Star Is Born, A: How Cukor Directed Judy Garland–Part Three

How George Cukor Directed Judy Garland
George Cukor, already known as a great actors director, worked even more closely and harder with Garland than with other actresses in his films.  He allowed her to shoot at night, when she was at her best, even though he hated working after dark. It also cost more money. During the day, whenever possible, Cukor shot around Garland. She could look lovely one day, and terrible the next. When Garland didn’t show up, Cukor knew it was not self indulgence: she would not appear unless she was in terrific shape.
Garland’s noted perfectionism was reflected in her insistence on endless retakes. Like Cukor, she was endowed with both fiery temperament and boundless energy. One day, Ina Claire visited on the set. Watching Garland deliver “The Man That Got Away,” Claire was horrified by her energy level. At lunch break, Claire warned Cukor: “This girl should work for only two hours a day, then go home in an ambulance! She gives too much of herself.”
Garland played with such raw emotionalismthat it was often painful for Cukor to observe. There was one scene in which she had to scream. “I’ve never screamed on the screen before,” she told Cukor. “Do your best,” he said. Garland then let out a scream as blood-curdling as any he had ever heard.
Cukor got a great kick out of working with Garland. “Dazzled” by her talent, he found her to be amusing, too. Garland aroused his admiration not only as an actress, but as a woman, with her quick intelligence, captivating humor, and brilliant creativity. An impeccable musician, Garland was, of course, a masterful singer, totally projecting her personality. It was exciting for him to watch Garland discover things about herself as an actress, for despite her long career, she had never really tested her dramatic skills. And it was doubly rewarding that Garland’s first serious acting was in his film.
Cukor soon learned how to deal with Garland. One day, everybody waited three hours for her to come out of her dressing room. Cukor, who never liked to fetch anyone, finally said “I’ll go and ask her to come out.”
When he walked into her dressing room, she was sitting at the table, her head down, resting on her arms. He saw Garland from the back, but as all four walls were mirrored, he also saw her face. “Is anything wrong?” he suddenly heard himself saying. But having a great sense of humor, Cukor immediately realized how ridiculously silly his question was, and he spontaneously burst into laughter. Heaving with laughter, Garland said: “This is the story of my life. I’m about to shoot myself and I’m asked if there’s anything wrong.” She then came onto the set and gave a wonderful performance.
In one scene, Garland’s character had to turn on a young actor. “Should I really let myself go?” she asked Cukor. “Yes,” he said, “all the way,” not knowing what exactly she had in mind. Cukor then observed Garland’s fury with amazement, never before witnessing such explosion of raw power. “Judy, that was glorious!” he exclaimed, “My blood froze. I had goose-pimples.” Garland looked at him, with tears in her eyes, and said, “You are welcome to come to my house, I do that almost every day.” That mordant wit, Cukor believed, was Garland’s saving grace.
But there were terrible times, when it was impossible for Cukor to get Garland to the studio, and shooting was halted for days. She would stay at home, depressed and unreachable. Harold Arlen, who wrote her famous song, “Over the Rainbow,” became the messenger between Cukor and Garland; she had special respect for him.
Cukor’s Pep Talks
One of Cukor’s “directorial secrets,” a usually effective way of getting actors “on the beam,” was to give them little talks. In his “illuminating discourses,” Cukor explained the psychology of the characters they played. But he could also make a fool of himself. Testing for the waitress role in A Double Life, Cukor talked for half an hour to a young woman about how to play a cheap waitress. “But Mr. Cukor,” the young actress said, I have worked as a waitress in a beanery for two years. He felt bad–this was an example of what he called “my cheap advice.”
In this movie, Cukor foolishly explained to Garland the psychology of a movie actress who has great difficulty sleeping, or the reactions of a singer who gets standing ovation. Cukor could behave like a “congenial idiot” by his own admission. He once caught himself explaining to Garland how a girl felt when she was desperately unhappy or going through marital troubles. Garland just looked at him and said, “Who will ever know better than I the tortures of melancholia?”
Cukor tried to ignore the rumors on the set that Garland had fallen in love with the unwilling Mason. He knew she had problems with her husband Sid Luft, and he noticed her going out of her way to please the British actor. Mason picked up on this, and tried to be very patient with Garland. Though both stars were extremely gifted, in most other ways Cukor saw them as opposites. Mason was the ultimate professional, always on time and ready with his lines. Garland was unreliable and unpredictable.
“I had the greatest possible faith in Cukor,” Mason told the London Times years later, “and an admiration, a sort of love, for Judy who was marvelous to work with.” But Mason also conceded that he had difficulties with Garland, and that “sometimes she exasperated Cukor.” “On the set, she didn’t put in as many hours as a less talented woman would have done, but she was wonderfully easy. Some mornings she couldn’t start before eleven because of the pills, but once she was awake, she was great and a joy to work with.”
What Cukor enjoyed the most was Garland’s innate talent for telling weird and funny stories. Possessing a vivid personality, Garland was one of the wittiest raconteurs he had known.  She would confide her problems in a humorous way, with herself as the butt of the joke, always playing the stupid part in her stories. She could talk about the most devastating experiences of her life, including her traumatic childhood, and still have her audience screaming with laughter.