Cukor, George: Hollywood’s Best Actor Director–Jane Fonda (Chapman Report)

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.

Cukor was 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.

Jane Fonda in Chapman Report

For example, Cukor cast Jane Fonda in what many consider a turning point in her career, the role of Kathleen Barclay, the frigid widow, in The Chapman Report.  Based on Irving Wallace’s best-selling and scandalous novel, the film has an episodic story concerning the sex habits of an assortment of “average” American women.  Nonetheless, this empty, potboiler material was elevated by Cukor’s direction and its great cast, featuring Claire Bloom, Shelley Winters, Glynis Johns, and Jane Fonda.  Something most exciting was happening to Jane Fonda in this film: with Cukor’s active support, she finally came into her own as a performer–after five years of seriously doubting her talent.  In Cukor’s files of correspondence, there is a fascinating documentation of Fonda’s casting and work in The Chapman Report.  Originally, Jane auditioned for the part of the nymphomaniac, dressed and made-up as a street walker.  Cukor found her screen test amusing, but he was much more intrigued by the possibility of her playing against type.  He said he saw through to her upper class, WASPish upbringing, which convinced him to cast her in the role of a frigid middle-class widow, characterized by a pathological fear of sex and exacerbated by her hunger for love.

“I was disappointed,” Fonda told me, “but it was George Cukor, and you can wait a lifetime to work with him, so I took the part.”  On August 4, l961, Cukor wrote to Jane the following note concerning her role in The Chapman Report: “I’m beginning to visualize it through a glass, darkly.  I see it now as mostly large gorgeous close-ups of Kathleen laughing…crying…pouting  …running the gamut!”  Cukor gave Jane very useful advice:”Restrain your natural exuberance before the cameras.”  “I don’t mean to flatter myself,” writes Cukor, “but I brought out something very fine in Jane in that film.”  “It may have been already there,” he elaborated, “but she brought it out with me.”

Despite the harsh reviews and box-office failure of The Chapman Report, Jane always spoke favorably of her work with Cukor.  “He’s a mystical character.  He creates women…You know he’ll protect you.  He has impeccable taste and a sense of subtlety.  He forces himself to love and believe in you.”  “I think the only thing she has to watch,” Cukor writes on another occasion, “is that she has such an abundance of talent.  She must learn to hold it in.  She is an American original.”  Once again, Cukor proved he had a wonderful eye for detecting talent.  Within a decade, Jane Fonda went on to win two Oscar Awards and established herself as the leading actress of her generation.

Asked what made Cukor a special director, Fonda told me: “There aren’t words to describe what it means to work with him.  He shoots everything fifteen or sixteen times.  He’s interested in talent.  After The Chapman’s Report, he had me out to his house and told me, ‘I’ve let you do certain things now that if you did them three years from now, I’d knock you teeth in.’  More than anything else, writes Jane, “He teaches you a discipline as an actress.”

Jane Fonda was also cast by Cukor in The Blue Bird (1976), the first Soviet-American co-production, shot entirely in Russia.  Jane had only a cameo role, playing the Night, with screen appearance of no more than nine minutes.  “I would have phoned in my part from Santa Monica,” joked Jane about the size of her part, “if it were not for Cukor.”  But she had not seen Russia since her visit there with Vadim, a decade earlier and, besides, she felt obligated to do it for Cukor, never forgetting that he had been the first major director to bring out her talent.

Known for his knack for effortlessly establishing a conducive climate for creative work on the set, Cukor explained, “I choose my actors well and get to know the quirks of their personalities.”  “Most of all, I share humor with them.”

And once shooting begins, “I keep my eyes open when they rehearse and perform, because you never know where the next stimulation comes from.”