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George Cukor Gay Woman's Director Nonsense

George Cukor gay directorial styleGeorge 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.

A Bill of Divorcement Katharine Hepburn David Manners

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.

* 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.

Katharine Hepburn The Philadelphia Story Cary Grant James StewartGeorge Cukor Oscar Actor's Director. (Photo: Katharine Hepburn The Philadelphia Story, with James Stewart, Cary Grant.)

Clark Gable purportedly got Cukor fired from the Gone with the Wind set, but the extensive list of Cukor-directed performers nominated for Academy Awards includes Fredric March (The Royal Family of Broadway), Basil Rathbone (Romeo and Juliet), Charles Boyer (Gaslight), James Mason (A Star Is Born), Anthony Quinn (Wild Is the Wind), and no less than three male Oscar winners: James Stewart (The Philadelphia Story), Ronald Colman (A Double Life), and Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady).

George Cukor also guided a number of other top male stars, including Spencer Tracy (five times), Cary Grant (three times), John Barrymore (three times), Melvyn Douglas (twice), Robert Taylor (twice), Joel McCrea (twice), William Holden, Laurence Olivier, Jack Lemmon, Maurice Chevalier, Stewart Granger, Robert Mitchum, Ray Milland, and Gene Kelly.

Perhaps by having sex with men, Cukor was able to absorb some of the masculine vibes of his partners. Or perhaps it takes a real man to do it with another. No matter.

George Cukor's Oscar-nominated performers

Twenty-one performers – twelve actresses; nine actors – working under George Cukor received Oscar nominations, including five winners: two actresses; three actors. Curiously, only one of Katharine Hepburn's 12 Best Actress nominations were for a Cukor-directed performance: the spoiled socialite about to get remarried in The Philadelphia Story. Hepburn lost that year to Ginger Rogers in Sam Wood's Kitty Foyle.

George Cukor himself received five Best Direction nods: Little Women, 1932-33; The Philadelphia Story, 1940; A Double Life, 1947; Born Yesterday, 1950; and My Fair Lady, 1964. He won for the last film, made at Warner Bros.

The Universal release A Double Life failed to get a Best Picture nomination, but two other Cukor movies – David Copperfield (1935) and Gaslight (1944) – were shortlisted, and so was the Cukor/Ernst Lubitsch collaboration One Hour with You (1931-32).

George Cukor: Problems with Anouk Aimée, Cicely Tyson, Jacqueline Bisset

According to two George Cukor friends I interviewed several years ago for my Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise, the director got along with just about every performer he worked with. (Cukor directed Novarro in the actor's last feature film, the 1960 Western Heller in Pink Tights.) The two exceptions to that rule were Anouk Aimée in Justine (1969) and Cicely Tyson in The Blue Bird (1976). Additionally, there were a number of reports about trouble with Jacqueline Bisset on the set of Rich and Famous (1981), Cukor's last film.

Born in New York City in July 1899, George Cukor died of heart failure in Los Angeles in January 1983.

James Stewart, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn in George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story picture: MGM.

Born Yesterday Judy Holliday William Holden George Cukor-directed movies at the Oscars. (See previous post: George Cukor Oscar Actor's Director. Photo: Judy Holliday, William Holden, Born Yesterday.) George Cukor-directed movies earned twenty-one Academy Award nominations in the acting categories, including five wins.

(s) supporting category; (*) Academy Award winner

1930-31
Fredric March, The Royal Family of Broadway (co-directed with Cyril Gardner)

1936
Norma Shearer, Romeo and Juliet
Basil Rathbone (s), Romeo and Juliet

1937
Greta Garbo, Camille

1940
* James Stewart, The Philadelphia Story
Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story
Ruth Hussey (s), The Philadelphia Story

1944
Charles Boyer, Gaslight
* Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight
Angela Lansbury (s), Gaslight

1947
* Ronald Colman, A Double Life

1949
Deborah Kerr, Edward My Son

1950
* Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday

1954
James Mason, A Star Is Born
Judy Garland, A Star Is Born

1957
Anthony Quinn, Wild Is the Wind
Anna Magnani,Wild Is the Wind

1964
* Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady
Stanley Holloway (s), My Fair Lady
Gladys Cooper (s), My Fair Lady

1972
Maggie Smith, Travels with My Aunt

Note: A version of this George Cukor article was initially posted in Feb. 2011.

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4 Comments to George Cukor Gay Woman's Director Nonsense

  1. Mark Gabrish Conlan

    I can think of at least one other actor who didn't get along with George Cukor: Marilyn Monroe. She worked with him twice, on “Let's Make Love” (1960) and her unfinished last film, “Something's Got to Give” (1962), and on “Something's Got to Give” she resented Cukor's changes in the original script and planned to ask that he be fired before she would finish the film (which her death prevented from happening). I just happened to have watched Cukor's “Romeo and Juliet” (1936) — a much better movie than its reputation and one in which the men (Leslie Howard, John Barrymore, Basil Rathbone) completely out-act the female lead (Norma Shearer) — but to my mind James Whale is the great Gay director of the 1930's. I must say I'm partial to “Sylvia Scarlett” because it was the one time Cukor actually came out of the closet and brought a Gay sensibility to a movie the way Whale did in almost all his films — and because Katharine Hepburn's FTM drag is the most convincing I've ever seen in a movie. (And BTW, I've never believed the story Vito Russo told in “The Celluloid Closet” that Hepburn asked Spencer Tracy to explain male homosexuality to her during the shoot of “Suddenly, Last Summer”; given that Cukor was both her most frequent director and one of her closest friends, it's hard to believe she was that ignorant about it!)

  2. Marcos

    I liked the article, but this comment is certainly politically incorrect!
    “Perhaps by having sex with men, Cukor was able to absorb some of the masculine vibes of his partners. Or perhaps it takes a real man to do it with another. No matter.”

  3. Jonathan Becker

    this article seems to overstate the case. if george cukor has been “neglected,” his period of neglect began rather recently. i grew up as a cineaste, and in the day (70s-80s, 60s, too, though i was too young to appreciate films back then) cukor was acclaimed as a major auteur. the most cogent part of the article is the quote from andrew sarris, the “king” of the auteurs. as i recall, in the 70s and 80s, cukor was a more esteemed director than ford or hawks. (in america, at least. france is another story.) when i was growing up, cukor, wyler, dieterle, and the rest of the more “effete” hollywood directors were thought of as just as much auteurs as the members of the macho brigade. this preference for ford, hawks, and the rest seems to be a by product of the “tbs classics” generation. many so-called cineastes of the 90s, 00s, and today seem to feel that the only hollywood films worth reviving are war pictures or action flicks. and it is this relatively recent phenomenon that has put the cukors of the film world in the shade.

  4. Sonia M. Molina

    George Cukor was a brilliantly director. I loved “A Star is Born”. Judy Garland was absolutely outstanding. She was the best in this film.

    I wish there were directors like Mr. Cukor. We will NEVER see films made like that every again!