Rich and Famous (1981): George Cukor’s Last Film–Part Four

Series of Nine Articles         


Part Four: Shooting the Film


The first day Cukor arrived at the MGM commissary, the waitresses were all over him, kissing his hands.  One day, he ran into Cary Grant, whom he had not seen him in years.  The encounter brought back nice memories of their work in the 1930s.  After some chitchat, Grant said, “George, how would you like to do a remake of Sylvia Scarlett, referring to their disastrous film. “Cary,” Cukor retorted, “it was a lousy picture then, it’s a lousy picture now.”


On the set, Cukor enjoyed the kind of respect he always had:  The minute everything was ready, all eyes turned to him.  “That’s the way it should be,” Cukor said.  The shooting in Los Angeles took about a month, including two weeks on location in Malibu, downtown LA, and the LAX airport.  Cukor reshot the entire film.  Nothing of Mulligan’s footage was used, except for the opening sequence at Smith College, where the story begins.


At 81 one, Cukor lacked the stamina of his youth, which affected the way he worked. “I am magical in the morning,” he admitted, “but I go home after 10-and 12-hour day with my ass dragging.”  Still, Cukor broke a record. Following the recent death of Hitchcock and the inactivity of Spanish director Bunuel, Cukor had the distinction of being the oldest filmmaker ever to direct a major studio release. Until Cukor, the record was held by Chaplin, who was 77 when he filmed A Countess from Hong Kong. “I am the oldest working director,” Cukor boasted to Sam Goldwyn Jr., “I planted the rest of the bastards!”  He derived tremendous pride from being Hollywood’s most senior filmmaker.


Every day, Cukor snatched a quick nap during his lunch break; it was an old habit. On the first day of shooting, Cukor was sitting on a chair resting, but people thought he was asleep.  Allyn tiptoed quietly toward him.  “I’m not dead yet,” Cukor snapped back, “Don’t worry, my dear boy, I’m not going to die on you.” Cukor was aware that people were gossiping about his age and declining health.


Aljean Harmets of the N.Y. Times picked on Cukor when she visited the set.  It just happened that he was particularly confused that day about the script. “What year are we?” Cukor asked, referring to the time frame in the narrative.  The reporters on the set, thinking he was talking about the present, said he wasn’t in control. 


There were also reports that Bisset stepped in, when Cukor proved to be infirm, to exercise control.  Ayres denied that Cukor was not in control.  “Even if he sticks his finger from an oxygen tank, he’d still be better than other directors.” Bergen also denied such reports: “The whole crew worked overtime to accommodate whatever efficiencies George had in terms of energy and concentration. Everyone bent over backwards, the crew worked as fast and as hard as they could. He would sound off at them very often, but really they’re the ones who did the most to accommodate him.” 


“Though old,” Bergen said, “he was really a hawk, he didn’t miss anything.  When he heard us laughing about something, he had to know immediately what we were laughing about.  He really hated being left out.”  Bisset said that Cukor did fall asleep a few times, but he didn’t behave like an old man.  “He was extremely sharp and on the ball most of the time,” she observed.  “He was tremendously impatient with getting on with it,” Bergen recalled, “He just didn’t have time to wait around for the endless set-ups that you have in a film.” She always remembered him saying, “Can we get on! Can we go now!” He was anxious to keep the shoot moving, drive it forward.


As in the past, Cukor’s reactions to embarrassing situations were quick, devoid of any self-consciousness.  One day, shooting at the UCLA campus, he raised his fists high up in the air and shouted, “Can we go now?” Suddenly, his pants fell down to his ankles.  Without a blink or embarrassment, he just stooped down, pulled up his pants and, unfazed by the experience, continued to scream. 


But Bergen and Bisset did not enjoy the kind of relationship Cukor had with his former leading ladies. “We got on very well,” Bergen said, “but he was not in great shape. Cukor began losing energy each week, it was exhausting, though he did phenomenally well considering the physical limitations. 


When they were shooting in NY, Cukor would sometimes dose off behind the camera, but by then, the actresses were used to working on their own.  The two women would block out the scenes early in the morning with the assistant director.  They would rehearse it and show Cukor their work, and then he would either correct them or shoot it.  “George didn’t come in first thing in the morning,” said Bisset, “When he came in, the scenes were often mapped out, and he would then add the camera moves.”