Gone With the Wind: Why George Cukor Was Fired as Director?

George Cukor’s homosexuality was one of the best-kept “secrets” in Hollywood.  This conspiracy of silence shows that when influential gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Luella Parsons liked and respected someone they also made efforts not to invade into their privacy or damage their careers.

Yet, beyond being an interesting biographical fact, Cukor’s homosexuality has never been used as an interpretive factor in explaining his choice of subject matter and attraction to favorite stories.  And it can also help understand his unique approach to filmmaking, his preference for some (and not other) players, his grand style, and superb taste.  “If there is such a thing as a ‘Cukor style,'” he once remarked, “I guess it arises out of two principal factors: my own personalized perception of the world and my ability to deal professionally with actors.”  My biography, George Cukor, draws on Cukor’s Jewish-European origins and homosexuality to further understand his perception of the world (as reflected in his movies) and his cinematic style.

The book also “straightens” the record by establishing the factuality (or lack of) of other rumors circulating in Hollywood for many decades.  For instance, there have been contradictory reports as to why Cukor was fired from the set of the most famous movie ever made, Gone with the Wind, after three weeks of shooting.  One report mentioned that Cukor himself wanted to quit because of basic disagreements with producer David O. Selznick.  And another source claimed that Clark Gable, playing Rhett Butler, was instrumental in firing Cukor, because he reportedly resented the director’s reputation as “a woman’s director.”

Kenneth Anger on the Subject

However, in the gossipy Hollywood Babylon II, Kenneth Anger notes that the initial antagonism between Cukor and Gable was based on the latter’s fear that the director might reveal sensational stories from his past, including an alleged homosexual affair with William Haines, a gay actor, who was fired by MGM because of his openly gay lifestyle.  According to Anger, the whole issue was “of such a scandalous and highly confidential nature that all copies of Selznick’s memos concerning the firing of Cukor were destroyed!”  Significantly though, after Cukor was fired, the two female stars of Gone with the Wind, Vivien Leigh and Olivia De Havilland, moonlighted at his house for coaching, trusting his advice much more than the one provided by the new director, Victor Fleming, who was personally chosen by Gable.

Vivien Leigh liked Cukor the minute she saw him because, as she described, he “smelled” of theater and was “imaginative and intelligent.”  She was therefore extremely angry at Selznick’s decision to dismiss him.  “Cukor was my only hope of ever enjoying the film,” she wrote to a close friend.  Vivien described her daily three hour rehearsal with Cukor as “my favorite part of the day.”

In a characteristic manner, Cukor tried to take the whole thing in stride and with a sense of humor.  “There is no great stigma to being replaced as a director,” he said in later years, “it has happened to me, and not only on that famous occasion (Gone with the Wind).  Indeed, he was also fired from an MGM picture, Desire Me (l947), starring Greer Garson and Robert Matchup; the new directors (Mervin Le Roy and Jack Conway), could not help the movie either and it died miserably at the box office.  “When I arrived at the studio the next morning,” Cukor recalled, “I was amused by observing who spoke to me and who did not.  I said to myself, ‘now I know who will come to my funeral.'”

Cukor’s personal file of Gone with the Wind at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library includes rare documents of his and Selznick’s reactions to the numerous screen tests taken by just about every actress in Hollywood whose age ranged between 20 and 35.  This illustrious list included: Katharine Hepburn, Susan Hayward, Joan Fontaine, Lana Turner, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and many others.  This file also reveals to me important and new information of the tensions and conflicts between Cukor and Selznick during their work on Gone with the Wind.