Cukor: Master of Elegance: Levy’s Biography of the Legendary Director

In the summer of 1953, George Cukor enthusiastically accepted Sid Luft and Judy Garland’s offer to direct their new musical version of “A Star Is Born.” “A Star Is Born” would be Cukor’s first musical and also his first picture in color. The tale of a doomed Hollywood couple, she on the way up while he on the way down, was a remake of the l937 film with Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, and it also resembled Cukor’s “What Price Hollywood” Cukor used his comedic skills to add some lightness to the story’s more tragic elements.

George Huene came back from Spain to serve as the color consultant, soon getting involved in all “matters of taste.” Huene coordinated the color design, sets, props, and costumes. He never understood why there was such a loose liaison among the various elements in color pictures. Cukor’s model for this film was John Huston’s Moulin Rouge; he attributed its success to the exciting use of color.

“A Star Is Born” was made for Garland as a comeback vehicle, since she hadn’t made any film since MGM had fired her during “Annie Get Your Gun,” in 1950. Cukor’s chief problem was casting the male lead, Norman Maine the alcoholic actor, whose career is on the wane. Separately and jointly, Cukor and Garland courted Cary Grant, who had serious doubts about the role.

One afternoon, sitting by the swimming pool, Cukor watched Grant read the part. He had tears in his eyes–it was the finest performance he had ever seen Grant give. “Please, think about it again,” Cukor said, “It’s a terrific part.” This time, however, Cukor knew he was bound to lose. Grant was considering retirement, but Cukor knew there was another reason for his refusal. The plot was too similar to the career of Grant, whose recent films were not successful. The star feared the public might see the link.

By the time James Mason was cast, every major star had turned down Cukor, including Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, and Montgomery Clift. James Mason jumped at the opportunity to appear ion this prestigious project, for which he would receive his best pay to date, $250,000 dollars. Cukor was pleased about Mason, whom he later described as hard-working, modest, and charming.
In public, Cukor said Mason was a most agreeable actor, but in actuality they didn’t get along. Even so, after the first preview, Cukor reported to Mason that the audience was moved by his extraordinarily fine performance, but he quickly added, “You see what comes of paying heed to your director.” Mason would receive the best reviews of his career and his first Oscar nomination.

Cukor had very specific ideas about how Norman Maine should be played, and he tried to impose them on Mason, but the actor wanted to do something more personal. Mason’s wife later said that she had never known him to be so upset on a film; Mason was actually ill for two weeks. “George used to drive him mad,” his colleague Stuart Granger said, “giving him intonations, telling him how to say his lines.”

In the end, Cukor relented and let Mason do his own thing. In the scene where Maine breaks down and decides to commit suicide, Mason asked Cukor to just keep the camera close on him for a long time so that he can register the many changes in his feelings. Cukor allowed, and the scene became one of the film’s most emotionally powerful.
Unexpectedly, the Catholic Legion of Decency gave “A Star Is Born” a Class B rating, because it made the “mistake” of portraying Maine’s suicide sympathetically. They found in the dialogue a justification, even a glorification, of suicide. In the end, despite pressures, the scene remained intact.

Planning to start shooting on October 5, Cukor was happy that Star Is Born would be done on a big screen and in glorious Technicolor. The results of the tests Cukor made on the still experimental WarnerScope were “distinctly unpleasing.” With Mason, the distortion was distracting; with Judy, disastrous. But Judy’s tests in Technicolor were great; she really looked radiant.

Though not the producer, Cukor strove for as much control as possible, taking care of every small detail. Cukor told the costume designers that Garland’s dress for the Academy Award scene should be white, not black. And for the “Tour De Force” number, he proposed that Garland wear black tights under a voluminous coat, one that in the course of the number could be used to improvise another costume. Cukor suggested light colors for Garland, because tests showed that some white near her face was very becoming. For the “Lose Your Long Face” number, Cukor brought in pictures of slum children circa l890, and suggested to dress Garland as a “Anna Magnani waif,” with a little shawl over her head.

Shooting began on October 12, but on October 21 the production came to a halt so that expensive tests could be made with the new technology of CinemaScope. The news was at first shocking, as the film had already been in production. But once Cukor got used to CinemaScope, he found it challenging and rewarding.

