Cukor, George: Sophisticated Host, House as Hollywood Showcase

In addition to being an accomplished director, and multiple Oscar nominee and winner (My Fair Lady), George Cukor played another major role, serving as a witty and sophisticated host in a house that he had designed as a Hollywood showcase.

Cukor’s homosexuality was one of the best-kept “secrets” in Hollywood; he neither flaunted it nor concealed it.  It shows that when gossip columnists Huda Hopper and Luella Parsons liked and respected someone they also made efforts not to invade 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 book, 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.”

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 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 very first 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 making this 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).

He was also fired from an MGM picture, Desire Me (1947), 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 revealed new, important information of the tensions and conflicts between Cukor and Selznick during their work on Gone with the Wind.

Cukor: Director of the Last Film of Garbo, Norma Shearer, and Marilyn Monroe

Cukor’s career is associated with other important or interesting episodes in American film.  There have been enough scandals in his career to fill the pages of many gossipy books.

For example, he directed Garb in her last movie, Two-Faced Woman in 1941.  Rumor has it that Garbo decided to retire from the screen because of the film’s critical and commercial failure.  But others attribute her retirement to the Second World War, when her movies could no longer be shown in occupied Europe, where she has always been more popular than in the United States.

MGM’s other movie queen, Norma Shearer, also quit her screen career after appearing in Cukor’s Her Cardboard Lover in 1942.  By contrast, Joan Crawford, the third MGM female star at the time, gave one of her most impressive performances in Cukor’s 1941 film, A Woman’s Face.

Cukor also directed Marilyn Monroe in her last, unfinished, movie, Something’s Got to Give in 1962.  After three weeks of shooting, Monroe was fired, and a few months later she was found dead.

Cukor’s House: Hollywood Showcase

A man of magnetic charisma, Cukor exuded tremendous warmth and was one of Hollywood’s best-liked figures.  His opulent house, in the Hollywood Hills above Sunset Boulevard, was one of the “famous show places” and a “showcase mansion” in the film colony.  Originally it was a small house, but Cukor rebuilt it entirely in 1935.

“The rooms are more or less the way they were when William Haines decorated them,” Cukor said in 1978, “but that is not to take away from my personal taste and knowledge.” He always liked to boast: “The house suits me perfectly, and I know that I belong here.”  Interestingly, the house, which had seven living rooms, contained only one bedroom, because, as one reporter put it in the l940s, although the director was a celebrated host, he disliked entertaining anyone overnight….

The furnishings of his house, like the sets and costumes of his movies, were an elegant mixture of modern and antique styles.  His collection of paintings, selected with meticulous discrimination, ranged from Grant Wood to Renoir.  One staircase wall was closely hung with works by such prominent artists as Rouault, Matisse, Picasso, Goya, and Dali.  Cukor also had a large collection of Han dancing figures.  There was a feeling of lively elegance in every room of the house, each containing mementos. A silver cigarette box, with an endearing message, signed by Marilyn Monroe. And a beautiful Renoir on the table easel–a gift from Vivien Leigh.

A bronze head of Tallulah Bankhead rested on an inlaid demilune table in the lower hall.  And a gallery of familiar faces, ranging from Ethel Barrymore to Laurence Olivier to Garbo, looked from the walls.

Displayed against an early nineteenth century puppet theater proscenium were figures of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, two of his frequent players and dearest friends.

During the Second World War, one of the most prestigious literary “salons” in Los Angeles was held at the Viertels (Salka, a screenwriter, and her husband-director Berthold).  All the “who’s who” of Hollywood’s literary and cultural elite were there on Sundays: Huxley, Anita Loos, Garbo, Thomas Mann, Brecht, Schoenberg, and Cukor.

 

Supporting the Kennedys

Cukor was particularly proud of the autographed photograph he received from President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy. After Kennedy’s assassination, in 1963, Cukor helped his brother, Robert Kennedy, in his elections campaign, despite the fact that he was never explicitly involved in politics.

A letter from Robert F. Kennedy, of March 28, 1968, expresses “many thanks for supporting my candidacy.”  “It’s great for me to know,” wrote Kennedy, “that you are with us.  I’m sure that signing the “Citizens for Kennedy” Ad will influence your many fans and I’m very grateful.”

“The best times of my life I remember having right here–in my own house,” Cukor told an interviewer.  “It’s been an intimate part of my life, my work, my friends–a great many friends indeed.”  “We used to work six days a week,” he reminisced, “and usually on Sundays, I don’t know how I managed it all, but we had lunch here.  There were the regulars, like Katharine Hepburn, Irene Selznick, and Vivien Leigh, when she was in town.  Through the years, particularly during the War years, everyone seemed to come here.”  “The regulars would sit at the end of the table,” Cukor recalled, “and when I had new people, they sat close to me.”

