Oscar Directors: Cukor, George–Legacy

George Cukor’s Legacy

My biography, George Cukor: Master of Elegance assesses all of the director’s movies, though a special emphasis is placed on the more distinguished ones: Little Women, Dinner at Eight, Camille, The Women, The Philadelphia Story, Born Yesterday, A Star Is Born, and My Fair Lady.  Each of these eight movies is not only a classic, but a masterwork in its own right representing the best, not only in the director’s oeuvre, but in the American cinema in general.  The making of these films, their reception by critics and audiences of the time, and their status as film art today, are described in detail.

My book showed that one could see the best performances in Hollywood’s classic movies in George Cukor’s work.  Indeed, in my interview with Katharine Hepburn, a four-time Oscar Award winner, she singled out Cukor for this very reason: “The only really important thing I have to say about George Cukor–because I worked with quite a few of the so-called famous directors–is that all of those directors “starred” themselves.  George Cukor “starred” the actor.  Now, that’s very different.  From the beginning, that’s the way he saw it.  He wanted the actor and the story to be fascinating.  He did not want them to say, ‘This great director.’  He wanted them to say, ‘This great actor.’  Many stars were made by George Cukor.  He presented the people, he did not present himself.  I don’t think it was a result of his modesty; I think that’s just what interested him.  He loved the theater and he loved to see an actor be brilliant.  In life, you either star yourself or you star somebody else.  He starred somebody else.  John Huston starred himself.  David Lean really starred the motion picture camera.  George Cukor was brilliant on the performance.”

The work of Cukor is particularly missing in Hollywood of the 1980s, with its emphasis on the teen market, neglect of serious-adult entertainment, and its focus on violence and special effects–all at the expense of dialogue and characterization.

Moreover, Cukor’s films have continued to serve as models for younger filmmakers.  For example, Legal Eagles (1986), starring Robert Redford and Debra Winger, was more than lightly influenced by Cukor’s l949 picture, Adam’s Rib.  And The Big Easy (1987), starring Dennis Quad and Ellen Barking, uses many plot elements and stylistic devices from Cukor’s comedies with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, most notably the 1952 comedy, Pat and Mike.

Star Is Born: Restored Version, Radio City Music Hall

The recently reconstructed version of A Star Is Born, made by Cukor in 1954, showed again not only what a great director he was, but how much has Hollywood changed (some say declined) in the ensuing three decades.

Presented at the Radio City Music Hall on July 7, 1983, Cukor’s original film was the most stirring event of that season.  And while there were disputes about the genuine worth of the 27-minute-footage, which Warner had trimmed from the original l8l minutes, there was no doubt about the film’s overall quality and impact.  David Danby, film critic for New York magazine, represented many reviewers when he lamented: “childishly, I thought that if the studio heads could only see this–6,000 adults concentrating on a 30-year-old film that meant something to them emotionally–they might feel some distaste for the movies they have released this summer.”

“This kind of directorial bravura and self-confidence,” Danby elaborated “this kind of emotionally saturated narrative, with its darkly neurotic compulsions, its cynicism and sentiment, its svelte, easy, inside-show-business knowingness, music of this quality composed freshly for a movie–such glories have all but vanished from the American cinema.”

George Cukor shows that there is still a lot of truth in critic Richard Schickel’s assessment: “Cukor’s movies can be appreciated–no, liked–at one level or another by just about everyone.”  This statement captures the uniquely warm and intimate relationship which always prevailed between Cukor and his audiences.  The proof: just go and watch the next screening of The Women.  Made over half a century ago, the comedy is still fresh and funnier than most comedies produced today.  When people lament that Hollywood does not make such movies anymore, they usually think of the Cukor kind of entertainment.  Cukor’s films are still shown with great success on television and in art houses, demonstrating their unfailing appeal among younger generations of moviegoers.

New technologies and way of seeing–VCR Revolution, DVD and blu-ray, TCM, and streaming services–have all resulted in a broader release of most of Cukor’s films, earning him numerous new fans–and assuring the immortality of his films.