Cukor, George: Director of Classic Hollywood Cinema–Part 1








Despite five Academy Award nominations and numerous directorial achievements, formal recognition for George Cukor’s talent came rather late in his career.  He was honored with his first (and only) Oscar Award, for My Fair Lady, at his fifth Academy nomination, when he was 65 year old.  Many people believe that this Oscar was also compensatory, Hollywood’s long overdue tribute to a career full of distinctions.  Cukor was singled out by the New York Film Critics Circle just once, also for My Fair Lady.

It seems that only in the last decade of his life, the film world really came to realize the great cinematic talent that he was.  In 1978, the Film Society of Lincoln Center honored him with its Life Achievement Award.

Please read Part 2

In 1980, Cukor received the D.W. Griffith Award, bestowed by the Directors Guild of America, “for outstanding achievements and lifetime contributions to film.”  He thus became the thirteenth recipient–in three decades–of this prestigious award, established in l953 and conferred on such legendary directors as John Ford, Frank Capra, and George Stevens.  A modest man, Cukor could not understand the fuss over his 1982 decoration as “Commander of the Order of the Arts and Letters,” by Jack Lang, the French Minister of Culture, a festive and prestigious event which launched a major retrospective of his work at the Cinematheque Francaise.

Cukor & Auteurist Critics: Andrew Sarris








Contemporary critics seem to respect Cukor’s work more than their previous counterparts.  Andrew Sarris, film critic for the Village Voice and a major proponent of the auteur theory, believes that Cukor’s films have aged rather than dated.  “When a director has consistently dished up tasteful entertainment of a high order for half a century,” Sarris notes, “it’s clear he’s more than a mere entertainer; he is a genuine artist.”  This is a great compliment for a studio director whose pictures, often tampered by producers, still hold up well.  Indeed, even the movies which were mercilessly brutalized in the editing room (The Chapman Report, in l962, is a good example), are somehow coherent, because of Cukor’s inspired direction and interesting performances.

In Sarris’s seminal book, The American Cinema (1969), Cukor is not included in the highest category of “Pantheon Directors,” a place reserved for John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and their likes.

Cukor is classified in Sarris’s second category, “The Far Side of Paradise,” alongside with Frank Capra, Leo McCarey, Vincent Minnelli, and Preston Sturges, defined as “directors who fall short of the Pantheon either because of a fragmentation of their personal vision or because of disruptive career problems.”

Francois Truffaut on Cukor

The famous French New Wave director, Francois Truffaut, who admired Cukor’s work, once noted that “Cukor still gives us movies like the earlier ones, and we shall not reproach him with it, because he is who he is and everything he does is fine.”  But Truffaut also believed that “the trouble is that Cukor isn’t the kind of director you write about; he’s someone to talk about with friends on the street or sitting in a cafe.”  The late French filmmaker did not, of course, mean it in a derogatory way, but he put his finger on a recurrent problem in film criticism: What to do about Cukor and how to evaluate his work?  His film art is so seamless that it appears to outsiders to be effortless, lacking obvious distinctions.

Movie magazine, in its recent “talent histogram,” ranked Cukor below Hawks and Hitchcock–a great company to be with–but had virtually nothing to say about him or his directorial abilities.  “Cukor has presented a problem to film criticism,” critic Edward Buscombe observed, “He is a great director, but there is, literally, nothing to say about him.”  Only those who admire self-effacement, light touch, and invisibility as a directorial style, single out Cukor’s greatness.

My 1994 biography, George Cukor: Master of Elegance, tried to fill the critical void which prevails in evaluating Cukor as a distinguished director.  I hope the book met the challenge, described by Buscombe as: “The Anglo-American critical tradition is not equipped to deal with a director like Cukor….The almost total lack of serious treatment of Cukor’s films in English testifies to it.”

One problem in evaluating Cukor’s art derives from the fact that he had neither been the author of his material (like Billy Wilder or Joseph L. Mankiewicz), nor the producer of his films (like Otto Preminger or George Stevens).  Cukor’s career and status as a director bear strong resemblance to those William Wyler’s, another  underrated director.  Like Wyler (Dodsworth, The Little Foxes, Jezebel, The Letter, The Children’s Hour), Cukor believed in faithfully and tastefully transposing to the screen the works of other writers and dramatists–a great quality which, unfortunately, is held against them.  And like Wyler, Cukor’s modesty and self-effacement–which stand in diametric opposition to the self-aggrandizement of today’s directors–deprived him of the reputation he undoubtedly earned.


Cukor as Genuine Artist

Cukor’s film work lends itself to a fascinating inspection because of his attraction to particular themes and specific screen characters–in addition to his great style.

Showbiz Personalities

Many of his films are situated in the world of entertainment and deal with showbusiness personalities.  Included among these notable portrayals of thespians are: John Barrymore and Marie Dressler in Dinner at Eight, Ina Claire in The Royal Family of Broadway, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Sylvia Scarlett, Claudette Colbert in Zaza, Ronald Colman in A Double Life, Judy Garland and James Mason in A Star Is Born, Jean Simmons in The Actress, and Sophia Loren in Heller in Pink Tights.  This thematic locale enabled Cukor to comment on one of his favorite issues: the relationship between reality and illusion, or the tension between actual, everyday life, and fantasy.  As Andrew Sarris noted, Cukor’s work is “committed to the dreamer, if not to the content of the dream.”  Cukor has not received the attention he deserves from serious critics, despite the fact that he was a genuine artist, thematically and stylistically.  His choice of themes, the conflicts in his movies, and the screen personae he favored have been extraordinarily consistent.


Invisible Style

But stylistically too, Cukor is an interesting director who really understood the language of film.  His elegant approach to filmmaking stands in sharp opposition to the current trend in Hollywood which overemphasizes action, violence, and visual effects at the expense of taut narratives, lively and fluent dialogues, and interesting characters–all distinctive qualities of Cukor’s best films.  Most of Cukor’s films possess strong narratives, and are completely devoid of special effects, graphic violence, excessive sexual scenes, or other conventional devices used nowadays to lure audiences back to the movies.

Cukor’s camera moved smoothly, serving the narrative rather than individual actors.  This is all the more amazing because Cukor’s players were all “big name” stars.  But he made them understand that they would get close-ups only when the narrative called for it–not because of their stature as movie stars.  In their style, Cukor’s films refrained from exhibitionism and did not flaunt his directorial personality.  His camera did not intrude with the sharp cuts and tricky angles which have become increasingly common in Hollywood.

At their best, Cukor’s movies are intelligent, witty, entertaining, civilized, unmanipulative and, most important of all, respectful of their audiences.  The director’s worldly but lucid perception served him well in pacing and balancing the comic and dramatic aspects of his screen characters and narratives.  He was great at satirizing the human foibles and self delusions of his protagonists (the large gallery of female characters in The Women, each an individual creation, is a wonderful example).

Champlin on Cukor

Evaluating his art, the Los Angeles Time film critic Charles Champlin wrote: “Cukor is one of the most literate storytellers the movies have yet produced.  Few directors are more adept at dealing with articulate characters, or at placing them in the well-observed and accurately reproduced milieus which both shape and help to explain the characters.”

But despite these singular achievements, Cukor always defined himself as a product of the studio system, a “typical Hollywood director,” whose aim is no more (and no less) than entertain the public.  Nonetheless, his best movies have been anything but escapist entertainment in the typical Hollywood formulaic manner.