Oscar Actors: Colman, Ronald–A Double Life, Directed by Cukor, his Only Oscar

The theatrical melodrama, A Double Life, was director George Cukor’s first collaboration with writers (husband and wife team) Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, a fruitful teaming for all three that would continue for another decade or so.

The central story is intriguing: a famous actor playing Othello realizes that the part is taking over his personality, leading to inability to

The script draws on the professional hazard of actors who immerse themselves so completely in their roles they fail to distinguish between their lives onstage and off.  The Kanins deal seriously with an issue that previously has been treated in a comic or satirical mode.

Ronald Colman, the elegant British thespian with the velvety voice, whom Cukor had known for years, is cast as Anthony John, the distinguished actor, who becomes paranoiac and eventually commits murder.

Among other things, A Double Life is interesting for providing the only negative view of the theater world in Cukor’s work. In the past–and future–he would celebrate the magical quality of the theater and its performers. However, even in the sordid milieu of this story, Cukor manages to demonstrate his love for showbusiness. Having come from the stage, Cukor knew the theater world well, but it still held mystery for him.

Cukor wished to convey an accurate impression of what it was like to be on stage. When performers step onto a stage, the light is blinding them. It was important for this kind of story to transfer the audience onto the stage. To create that illusion, the crew had to halate certain lights into the camera. “Don’t worry about whatever curious effects happen,” Cukor told cameraman Milton Krasner, “let all kinds of things hit the lens as if they’re hitting the audience.”

Many cameramen fear such things, but Cukor assured Krasner that he would take the responsibility in case it didn’t work. In the end, the theatrical scenes generated dramatic excitement and heightened the story’s sense of terror.

Cukor shoots the theater scenes on location, in New York, in the famous Empire Theater. Cukor conveys visually the contrast between the theater world and the squalor of the places that Colman goes to when the underside of his nature asserts itself.

Universal-International had good reasons to fear the Production Code Administration (PCA), which didn’t like the project, least of all the film’s initial title, “The Art of Murder.” In June l947, PCA’s Joseph Breen submitted a list of items for revision. Tony’s line, “I often think what I miss most of all–is your cooking,” was too sexually suggestive.

Cukor was urged to avoid the flavor of light attitude toward marriage, and make sure that when Tony stabs himself, it is the action of an insane man. Cukor should establish that Brita has bit her lip; under no circumstances should there be a suggestion that Tony had beaten her. And there should be no open-mouthed, prolonged, or lusty kissing anywhere in the picture.

Widely released on February 20, 1948, A Double Life scored a huge success and enjoyed some nice reviews as well. The film was nominated for four Oscar Awards, this time including Best Director for Cukor.

Winning his first and only Oscar, Ronald Colman thanked Cukor for his patience and kindness. “Without these grand qualities of yours,” Colman said, “and your valuable direction and help, I couldn’t have done half the job. Remember me the next time you are casting.”

Cukor failed to win the Directorial Oscar; the winner that year was Elia Kazan, for the socially conscious message drama, Gentleman’s Agreement.  But Cukor was pleasantly surprised to find himself on the “Variety” list of the year’s top directors, in the company of such estimable colleagues as John Huston, George Stevens, and David Lean.