Rich and Famous: The Making of George Cukor's Last Film—Part Five

Series of Nine Articles

Part Five: Why Cukor Loved Candice Bergen and Hated Jackie Bisset


From the very beginning, Cukor complained that Bisset worried too much, and that it was not good for her acting.  But he really enjoyed working with Bergen, who was much more fun.  Cukor respected her intelligence and sensitivity.  Whenever Allyn suggested a close-up of Bergen, Cukor would say, “whatever you want, my dear boy.”  Cukor gave Bergen a simple but effective advice for her closeups: “Just look into yourself very carefully.”


“George mostly worked on the pace of the performances,” Bergen said.  His emphasis on speed was based on his belief that the fault of many films was their slow pace. “Americans pick up things fast,” he would say, “even things they don't know anything about!” “George hated pauses,” Bisset concurred, “His most frequent instruction to us was, “At a good clip, now ladies, at a good clip.” This meant one thing: “Hurry up!” Cukor was an obsessive driver of speed, always wanting things to go faster. “He was there with a whip,” said Bisset, “and he would crack his whip and say, 'Come on girls, faster, faster, pick up the pace.'” 


It was an obsession of Cukor that actors should not take pauses and should not be self indulgent.  He often spoke about “actors and their greedy pauses.” He didn't want anything to slip through the dialogue.  When Cukor felt his actresses slowed down, he would say, “Oh, I could send a train through there,” or “You've lost the back of the audience, they've all left.” 


“In the midst of the most dramatic scene,” Ayres recalled, “Cukor would interrupt Jackie and scream 'faster, louder.' This kind of thing would have infuriated any actress, let alone Jackie, who was not very secure.” Bisset did not take well these interruptions. “Cukor thought that Jackie's seriousness was a bit pretentious,” Ayres said, “Candice was shrewder, and she possessed such astonishing personality that anyone would get along with her.”    


Paul Morrissey, who also spent some time on the set, was intrigued by Cukor's methods.  “He did something wonderful, which is the reason why actors, when working with him, were much better than when they were in other films.”  It was a psychological trick, but it was not explaining things to the actors.  It was a kind of child psychology, a way of getting what you want without going in directly for it.”  Cukor talked a lot, but in his talks he tried to keep his actors lively and fresh.  “He just sat and rested,” Morrissey said, “but when the set-up was ready, he got up and, with all the energy he had, hollered at them, 'O.K. girls, let's do it again! But remember: Personality! Personality! Personality!” 


There was a scene at the beach, where Morrissey, Roger Vadim and Barbett Schroeder, who all appeared in cameo roles, were supposed to be in a wide shot.  Morrissey observed a trick that he himself has used, but didn't know Cukor did.  Bisset had to walk from one position, when the camera started, all the way to the bar.  She had two big stops, with a wave to somebody in between. Cukor yelled something about personality and then said, 'All right, let's do it again.' She did it again, but this time, when the take was over, Cukor told her, 'Jackie, the camera's still running.  Go right back to your place and let's shoot it again.'  That's the most disconcerting thing you can say to an actor, because the camera's running.  They have to turn around and get back in their mood.  He wanted her to do it again without thinking, so she wouldn't be so tight. So here is Jackie not only acting, but wasting stock as a co-producer, and that's a lot of film to waste.” Cukor wanted people to be relaxed–it was a simple tactic to get people to stop “acting.” For Cukor, the biggest trick was not to get caught acting. 


Bergen loved every day of shooting, and couldn't wait to get to the set. “I respected my director,” she recalled, “Never had I felt such security, such confidence, such joy in my previous work in films.”  “It was maybe the performance I was the happiest with, because I had a wonderful time with that character.         


Cukor taught Bergen a thing or two about comedy, intent as he was on fast tempo and rhythm. On the second day of shooting, he declared that comedy was Bergen's strong suit. In the past, he claimed, they capitalized on her stunning looks and cool patrician image, but Bergen could be hilarious with a comedic flair.  The other quality Cukor admired in Bergen was her class.  She reminded him of Vivien Leigh: She could do and say the most ridiculous things and yet remain elegant.             


It was the first time Bergen had ever done a character part; Merry Noel wasn't a leading lady. Cukor approved of her decision to go with a broad accent and broad body language.  It was a relief to work in a film in which Bergen was not glamorized. “I hope people don't get hung up on the idea that it is a woman's movie, it's our version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”  She was pleased that, for a change, the nude scenes belong to the men. “Fantastic and about time,” Bergen guffawed, “They can have my falsies, panties and body stockings any time.” 


