Travels With My Aunt (1972): Cukor’s Version of Graham Greene Novel, Starring Maggie Smith in Oscar-Nominated Performance

In 1970, George Cukor, 71, was hard at work on his next movie, based on Graham Greene’s novel, “Travels With My Aunt.”

Upon reading the novel, he was immediately drawn to it. “It is a rare combination of robust adventure and funny comedy,” he said, “a good story in which, for once, Greene does not find God.”

The story follows the adventures of Aunt Augusta, an eccentric Englishwoman in her seventies, as she travels about the globe with Henry, her straight-laced nephew in tow. Augusta, the “disreputable” woman, introduces her stuffy middle-aged nephew to a new life of freedom.

Cukor liked the novel’s freshness, and was particularity intrigued by the character of Augusta. “Here’s an old woman who’s been through the mill,” he said, “She’s very wrong-headed and commits follies.” Augusta was in many ways like Cukor himself: “She lived a sinful life, but she’s not mean-spirited. And despite her tribulations, she is not sour or bitter.” Augusta, like Cukor, rejected age the way she would an unworthy suitor. Cukor had a strong aversion toward depressed and disillusioned people–in his life and in his films.

There was no question in Cukor’s mind that Hepburn, then 62, would make a perfect Aunt Augusta. If Augusta were played by a middle-aged actress, the film might too closely echo Auntie Mame, a pitfall Cukor wanted to avoid. The novelty of an elderly woman involved in marijuana, sexual freedom, and interracial romance, all topical ingredients, would be funnier. With Hepburn in the lead role, Cukor hoped to make a stylish and relevant movie.

As expected, Graham Greene had no role in the production of Travels with My Aunt. He sold the book outright. Greene refused to have anything to do with this or any film of his books, ever since he went to see The Power and the Glory, and walked halfway through thinking he had gone to the wrong theater.

With MGM behind the project, and three and a half million dollars budget, the search for a writer began. Cukor wanted Peter Schaffer, the renowned English playwright, to do the script. But they could not come to terms with him, and instead, Hugh Wheeler, also a Britisher, was chosen.

Cukor knew that the novel’s odyssey structure would translate to the screen, but the important thing, the force which propels the characters, was still missing. The narrative rests on a number of “revelations”–that Augusta may not really be an aunt, but possibly Henry’s motherand Cukor held that the production should have the “Do you believe this” camp quality of movies like Tom Jones.

Ironically, after months of working on the script, much of which was intended to accommodate Hepburn, she was never to appear in the picture. Hepburn was fired before shooting began. The star was never happy with the revisions, which were imposed by MGM’s James Aubrey. MGM refused to comment on her departure, and Cukor also declined to talk about why Hepburn “dropped out.”

Fortunately, Cukor was able to replace Hepburn quickly. After a brief consideration of Angela Lansbury, they turned to British actress Maggie Smith, who was available. Cukor knew Smith’s work on stage and in film; she recently won an Oscar for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. When Smith was criticized for taking Hepburn’s role, Cukor defended her as “an innocent bystander. “We were damned lucky to get her, everyone but the wretched MGM behaved impeccably.”

The ending of Travels with My Aunt was problematic and unsatisfactory. Cukor did consider another ending, like what went on inside Augusta’s head as the coin was flipped. He wanted the audience to wonder, “What is going to happen Who won and who will influence who” But it was a comedy, and feeling they came to a certain point in the story, that was the point to stop.

Cukor singled out Smith’s brilliance as an actress; her body can be rotary at will. He had to temper what he said to Smith–as she could do anything. Cukor placed Smith in the pantheon of that rare breed of performers who were great stage and screen stars.

With the exception of Pauline Kael’s panning review in the New Yorker, the other notices were mixed. But Kael’s view was really condemning. “The film seems to run down before it gets started,” wrote Kael, “Maybe the material couldn’t have made it anyway, but for it to have a fighting chance the director should have a ravishing style and the actress who plays Aunt Augusta needs a charismatic presence; both are impossible to fake, and in this movie George Cukor and Maggie Smith don’t have them–though they try exhaustingly hard.” Cukor struggled for a light touch, but the camera seemed to go off on its own. Cukor’s movie was too diffuse, failing to keep the viewers involved in the story.

Kael disliked Smith’s performance, which was “full of busywork, and many body tilts and high-piping vocal effects.” Smith badly overacted–everything in her character was italicized–she seemed to mimic the great English actress Edith Evans. The London critics also attacked her for being too mannered and camp, falling back on technical tricks. Ironically, the critics savaged Smith’s performance on the very day she received an Oscar nomination.

To Cukor’s credit, Travels with My Aunts wasn’t as stale as Rosalind Russell’s vehicle Auntie Mame, but the movie went overboard. Uneven in quality, it felt as if Cukor wasn’t in control. And, of course, everyone seemed to be in agreement that an older woman should have played the part. “When you begin to speculate about who should have played a role,” Kael noted, “it means that the person on the screen doesn’t touch your imagination and isn’t going to leave much trace on your memory.”

Oscar Context

A Christmas release, to qualify for the Oscar Awards, Travels with My Aunt was nominated for best actress, art direction, costume design, cinematography, and song.

The movie won one Oscar, for Anthony Powell’s costumes, which Cukor accepted for him. Standing next to Greer Garson at the grand finale, Cukor joined everybody’s singing of “You Ought to Be in Pictures.”