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.
* 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.
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.
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
Fredric March, The Royal Family of Broadway (co-directed with Cyril Gardner)
Norma Shearer, Romeo and Juliet
Basil Rathbone (s), Romeo and Juliet
Greta Garbo, Camille
* James Stewart, The Philadelphia Story
Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story
Ruth Hussey (s), The Philadelphia Story
Charles Boyer, Gaslight
* Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight
Angela Lansbury (s), Gaslight
* Ronald Colman, A Double Life
Deborah Kerr, Edward My Son
* Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday
James Mason, A Star Is Born
Judy Garland, A Star Is Born
Anthony Quinn, Wild Is the Wind
Anna Magnani,Wild Is the Wind
* Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady
Stanley Holloway (s), My Fair Lady
Gladys Cooper (s), My Fair Lady
Maggie Smith, Travels with My Aunt
Note: A version of this George Cukor article was initially posted in Feb. 2011.