George Cukor: Hollywood’s Best Actor Director–Katharine Hepburn

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

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.

Known for his knack for producing a conducive climate for creative work, Cukor explained, “I choose my actors well and get to know the quirks of their personalities.”  “Most of all,” he said, “I share humor with them.”  And once shooting begins, “I keep my eyes open when they rehearse and perform, because you never know where the next stimulation comes from.”

Katharine Hepburn

His perceptive eye for casting accounts for great ensemble acting in his films and for some surprising achievements by individual performers.  He is singlehandedly responsible for launching and establishing the careers of such legendary performers as Katharine Hepburn–Cukor had always considered her to be his greatest discovery.  Early on, he studied Hepburn’s awkward screen test but, spotting her strong screen presence and potential “magic,” he battled RKO’s studio executives until he convinced them to cast her in A Bill of Divorcement (l932), opposite the great John Barrymore.

For her test, Hepburn chose a scene from Philip Barry’s Holiday, which she had understudied (but never called upon to play on Broadway).  The test was directed by Lillie Messenger, who functioned as RKO’s talent scout.  Selznick did not like Hepburn’s test, and Cukor was not crazy about it either.  However, he noticed several peculiar elements, such as gauche movements and unusual voice.  Cukor recalls in one letter how Hepburn impressed him with “her enormous feeling.”

He was also instrumental in getting her $1,500 a week, an astronomical amount of money for an unknown actress; Hepburn herself later described it in a letter as “an impossible price.”

However, contrary to Hollywood mythology, Cukor and Hepburn did not become instant friends.  Their relationship was at first strained, because neither knew what to make of the other.  A document from columnist Adela Rogers St. Johns described their first public appearance: “When she walked in with Mr. Cukor, several executives nearly fainted.  Mr. Selznick swallowed a chicken wing whole.  We beheld a skinny girl entirely covered with freckles and wearing the most appalling and incredible clothes I have ever seen in my life.  They looked like something Lee Tracy would design for the Mexican Army to go ski jumping in.  Yet, you can tell they were supposed to be the last word.”

In later years, Cukor recalled his first impression of Hepburn: “She had somewhat irritating qualities.  She was high-brow and very self-assured.  She had audacity.”  “She was rather smart-assed and very hoyty-toyty,” Cukor told of Hepburn’s early years, “and she acted as if we were all ignoramus.”

In the Katharine Hepburn file (in Cukor’s Special Collection, see appendix), there are records of their working relationship in many movies.  Being a witty, elegant, and sophisticated man, he couldn’t tolerate Hepburn’s lack of taste.  “Do you really like that rug you’ve got on?” Cukor asked her one day.  “I certainly do,” she said, “It was created specially for me by one of the finest houses in Paris.”  “I think it stinks,” said Cukor, “I think it’s one of the worst looking things I ever saw on any woman in my life.”  “You win,” Hepburn said sheepishly.

Their relationship during the shooting of Bill of Divorcement improved by the day; she gradually gained his trust and thus showed great respect for him–as a director and as a man.  Cukor always considered Hepburn “a great natural talent.”  “She is one of these women,” he explained, “who see a camera professionally for the first time and yet is comfortable in front of it as if she would be in her own living room.”  Cukor also admired the fact that “she laughed a lot.  There was something impishly mischievous about her.”

This film began a half-a-century intimate friendship, marked by a series of brilliant collaborations.  The most notable of these was undoubtedly The Philadelphia Story, a genuine masterpiece, featuring Hepburn in the best performance of her illustrious career.  Along with Greta Garbo, who arguably gave her most splendid performance in Camille, Hepburn became his other favorite actress.

In my long interview with Katharine Hepburn, the legendary actress praised Cukor as “a brilliant director because he had a wonderful way of presenting people.”  “He gave me entrances and eccentricities,” said Hepburn about his distinctive work with actors, “and fixed it so that I looked at the camera with loving hands.”  Cukor was “a great deal of help” to his players and contributed immensely to his scripts–despite the fact that he was not a writer.