George Cukor: Hollywood’s Best Actor Director–Hayworth, Rita (Susan and God)

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

Rita Hayworth:

George Cukor was also instrumental in launching the careers of many Hollywood stars.  He tested the young Rita Hayworth for the role of Katharine Hepburn’s sister in Holiday (1938), when Hayworth was still an obscure starlet at Columbia Pictures.

Rita didn’t get the part, but Cukor promised to keep her in mind, and he did.  He cast Hayworth in Susan and God, a Joan Crawford vehicle, in a part which was brief but impressive, enabling her to flaunt her sexy looks and erotic appeal.  Rita Hayworth was forever grateful to Cukor: After this film, her rise in Hollywood was swift.

Angela Lansbury

Cukor cast a young, unknown British actress by the name of Angela Lansbury for the important role of Nancy, the pretty and conniving maid who attempts to lure Charles Boyer away from his wife (Ingrid Bergman) in Gaslight (1944).  Lansbury tested for the role of Nancy and Cukor was impressed with her poise, the way “she carried herself,” and her convincing Cockney accent.  But later he decided she was too young for the role, which sent Lansbury back to the toiletries counter at Bullocks; she was working there as a cosmetics girl.  However, a week later, he changed his mind and looked at her screen test again.  He called her in for a second audition, turned out to be better than the first.  Hence, Cukor not only cast Lansbury, but also had her role rewritten and expanded.

Lansbury was then overweight and spotty, an ordinary salesgirl in a department store.  In one document, Lansbury recalls how she told her manager she had found a better job.  To keep her, the manager suggested to raise her pay to 27 dollars a week.  He was in a state of shock when she told him that she had been signed by MGM to their standard seven-year-contract, at 500 dollars a week.

The Angela Lansbury file and Cukor’s file of Gaslight also contain important information about his work with her.  For example, at 5’8″, Angela was the same height as Ingrid Bergman, but Cukor made her wear platform shoes to add to her height, which contributed to the suspense of the scene in which she threatens Ingrid.  “I imagine they thought my towering over her would make me more sinister,” recalled Angela in later years.  Another, unexpected, problem was a scene in which Angela lights a cigarette, in defiance of her mistress.  Cukor recalls how this scene had to be postponed for several month, because Angela was only 17; neither the social worker nor the teacher would allow her to smoke until after her eighteenth birthday.  When this eagerly-awaited day arrived, Ingrid Bergman and Cukor threw a surprise party for her on the set.

Angela’s stunning debut in Gaslight certified her talent and honored her, at the age of l8, with the first of her three Academy Award nominations.  But the winner that year was another favorite actress of Cukor, Ethel Barrymore for None But the Lonely Heart  (Cukor had directed Barrymore on Broadway prior to his Hollywood career).   “I was really very young,” recalled Angela in a l978 tribute to Cukor, “and I didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground.  He introduced me to style.”

Cukor not only had a great eye for new talent, but was willing to take risks.  For example, in Adam’s Rib (l949), he introduced to the public four promising screen personalities: Judy Holliday, Jean Hagen, David Wayne, and Tom Ewell.  Each of these four players gave a wonderful performance in Adam’s Rib, and later excelled in films by other directors.  His advice and suggestions to actors were treasured and memorized to their last, smallest detail.  “I learned more about acting from one sentence of George Cukor,” said Joan Fontaine, who had a small role in The Women, “than from all my years of acting lessons.”  “Think and feel,” Cukor told her, “and the rest will take care of itself.”