wants to get as close to his characters as possible and communicate their feelings without directorial intervention, but he also feels the intermittent need for an external perspective to place their emotionality in context, even – or perhaps especially – at climaxes.

Cukor’s films in the early forties, including The Philadelphia Story (1940), A Woman’s Face (1941), and Gaslight (1944), show his increasing interest in decor and atmosphere, and after the war he developed a new concern with spatial continuity and the long take, a concern that peaked in his vastly underrated Lana Turner melodrama A Life of Her Own (1950). The style of acting in the films of this period is not radically different from that of the thirties films, but Cukor’s camera style puts a greater and more continuous emphasis on the reality that is a counterpoise to the characters’ emotionality. My reservations about this period of Cukor’s career – reservations not shared by most Cukor enthusiasts – center on his collaboration with screenwriters Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon in the films A Double Life (1948), Adam’s Rib (1949), Born Yesterday (1950), The Marrying Kind (1952), Pat and Mike (1952), The Actress (1953), and It Should Happen to You (1954). Kanin-Gordon scripts always seem to me both condescending to the “little people” who are so often their subjects and laden with character-destroying gimmicks. The affiliation with Cukor is particularly unfortunate: Kanin-Gordon characters tend to have no perspective on themselves, and self-consciousness is an intrinsic element of Cukor’s characterizations.

The widespread use of color and CinemaScope in the late fifties stimulated yet another development in Cukor’s style. Working closely with color consultant George Hoyningen-Huene and art director Gene Allen, Cukor developed a visual plan characterized by lavish decor and rich, bold color contrasts for films such as A Star Is Born (1954), Bhowani Junction (1956), Les Girls (1957), and Heller in Pink Tights (1960). The design of these films suggests a comparison to Vincente Minnelli, and in fact Sarris’s comments about a subjective cinema without an objective correlative apply to Minnelli far more than to Cukor. Minnelli’s decor and use of color is always intended to throw a subjective emotional experience out onto the screen in place of objective reality; his world is a world created entirely out of imagination. Cukor’s decor remains a backdrop, more often indifferent to his characters’ feelings than in harmony or in counterpoint to them. Often Cukor uses touches of documentary realism, like the spotlights glaring into the camera lens in A Star Is Born and Les Girls, to help us accept his larger-than-life decor as reality, just as he uses his actors’ self-consciousness to help us accept their theatrical emoting as reality. He loves the grand gesture, and his art is devoted to making it plausible at any level of experience.

Cukor’s ability to continue producing first-rate work in the turbulent years after 1960, when most other directors of his stature faltered, has been one of the most heartening spectacles of the last twenty years. Most of his devotees agree that My Fair Lady (1964), the film that won him an Oscar for best director, is something of an aberration in his career; but Travels With My Aunt (1972) won lasting critical acclaim, and the poignant, made-for-television Love Among the Ruins (1975) certainly ranks among Cukor’s best-loved works. A bittersweet comedy starring Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier (with Olivier playing the tremulous, flustered role usually given to Hepburn) about lovers reunited after fifty years’ separation, Love Among the Ruins would have been the perfect last film for an aging director. But Cukor, not inclined to make that particular grand gesture, directed three more movies, including the excellent Rich and Famous, and went out at age eighty-three having had no apparent plan to retire. No other film maker who has died at Cukor’s age has deprived us of the prospect of future masterpieces, so that even the least sentimental of us has cause for regret at his passing.

Dan Sallitt