Cukor worked more closely with Garland than with his other actresses. He allowed her to shoot at night, when she was at her best, even though he hated working after dark and it cost more money. During the day, whenever possible, Cukor shot around Garland. She could look lovely one day, and terrible the next. When Garland didn’t show up, Cukor knew it was not self-indulgence; Garland wouldn’t perform unless she was in terrific shape.

Garland’s perfectionism was reflected in her insistence on endless retakes. Like Cukor, she was endowed with a fiery temperament and frightening intensity. One day, Ina Claire visited the set. Watching Garland deliver “The Man That Got Away,” Claire was horrified by her intense energy. At lunch break, Claire warned Cukor: “This girl should work for only two hours a day, then go home in an ambulance! She gives too much of herself.”

Garland played the part with such raw emotions that it was often painful for Cukor to observe. In one scene, she had to scream. “I’ve never screamed on the screen before,” she told Cukor. “Do your best,” he said. Garland then let out a scream as blood-curdling as any he had ever heard.

Cukor got a kick out of working with Garland. “Dazzled” by her talent, he found her to be amusing, too. With her quick intelligence, captivating humor, brilliant creativity, Garland aroused his admiration as an actress and a woman. An impeccable musician, Garland was, of course, a masterful singer, able to totally project her personality. It was exciting for Cukor to watch Garland discover things about herself–despite long career, she had never really tested her dramatic skills. And it was doubly rewarding that Garland’s first serious acting was in his film.

Cukor soon learned how to deal with Garland. One day, everybody waited for hours for her to come out of her dressing room. Cukor, who never liked to fetch anyone, finally said, “I’ll go and ask her to come out.” When he walked into her dressing room, she was sitting at the table, her head down, resting on her arms. As all four walls were mirrored, he saw her face. “Is anything wrong” he heard himself saying. Cukor immediately realized how ridiculously silly his question was, and he spontaneously burst into laughter. Heaving with laughter, Garland said: “This is the story of my life. I’m about to shoot myself and I’m asked if there’s anything wrong.” She then came onto the set and gave a wonderful performance.

In one scene, Garland’s character had to turn on a young actor. “Should I really let myself go” she asked Cukor. “Yes,” he said, “all the way.” He then observed Garland’s fury with amazement, never before witnessing such explosion of raw power. “Judy, that was glorious!” he exclaimed, “My blood froze. I had goose-pimples.” Garland looked at him with tears in her eyes, and then said, “You are welcome to come to my house, I do that almost every day.” That mordant wit, Cukor believed, was Garland’s saving grace.

But there were terrible times, when it was impossible for Cukor to get Garland to the studio, and shooting was halted for days. She would stay at home, depressed and unreachable. Harold Arlen, who wrote her famous song, “Over the Rainbow,” became Cukor’s messenger, as she had a special respect for him.

One of Cukor’s “directorial secrets,” an effective way of getting actors “on the beam,” consisted of little talks. In his “illuminating discourses,” Cukor explained the psychology of the characters. But he often made a fool of himself. Testing for the waitress role in “A Double Life,” Cukor talked for half an hour to a woman about how to play a cheap waitress. “But Mr. Cukor,” the actress said, I have worked as a waitress in a beanery for two years.” This was an example of what he called “my cheap advice.”

In “A Star Is Born,” Cukor foolishly explained to Garland the psychology of an actress who has great difficulty sleeping, or the reactions of a singer who gets standing ovation. Cukor could behave like a “congenial idiot” by his own admission. Once, explaining to Garland how a girl felt when she was desperately unhappy or going through marital troubles, she just looked at him and said, “Who will ever know better than I the tortures of melancholia”

Cukor tried to ignore the rumors that Garland had fallen in love with the unwilling Mason. He knew that she had problems with Sid Luft, and he noticed how she went out of her way to please the handsome Britisher. Mason picked up on this, but tried to be very patient with her. Though both stars were gifted, in most other ways Cukor saw them as opposites. If Mason was the ultimate professional, always on time and ready with his lines, Garland was unreliable and unpredictable.

“I had the greatest possible faith in Cukor,” Mason told the London Times, “and an admiration, a sort of love, for Judy who was marvelous to work with.” But Mason also conceded that he had difficulties with Garland, who sometimes “exasperated” Cukor too. “Some mornings she couldn’t start before eleven because of the pills, but once she was awake, she was great and joy to work with.”

