George Cukor: Hollywood’s Best Actor Director–Bette Davis

George Cukor was without a doubt Hollywood’s best actor director–Joseph L. Mankiewicz, director of All About Eve

My work really begins and ends through the actors, the more successfully you work through the actors, the more your own work disappears–George Cukor

Because of his great distinction as a filmmaker, George Cukor’s earlier theatrical work has remained obscure.  But he also had excelled as a stage director.

In the 1920s, he managed a noted theatrical company in Rochester for eight years, introducing the tryout system for plays and also the visiting-star practice.

In his work in stock, he had directed the famous Billie Burke and Ralph Morgan, but also the then young and unestablished Miriam Hopkins and Robert Montgomery, who later pursued successful careers in Hollywood.

From the very beginning, Cukor had a wonderful eye for detecting acting talent, which explains the large number of discoveries, actors whose careers he had launched by taking chances and risks.

Bette Davis

Cukor launched the stage career of Bette Davis in his Rochester company, casting her in a small role in “Broadway.”  She went on to play the lead when the original actress sprained her ankle.

In 1928, Davis was asked to join the company whose permanent ensemble at the time included Frank McHugh, Wallace Ford, and Benny Baker.  But even as a young actress, Davis had difficulties in taking direction and tended to argue with the director whenever he criticized her.

According to Cukor, Davis could never admit that she might have been wrong.  Finally, when she complained, during the rehearsals of the play Yellow, that she looked more like Louis Calhern’s daughter than as his mistress, Cukor fired her.  This was most humiliating, a severe blow to Davis’s ego, which created a strain on their future relationship.  In later years, Cukor would work with just about every major actress in Hollywood but Bette Davis!

Secure and self-assured in his skills, Cukor always gave credit to his players.  In 1981, celebrating his golden anniversary as a filmmaker, he recalled his directorial debut, Tarnished Lady, with a characteristically self-deprecating humor: “I could have fallen flat on my face–but with Tallulah Bankhead’s help, it was quite a success.”

Cukor was also known for his great patience in “handling” actors and actresses.  He was revered by his performers, who described him as “a dream director” and “an actors’ director,” because of his great respect for acting.  Notable for an astute panache for casting, he had a perceptive eye for what particular players could–and could not–do.  Cukor believed that the “right” casting was the most crucial factor for the film’s overall quality, practicing at times what he called “an offbeat casting,” or casting against type.