Cukor, George: Hollywood’s Best Actor Director

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

Because of his great distinction as a filmmaker, George Cukor’s earlier theatrical work has remained obscure.  But he also had excelled as a stage director.

In the 1920s, he managed a noted theatrical company in Rochester for eight years, introducing the tryout system for plays and also the visiting-star practice.

During his work in stock, he had directed the famous Billie Burke and Ralph Morgan, but also the then young and unestablished Miriam Hopkins and Robert Montgomery, who later pursued successful careers in Hollywood.

From the very beginning, Cukor had a wonderful eye for detecting acting talent, which explains the large number of discoveries, actors whose careers he had launched by taking chances and risks.

Bette Davis

Cukor launched the stage career of Bette Davis in his Rochester company, casting her in a small role in “Broadway.”  She went on to play the lead when the original actress sprained her ankle.

In 1928, Davis was asked to join the company whose permanent ensemble at the time included Frank McHugh, Wallace Ford, and Benny Baker.  But even as a young actress, Davis had difficulties in taking direction and tended to argue with the director whenever he criticized her.

According to Cukor, Davis could never admit that she might have been wrong.  Finally, when she complained, during the rehearsals of the play Yellow, that she looked more like Louis Calhern’s daughter than as his mistress, Cukor fired her.  This was most humiliating, a severe blow to Davis’s ego, which created a strain on their future relationship.  In later years, Cukor would work with just about every major actress in Hollywood but Bette Davis!

Secure and self-assured in his skills, Cukor always gave credit to his players.  In 1981, celebrating his golden anniversary as a filmmaker, he recalled his directorial debut, Tarnished Lady, with a characteristically self-deprecating humor: “I could have fallen flat on my face–but with Tallulah Bankhead’s help, it was quite a success.”

Cukor was also known for his great patience in “handling” actors and actresses.  He was revered by his performers, who described him as “a dream director” and “an actors’ director,” because of his great respect for acting.  Notable for an astute panache for casting, he had a perceptive eye for what particular players could–and could not–do.  Cukor believed that the “right” casting was the most crucial factor for the film’s overall quality, practicing at times what he called “an offbeat casting,” or casting against type.

Katharine Hepburn

His perceptive eye for casting accounts for great ensemble acting in his films and for some surprising achievements by individual performers.  He is singlehandedly responsible for launching and establishing the careers of such legendary performers as Katharine Hepburn–Cukor had always considered her to be his greatest discovery.  Early on, he studied Hepburn’s awkward screen test but, spotting her strong screen presence and potential “magic,” he battled RKO’s studio executives until he convinced them to cast her in A Bill of Divorcement (l932), opposite the great John Barrymore.

For her test, Hepburn chose a scene from Philip Barry’s Holiday, which she had understudied (but never called to play on Broadway).  The test was directed by Lillie Messenger, who functioned as RKO’s talent scout.  Selznick did not like Hepburn’s test, and Cukor was not crazy about it either.  However, he noted with interest her gauche movements and unusual voice.  Cukor recalls in one letter how Hepburn impressed him with “her enormous feeling.”  He was also instrumental in getting her 1,500 dollars a week, an astronomical amount of money for an unknown actress; Hepburn herself later described it in a letter as “an impossible price.”

But Cukor and Hepburn did not become instant friends.  Their relationship was at first strained, because neither knew what to make of the other.  A document from columnist Adela Rogers St. Johns described their first public appearance: “When she walked in with Mr. Cukor, several executives nearly fainted.  Mr. Selznick swallowed a chicken wing whole.  We beheld a skinny girl entirely covered with freckles and wearing the most appalling and incredible clothes I have ever seen in my life.  They looked like something Lee Tracy would design for the Mexican Army to go ski jumping in.  Yet, you can tell they were supposed to be the last word.”

In later years, Cukor recalled his first impression of Hepburn: “She had somewhat irritating qualities.  She was high-brow and very self-assured.  She had audacity.”  “She was rather smart-assed and very hoyty-toyty,” Cukor told of Hepburn’s early years, “and she acted as if we were all ignoramus.”

In the Katharine Hepburn file (in Cukor’s Special Collection, see appendix), there are records of their working relationship in many movies.  Being a witty, elegant, and sophisticated man, he couldn’t tolerate Hepburn’s lack of taste.  “Do you really like that rug you’ve got on?” Cukor asked her one day.  “I certainly do,” she said, “It was created specially for me by one of the finest houses in Paris.”  “I think it stinks,” said Cukor, “I think it’s one of the worst looking things I ever saw on any woman in my life.”  “You win,” Hepburn said sheepishly.

Their relationship during the shooting of Bill of Divorcement improved by the day; she gradually gained his trust and thus showed great respect for him–as a director and as a man.  Cukor always considered Hepburn “a great natural talent.”  “She is one of these women,” he explained, “who see a camera professionally for the first time and yet is comfortable in front of it as if she would be in her own living room.”  Cukor also admired the fact that “she laughed a lot.  There was something impishly mischievous about her.”     This film began a half-a-century intimate friendship, marked by a series of brilliant collaborations.  The most notable of these was undoubtedly The Philadelphia Story, a genuine masterpiece, featuring Hepburn in the best performance of her illustrious career.  Along with Greta Garbo, who arguably gave her most splendid performance in Camille, Hepburn became his other favorite actress.

In my long interview with Katharine Hepburn, the legendary actress praised Cukor as “a brilliant director because he had a wonderful way of presenting people.”  “He gave me entrances and eccentricities,” said Hepburn about his distinctive work with actors, “and fixed it so that I looked at the camera with loving hands.”  Cukor was “a great deal of help” to his players and contributed immensely to his scripts–despite the fact that he was not a writer.

Talking about Cukor’s special qualities as a director, Ingrid Bergman concurred with Hepburn.  “I particularly remember directors,” Bergman said in an interview, “who’ve got a performance out of me that I couldn’t have got out by myself.  There are directors who can really give you marvelous ideas that you’ve never thought of.  Cukor was one of those.”  “Cukor explains everything in such details,” she elaborated humorously, “that sometimes you feel like saying, ‘Please, don’t say any more because my mind is so full of explanations.”  “If it were a little line like, ‘Have a cup of tea,'” Ingrid recalled, “Cukor would say, ‘What kind of a cup it was and what kind of tea it was,’ until you got so worried you couldn’t say the line.”  Ingrid, along with every actress who has worked with Cukor, singled out his meticulous attention to the smallest detail.

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.

Joan Fontaine

“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.”