With all the excitement, the rugged operation of “A Star Is Born” seemed interminable–six months in production established a new record in Hollywood. By late March, Cukor was engaged in assembling a rough cut, paying strict attention to writer Moss Hart’s notes. The picture was clouded–Cukor was distracted by one muddled scene after another, which was upsetting, because he remembered the rushes as being wonderful. In April, Cukor and the cutters went over the whole picture again, polishing and tightening it.

“A Star Is Born” was the most demanding film of Cukor’s career, perhaps because of his insistence to overlook every minor detail. Perceiving the film as an event, there were good reasons for Cukor’s insecurity. Boasting a large budget and scale, it was Cukor’s first musical, and he knew that other, younger directors were competing for the same projects.

In July, Cukor plunged headlong into post-production. Concerned with the studio’s premature enthusiasm, from the top brass down to the salesmen, Cukor was willing to settle for just a small part of the extravagant predictions made. In August, Warner held the first preview of what Cukor now called “that little quickie.” Though Cukor was always nervous on such occasions, the film went extremely well in spite of its length. Garland’s performance generated hysteria and immense applause from the screaming viewers.

It was at this preview that Cukor first saw Jack Warner’s cuts, the result of using a “heavy, inept, insensitive” hand. Warner’s edits muddied things up, often making scenes incomprehensible. For example, he cut out the scene in the car driving from the Club to Esther’s motel, which meant that the audience knew nothing about her background, giving the effect of Maine just being on the make. Many of Garland’s finest moments were also “brutally and stupidly,” excised. Warner’s radical cuts reduced the running time from 181 to 154 minutes. Unfortunately, Warner also tampered with the dubbing, emasculating some scenes by flattening the sound out.

Though despising Warner’s cuts, Cukor himself wished the film were shorter, based on his belief that “Neither the human mind, nor the human ass can stand three hours of concentration.” Cukor claimed that he could easily sweat out 20 minutes, and no one would be the wiser. He suggested cutting the proposal scene on the recording stage; it had charm but was anticlimactic after the passionate scene in the nightclub. Warner, however, wanted to have his way.

Assigned to a new film project, Bhowani Junction, Cukor couldn’t attend the premiere of “A Star Is Born.” Hollywood has never seen anything like it: traffic blocked off for several streets on either side of the Pantages. The streets crawled with police officers and the sidewalks with spectators. On the roof of the Pantages, six enormous searchlights converged at a center, their beams forming an immense star that could be seen miles away. With more stars in attendance than in any other premiere, Cukor’s absence was deeply felt.

Handling the details of such an overwhelming production seemed the work of a genius. It showed off Cukor’s multiple skills as politician, statesman, psychiatrist, magician, painter, writer, animal-trainer, nurse, elocutionist, dancer, mathematician, musician, cameraman, dress-maker–everything but Garland’s husband!

Congratulatory telegrams were sent to Cukor by actors he hardly knew. “You’re the goddamnest director that ever was, is, and will be. Don’t you dare ever die, we need you,” Frank Sinatra wrote. And Kirk Douglas was so impressed with Mason’s work that he wrote: “May I please work for you, please I’ll learn to sing, dance, rollerskate or any damn thing you want.”

Columnist Sheila Grahame surpassed other raving critics with her prediction: “Here’s a nomination for next year’s Oscar-Judy Garland–she can’t miss!” The film proved the depth and range of Garland’s talents as a dramatic actress. For Cukor, the tragedy of Garland’s untimely death (at the age of 47) was that she was never able to fully realize that potential. “It was all Judy,” Cukor said, giving his actress full credit, “it was there when I got on the set.”

At Oscar time, “A Star Is Born” received six nominations, including Best Actor and Actress. But Cukor failed to receive a nomination for what many consider his finest work. The film that swept the awards that year was Kazan’s “On the Waterfront,” starring Marlon Brando. “It’s one of the great sorrows of my career,” Cukor later said, convinced that the picture’s cuts cost Garland the Oscar; the winner was Grace Kelly for “Country Girl.”

Occasionally, Cukor would hear about the existence of an uncut print of “A Star Is Born” and would go chasing after it, only to be disappointed. It would take 29 years, for the film to be restored and shown as Cukor had envisioned it. Cukor died just days before the restored “A Star Is Born” was shown at Radio City Music Hall.

If you wanted to know more about George Cukor and his work with actors, please read my biography, George Cukor: Master of Elegance (William Morrow, 1994)

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