The Revealing Biography of a Hollywood Legend
“I think the biggest black mark against our management to date is the Cukor situation and we can no longer be sentimental about it. We are a business concern and not patrons of the arts.”
—David O. Selznick in a memo about replacing George Cukor from Gone With the Wind
By the time of his death in 1983 at age 83, George Cukor had left behind a legacy seen by few in Hollywood history: an Academy Award for Best Director (along with four other nominations), directing five lead actors and actresses to Oscar wins (Rex Harrison, Ingrid Bergman, Ronald Colman, Judy Holliday and James Stewart) and a catalogue of over 50 films that included The Women, The Philadelphia Story, Holiday, My Fair Lady and A Star is Born (which featured Judy Garland in one of the grandest screen performances of all time).
Cukor was a remarkable aesthete who reshaped the way Hollywood films saw themselves during their Golden Age: working in the production of The Wizard of Oz for just one week, he approached Garland and suggested she let go of her extreme theatricality and play Dorothy in a more natural way, he also asked producers to get rid of her blonde wig and replace it with fiery red. As the saying goes, the rest is history… the iconic look makes even more sense when juxtaposed with Cukor later directing Garland officially in A Star is Born, especially in scenes where Cukor sums up her career from vaudevillian entertainer to superstar with equal amounts of flash and heartbreak.
Early during his career he also campaigned to have a young actress play one of the biggest parts in Hollywood, despite her having been deemed box office poison by the tabloids. The lady in question was Katharine Hepburn and the film was Gone With the Wind, part of which Cukor directed before he was replaced by Victor Fleming (who also re-took over after his brief stint at The Wizard of Oz). Legend has it (and DVD commentaries, documentaries and biographies) that it was Cukor who shaped the performances of Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland and that it was only his clashes with leading man Clark Gable and producer Selznick, that prevented him from completing the film.
Gable (by then the most famous movie star in the world) infamously exclaimed on set “I can’t go on with this picture! I won’t be directed by a fairy! I have to work with a real man!” The problem with Cukor it seems, wasn’t that he was not a good director or an efficient worker, but that he was gay. In Patrick McGilligan’s groundbreaking George Cukor: A Double Life (which was originally published in 1991 and reprinted in the spring of 2013 by the University of Minnesota Press) we take a look at the “gentleman director” that seems timelier than ever.
When it was first published more than 20 years ago, the book seemed to be more notorious for its official “outing” of the director, than for its scholarly accomplishments. McGilligan thoroughly explores the life of Cukor, from his childhood as the son of Hungarian immigrants in New York’s Lower East Side (back then a neighborhood full of Jews and vaudeville artists) to his lifelong friendships with some of the most glamorous women in the world including Greta Garbo and Hepburn (who infamously condemned his sexual orientation in her autobiography).
Besides reveling in the recreation of a time and place long gone (the author’s descriptions of early 20th century New York are as vivid as anything in The Godfather Part II), McGilligan also establishes how from an early age Cukor became obsessed with artifice. From the Americanization of his last name (from Czukor to Cukor) to his antipathy and practical denial for anything related to his family’s Jewish faith, Cukor seems to have been devoted to two things: his mother and trying to create for himself the life of glamour he would later produce in his pictures.
The author highlights how several events from the director’s life came to inspire his greatest screen moments and how his use of mirrors, doubles and hysteria in A Double Life for example, came to evoke the director’s own fears of being unwelcome in the city of dreams. During the peak of his popularity Cukor hosted lavish parties in his Hollywood home that would include guests like Garbo, Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, It was only after his A-list guests left that Cukor would welcome an array of young men with whom he’d spend afternoons of joyous debauchery before returning to work the following morning.
Everyone in Hollywood knew Cukor’s secret, but it was never spoken freely until the arrival of McGilligan’s thoroughly researched book. Commendable not only for its revealing look at Hollywood’s studio era, this book is essential for anyone interested in how queer cinema came to happen under the very noses—and sometimes under the patronage—of Hollywood’s most homophobic producers! McGilligan conceded that Cukor’s orientation “informed his intelligence and humanism” and during times when marriage equality and gay rights are prominent in the news and culture, this beautiful reminder of art overcoming social biases is perhaps more important than ever.