Wednesday, February 08, 2006

"George Cukor"

One of Hollywood's brightest talents, (also one of the first openly gay director)George Cukor has often been dismissed as a "woman's director". Accurate or not, he was responsible for some of the greatest treasures of Hollywood's golden era.

Stage-struck from childhood, he haunted Broadway and got his first professional work as assistant stage manager in a Chicago company of "The Better 'Ole" (1919).

...Cukor made a handful of films (including Tallulah Bankhead's 1931 "Tarnished Lady", his first solo flight), before decamping to RKO over a disagreement with Ernst Lubitsch about "One Hour with You" (1932).... He fought to cast Katharine Hepburn in her screen debut, "A Bill of Divorcement" (1932), and went on to make another eight films (and two TV-movies) with her, including "Little Women" (1933), a sweet cameo of a film, and the financial flop (but subsequent cult favorite) "Sylvia Scarlett" (1936). He was loaned to MGM in 1933, where he marshaled such stars as Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, John and Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery in the delightful "Dinner at Eight" (1933)--filmed in an amazing 28 days.

...His 1930s hits there included "David Copperfield" (1935), a lush if flawed version of "Romeo and Juliet" (1936), Garbo's transcendent "Camille" (1937) and the brittle all-star comedy "The Women" (1939). That same year, he was fired from "Gone with the Wind" and replaced by Victor Fleming--a move that caused much speculation and gossip (such as Clark Gable's demanding another director because of Cukor's homosexuality).

...Cukor made only a dozen theatrical films in the 1940s, but several were among his most fondly remembered and featured tour-de-force roles for top actresses. He directed Hepburn's comeback vehicle, "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), one of Joan Crawford's better performances, "A Woman's Face" (1941), Ingrid Bergman's Oscar-winning turn in "Gaslight" (1944) and the Tracy-Hepburn comedy "Adam's Rib" (which provided a wonderful part for neophyte Judy Holliday, 1949). But even the best of directors has his flops; Cukor's included Garbo's career-killing comedy "Two-Faced Woman" (1941) and Norma Shearer's "Her Cardboard Lover" (1942).

Despite his few ventures into film noir, Cukor was best known for a light-hearted mixture of sophistication and bandbox Hollywood corn at its best.... His amazing ability to coax performances from divas (male and female) made him both a valuable team player and the savior of more than one film career.

...Among his latter-day hits were three Judy Holliday vehicles, "Born Yesterday" (for which she won an Oscar in 1950), "The Marrying Kind" (1952) and the delightful "It Should Happen to You" (1954); the Tracy-Hepburn comedy "Pat and Mike" (1952); Judy Garland's comeback, "A Star is Born" (1954, his first color film and a musical remake of his 1932 "What Price Hollywood?"); and Audrey Hepburn's immensely popular "My Fair Lady", which won Cukor his only Best Director Oscar (1964).
Note: His unfair designation as a "woman's director" was Hollywood shorthand for the fact that Cukor was gay; in reality, he was a splendid director of both male and female actors, far more comfortable with pace and performance than visual technique, and his obvious skill and taste made him one of the aces of Hollywood's Golden Age.

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