Bisset, in contrast, insisted on maintaining her glamorous look.  Because her role ranged in age from 22 to 42, Cukor suggested that in the later scenes she would play “sans makeup,” but at first, Bisset didn't take it well.  According to Allyn, Bisset saw the film as a publicity stint for herself.  There were at least four press agents on the set every day.  Bisset suggested to have only female journalists, because it was a film about women, but her idea backfired when the film was badly marketed as a woman's picture. 


Bisset resented Cukor's preferential attitude toward Bergen.  “He was lighter with Candy,” she said, “because he knew her father.  Also, Candy was not in my position, and she was perpetually in a good mood.  She was having a wonderful time, she loved the part, and she enjoyed George, but she too knew he could be grumpy.”


There was a lot of press about Cukor, which Bisset resented. “God damn it,” she was quoted as saying, “if the picture is any good, he'll get all the credit.” “George didn't get along with Jackie,” Walter Alford said, “he was furious one day, when he came back from lunch and found that she had told the cinematographer to take some close-ups of her; she thought she was not getting enough of them.”  Cukor described Bisset in his dinner parties in uncertain four-letter words, “That Cunt.”


Cukor reportedly threw the script at Bisset, having caught her changing the camera angle. “Why is she so mean to the cameraman?” Cukor wondered one day, “He's made her a vision of beauty.” Bisset was full of demands, wanting the camera higher, then lower, then on the side. “George was very authoritative,” Bisset recalled, “and didn't like any discussions with the actors. He would appear to discuss some things, but in fact, he wasn't.” Bisset asked Cukor once if she could change a line, but he didn't want her to interfere.  She accepted his verdict and managed to make it work.


Worse though, Bisset said, was Cukor's refusal to hear her name except as an actress: “He couldn't bear the idea that I was a co-producer.  If I said anything about anything he hated it.  He interacted with me strictly as an actress.” “I tried to correct certain things that I thought were not right.  Some of the sets were too lavish.  Merry's place in Malibu looked to me like they were billionaires, it was a very Hollywood set, compared to the reality of what those houses cost at the time.  I just said this looks like they've made it, and they haven't.  There was a hell of a hullabaloo over it, and George got fed-up.  He really loathed it if I was in anyway involved, he just wanted me to shut up.”


Bisset was not sure Cukor's behavior was a result of his old age.  “George was not particularly different when I first met him in the 1960s,” she noted, “he was always autocratic, I've heard that consistently.  That was his style.  He was grand and he was the head.  He was just a product of another school, used to an era when actors didn't have much to say.”  “We had a combative relationship,” Bisset conceded, “it wasn't easy.” The problem, according to Bergen, was that “Jackie was also producing and wanted to do more of that more actively, and that was frustrating to her.” 


Cukor got mad at Bisset's “increasing interference,” and three weeks into shooting, he threatened to quit the movie.  He told Allyn, “I will not have a third-rate actress tell me what to do.”  On a number of occasions, Allyn had to take Bisset away and tell her “to let up.”  “Jackie never understood,” Allyn said, “that Cukor was an old man and we had to protect him, that the crew had to rally around him.”  Allyn was concerned that the film would fall apart because of the tension with Bisset.


“She could be gauche,” Allyn said.  At one time, even he lost patience with Jackie. “She was self-indulgent, demanding numerous takes, even when there was no need for it.”  Shooting an exterior at a railroad station, Cukor didn't show up for the shoot, because it was too cold. “I'm too old for that,” Cukor told Allyn.”  At 4 a.m. in the morning, Bisset came to Allyn and said, “I want a close-up.” “You are not l9!” Allyn said.  Bisset got really mad.


But even Allyn admitted that Cukor could be intimidating and picking on the extras.  If he caught an extra chewing gum, he would scream, “No chewing gum on my set!”  “He certainly could be very vicious,” Bergen said, “thought he never lost his temper with me.” “He could be a tremendous bully with the extras,” Bisset concurred, “He had a very low patience level.” 


“Being old certainly didn't help him,” Bergen noted, “He was not especially sensitive in the way he treated people.  I don't think he was really open to much from anybody, and I would never have presumed to suggest anything.  I just came with what I'd prepared, and he seemed to like it.”  Indeed, when Bergen's new sense of professionalism asserted itself in a request for a retake, Cukor didn't find it so funny.  Instead, he glowered at her fiercely and sputtered, “You Swedish fanatic.”