George Cukor ‘gay Woman’s Director’? Known as a refined “woman’s director,” George Cukor has had his considerable output either relegated to the sidelines or simply dismissed by those who like their directors macho and their films male-centered.
Not helping matters is the general perception that Cukor was merely a hired hand for the likes of David O. Selznick at RKO and Louis B. Mayer at MGM, instead of an auteur following a clear professional path.* Except, of course, for the (assumed) fact that he was a woman’s director — and we’re back to square one.
George Cukor directing style
In truth, George Cukor was one of the most accomplished directors of the studio era. His movies may lack the wide vistas found in John Ford’s Westerns, or those personal cinematic / thematic touches that make, say, an Alfred Hitchcock movie recognizably Hitchcockian. But that’s because Cukor’s camera was set up so audiences would forget it was there and thus be allowed to — or rather, be subtly forced to immerse themselves in the story, the dialogue, and the characters’ thoughts and deeds. As a plus, like Elia Kazan, Cukor served his apprenticeship in the theater, thus developing into an outstanding actors’ director. Actors’. Regardless of gender.
Because George Cukor was gay, some have claimed that his sexual orientation explains his flair for directing actresses and for handling projects revolving around women and their issues. By having sex with guys, Cukor is supposed to have somehow been more attuned to his “feminine” self, and thus able to elicit the best in Katharine Hepburn in 10 movies, from the 1932 melodrama A Bill of Divorcement (photo, with Hepburn and David Manners) to the made-for-television ’70s movies Love Among the Ruins and The Corn Is Green; Joan Crawford in The Women and A Woman’s Face; Greta Garbo in Camille; Judy Garland in A Star Is Born; Deborah Kerr in Edward, My Son; Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady; Constance Bennett in What Price Hollywood?; and Marie Dressler and Jean Harlow in Dinner at 8.
Among the other top actresses directed by George Cukor were Queen of MGM Norma Shearer, Kay Francis, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe, Jeanne Crain, Judy Holliday, Tallulah Bankhead, Claudette Colbert, Ava Gardner, Jane Fonda, Anna Magnani, Jean Simmons, Teresa Wright, Rosalind Russell, Ingrid Bergman, Maggie Smith, Sophia Loren, and Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen in Cukor’s last film, Rich and Famous.
All those, in addition to Gone with the Wind’s Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland, whom Cukor reportedly coached (at his home) during the course of the Victor Fleming-directed, David O. Selznick / MGM production.
George Cukor and MGM’s / RKO’s female star power
The list of George Cukor-directed actresses is both very impressive and very long, but one must remember that Cukor worked mostly at RKO and MGM, two studios that, while he was under contract, relied heavily on the star power of their female players. Other RKO and MGM contract directors, regardless of their sexual orientation, also had to handle star vehicles for Garbo and Crawford and Bennett and Shearer and Hepburn and Harlow, and so on.
Something else the “gay sensibility” nonsense ignores is the fact — and it is a fact — that George Cukor was equally adept at directing male actors.
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* Somewhat surprisingly, in his "Notes on the Auteur Theory" Andrew Sarris remarks on a certain stylistically consistency found in Cukor’s oeuvre. "A Cukor," Sarris wrote, "who works with all sorts of projects, has a more developed abstract style than a[n Ingmar] Bergman, who is free to develop his own scripts."
George Cukor’s A Bill of Divorcement picture, with Katharine Hepburn and David Manners: RKO Pictures.