Monday, June 18, 2012

George Cukor and his women

The Queer Film Blogathon is an event celebrating gay cinema, including its films, its filmmakers and its themes, hosted by Garbo Laughs and Pussy Goes Grrr. For a complete list of participating blogs, click on the links to either site.

George Cukor is one of the all-time great Hollywood filmmakers. In a career that spans from the dawn of the sound era all the way into the 70s and even the 80s, his films alternated between the most delightful comedies and the most compelling dramas, and his best ones always seemed to have great roles for women.

This point in particular holds significant meaning, even today. Earlier this month, at a ceremony honoring women in film, three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, considered by many to be America's greatest living actress, castigated modern Hollywood for their continued marginalization of female-centric films, as well as for the under-representation of women behind the camera. Even though films like Bridesmaids, The Help, and Mamma Mia have been huge financial successes in recent years, the studios prefer to aggressively court the young male demographic to a disproportionate degree. Once upon a time, however, "women's pictures" were practically a genre all its own, and many of the industry's biggest female stars, at one time or another, appeared in a George Cukor film. Here are five notable examples:
Cukor with Katharine Hepburn
- Katharine Hepburn (A Bill of Divorcement, Little Women, Sylvia Scarlett, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, Keeper of the Flame, Adam's Rib, Pat and Mike, Love Among the Ruins, The Corn Is Green). Cukor's greatest co-collaborator, Hepburn made her debut in Bill and took off as a star with Little Women. Story was originally a play written for Hepburn and she was given the film rights by Howard Hughes, who bought them. It is said that she incorporated some of Cukor's mannerisms in her role. Story ended up reviving her film career after a slump. Rib and Pat and Mike were both made with Spencer Tracy and written by the team of Ruth Gordon & Garson Kanin, who met at Cukor's home in 1939. Love and Corn were TV films made in the 70s.

- Judy Holliday (Adam's Rib, Born Yesterday, The Marrying Kind, It Should Happen to You). According to legend, Hepburn, in Rib, urged Cukor to focus on Holliday more in their shared scenes because Hepburn was a fan (she built her up in the gossip columns) and hoped it would lead to Holliday getting to star in Born Yesterday, which Holliday originated on Broadway. Columbia head Harry Kohn wanted Rita Hayworth for Born, but she wasn't interested, and once he saw Holliday in Rib, he decided she was the right choice after all. Holliday would go on to win the Best Actress Oscar for Born. Kind was also written by Gordon & Kanin.

Cukor with Marilyn Monroe
- Joan Crawford (No More Ladies, The Women, Susan and God, A Woman's Face). The Women had an all-female cast which also included Norma Shearer and Rosalind Russell. Cukor was acquired as director after he was fired from Gone With the Wind due to uber-producer David O. Selznick's dissatisfaction with him. In later years, Crawford made a string of mostly forgetable genre pictures, as did her chief rival, Bette Davis. Cukor, late in life, spoke of this: "Of course she rationalized what she did. Joan even lied to herself. She would write to me about these pictures, actually believing that they were quality scripts. You could never tell her they were garbage. She was a star, and this was her next picture. She had to keep working, as did Bette. The two of them spawned a regrettable cycle in motion pictures."

- Greta Garbo (Camille, Two-Faced Woman). Camille was Garbo's favorite film that she made, and indeed, it garnered some of her best reviews ever. Woman was her last film, and it was condemned by the National Legion of Decency, the Roman Catholic Hollywood watchdog group, for its sexual content. Cukor, in talking about Garbo, praised her work ethic: "Garbo went through a great deal to get a scene right. She worked out every gesture in advance and learned every syllable of dialogue exactly as written. She never improvised and I respected her for that."

Cukor with Audrey Hepburn
- Judy Garland (A Star is Born). Cukor's first Technicolor film, as well as his first musical, it was considered a comeback vehicle for Garland, who hadn't made a movie in four years, since she left MGM. The initial cut screened at 210 minutes, then Cukor and his editor reduced it to 182 minutes, but Warner Brothers drastically chopped it down to 154 minutes without Cukor. Despite suffering drug problems, weight fluctuations, and psychosomatic illnesses during the filming, Garland would gain a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role, only to lose to Grace Kelly, a controversial decision that hurt her. (In addition, Cukor was an advisor on The Wizard of Oz, and though he never shot any scenes, he made a few notable suggestions, such as removing Garland's blonde wig.)

Cukor's homosexuality was known within Hollywood, though he never flaunted it. In fact, he was one of the leading lights of the industry's gay subculture, throwing lavish Sunday afternoon parties at his house which attracted big-name stars and directors, some of them closeted gays. Among his close friendships included that of writer W. Somerset Maugham, who wrote, among other works, Of Human Bondage, The Painted Veil, The Razor's Edge and The Letter, all of which were turned into films. 

Cukor with Ingrid Bergman
During Cukor's time at MGM, the studio managed to cover up at least one incident in which he was arrested on a vice charge, which was later dropped and erased from the record. In the late 50s, Cukor had a relationship with a younger man named George Towers, though the latter would go on to get married in the 60s. Their relationship would evolve into that of a father to a son.

Cukor was a five-time Oscar nominee for Best Director, winning for My Fair Lady (with Audrey Hepburn), a Best Picture winner, and he was nominated for Little Women, The Philadelphia Story, A Double Life (also written by Gordon & Kanin) and Born Yesterday. He also won an Emmy for his TV film Love Among the Ruins, with Katharine Hepburn.


  1. Enjoyed reading this. Over the years I've liked many of Cukor's films, some I've even loved. He was a fabulous talent.

  2. He was indeed. I didn't realize just how prolific he was until I started writing this.

  3. Fantastic post, Rich. A really great overview of a phenomenal director that truly let his female stars shine. And I had no idea Ruth Gordon co-wrote all those films! An excellent contribution to the blogathon. Thank you so much for participating!

  4. Ruth Gordon even penned a film based on her childhood, called 'The Actress.' One of these days I'd like to see it.

    Thank you very much for having me - again!

  5. Being a Katharine Hepburn fan, Cukor is naturally my favorite director. I like the way you've broken down his career by the various actresses he worked with. I've just written a post for this blogathon about SYLVIA SCARLETT - I'd be interested in your feedback!

  6. Thank you. Off to read your post now...

  7. Cukor is pretty new to me, but he made so many great movies that eventually you have to take notice. And that he worked so much with Hepburn makes me an instant fan. Adam's Rib and Philadelphia Story are both tremendous films.

    I also had no idea that he was gay, which lends a ton of merit to the article as part of the blog-a-thon.

  8. I tend to favor 'Rib' over 'Story' by a nose because of the presence of Judy Holliday, whom I adore.

  9. It's very nice that Cukor's sexual option didn't interfere in his career, something that shouldn't happen, but unfortunately does. His partnerships with Hepburn and Holliday are fantastic. Too bad he wasn't there to stop the cut of footage from A Star is Born!

  10. I've only seen parts of 'A Star is Born.' One day I really oughta sit down and see the whole thing - or at least, the restored version.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.