Spiritual possession, screwball comedy, German kinks, and the quintessential American Western genre are among the disparate characters we shine a light on today as PopMatters counts down the 100 Essential Film Directors. Today we look at George Cukor through John Ford. Who falls in the middle might surprise you…
(1899 - 1983)
Three Key Films: Dinner at Eight (1933), The Philadelphia Story (1940), A Star Is Born (1954)
Underrated: Love Among the Ruins (1975) This made-for-TV movie starred Laurence Olivier and Katherine Hepburn in their only pairing, as an aging lawyer and actress who find love. Although a bit sentimental at times, it is Cukor’s last homage to legendary actors, while still including Cukor’s sharp sense of humor and gentle style of storytelling.
Unforgettable: Cukor crafted numerous classic scenes, but the one that truly represents his skills with actors is the gin game between Billie (Judy Holliday) and Harry (Broderick Crawford) in Born Yesterday (1950). While the scene has little dialogue, it allows two great actors to rule the screen in one of film’s funniest sequences. As was often the case, Cukor got out of the way and let his stars do what they did best, while framing them to perfection.
A Star Is Born (1954)
The Legend: Cukor has always been identified as an actor’s director, more specifically, a “woman’s” director. Understandable, considering that in The Women (1939), not a single man appears onscreen, and looking at the titles in his filmography indicates how frequently his movies were women-centric. Yet, such a classification demeans Cukor’s skills as a director, one who directed three men to Oscars (Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Coleman, Rex Harrison), but only two women (Ingrid Bergman, Judy Holliday). Cukor’s homosexuality and femininity have been credited with providing him a penchant for telling women’s stories, yet most every female lead in Cukor’s films had a strong male lead to play off. With films such as A Double Life, the tale of an actor’s Othello-inspired descent into madness, Cukor proved he could dive into the male psyche with equal skill.
Cukor honed his talent in New York, directing on the Broadway stage before his childhood friend and mentor, David Selznick, helped him establish himself in Hollywood. So deep was his love of the stage as a child in New York that he frequently skipped school to attend plays, and his first job was as a supernumerary at the Metropolitan Opera. The family plans for George to continue in his father’s law practice were interrupted by WWI; after serving in the army, Cukor decided to pursue his own dreams in the theatre instead of continuing his education. Recognizing he didn’t have the looks for a life on stage, Cukor felt most comfortable working behind the scenes, although it was in the theatre that his love of actors developed.
Still, it is a disservice to classify Cukor as an actor’s director, since his use of setting and camera angle, which foretell how audiences are to perceive characters and action, and his challenges to the dominant male hierarchy show Cukor to be a man with a vision, most clearly presented in his earlier works, but evident throughout his 51-year career. If anything, Cukor was a writer’s director, one who placed story above all else, and he emphasized those stories through ideal casting. Each film lets the story unfold on its own terms, without the dramatic excesses other directors indulge. His romances feature no torrid or scandalous love scenes, his thrillers little to no violence. A good story didn’t need sensationalizing, he felt. Cukor knew how to tell a good story and how to get actors to invest wholly in those stories. Michael Abernethy