Tallulah Bankhead

Another close and long-enduring friendship was with Tallulah Bankhead–despite some potential strains.  One of these strains occurred early on, when Tallulah insisted on testing for the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Gossip columnist Luella Parsons was so annoyed by the notion of this casting that she warned her readers: “George Cukor, her friend, is going to direct, and Jack Whitney, another friend, is backing it.  So I’m afraid she’ll get the part.  If she does, I personally will go home and weep, because she is not SCARLETT O’HARA in my language, and if David O. Selznick gives her the part, he will have to answer to every man, woman, and child in America.”

Though Cukor feared Tallulah might be wrong for the part, he helped her get a chance to demonstrate her skills.  “Take it easy, Tallulah, relax,” he told her on the telephone, when she called from the airport to let him know her flight to Los Angeles got delayed.  “We’re going to take two tests by two different cameramen.  We’ll shoot one tonight, the other tomorrow.”  She ended up taking three tests.  She liked the first, but Cukor wanted a second one, with better lighting.  The third test, in color, was disastrous; neither she nor Cukor liked it.  In a characteristically diplomatic manner, Cukor later said: “Tallulah just wasn’t fresh enough.”  This was his way of saying that Tallulah was too old and too harsh to play Scarlett O’Hara, in what is still the best known and best publicized Hollywood movie ever made.

But Cukor and Tallulah remained intimate friends until her death, in l968.  He often escorted her to the famous parties that Dorothy Parker gave in New York.  In one such party, when Tallulah misbehaved, i.e. was too noisy and bitchy, Cukor told her secretary and friend, “in the interest of tranquility, send her home.”  Tallulah recalled her social life with Cukor with great fondness: “Katie (Katharine Hepburn) and I used to go nearly every Sunday to George Cukor’s for lunch, as nearly everybody did in Hollywood at one time or another.  We were so different that it used to kill George,” but “we liked each other very much.”

After her death, Cukor described Tallulah as “a truly magical creature.”  “I have a very warm and loving feeling about her,” Cukor wrote, “And I’m very grateful for the enormous amount of fun I had with her.  She was sensitive, diverting, and touching, and she would do anything to get a laugh.”   As a token of their friendship, Cukor was willed by Tallulah a portrait (by Ambrose McEvoy), which he had admired for years.

Cukor became friends with most of the actors and actresses he had worked with.  He used to joke about the fact that most of his friends were film artists–they were mischievous, he said, and in many respects naive and childish, which he found charming.

Cukor proved to be the most loyal friend when needed, as his friendship with Ingrid Bergman attests.  Ingrid received her first Best Actress Oscar in a Cukor film, Gaslight, in 1944.  “I am still in a haze about my Oscar,” wrote Bergman to Cukor on March 18, l945, “and I can hardly express myself in any language, but I wanted to tell you how grateful I am to you for your help and understanding of my poor Paula in Gaslight.”

Their friendship was particularly important to Ingrid while she lived in Italy with director Roberto Rossellini and suffered vicious attacks by the press and congress for her allegedly immoral behavior (leaving her husband and young daughter, Pia Lindstrom, to work with Rossellini).  Cukor was in close touch with Pia (Ingrid’s daughter from her first marriage, now NBC’s film and theater critic), serving as liaison between her and Ingrid.  In a letter of July 30, 1952, Ingrid wrote: “I am very happy about the outcome in court regarding Pia’s vacation.  Now more than before, I appreciate your letter describing how happy she was to talk about me and receive my presents.  I know it isn’t Pia herself who says these awful things about me in court.”

Jane Fonda

Cukor had kept in touch with most of the stars he had directed, all of whom wished to work with him again.  Indeed, his friendship and correspondence with Jane Fonda continued through the years she was in Paris, where she met and married French director Roger Vadim.  In 1968, Jane wrote to Cukor, whom she considered a close friend: “You are the godfather of a seven and a half pound female genius named Vanessa.”

Cukor loved New York City with all its energy and aura of sophistication: “It never occurred to me that I could live in California.  I was a New Yorker and came here with the talkies.”  But once he set his foot in Hollywood, he immediately took liking to the city and enjoyed his life there.  “I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Cukor said in reference to California, “I’m not a sun worshipper, but here I live close to my work, in country surroundings.” True, unlike other “émigrés” from the East Coast, the transition in lifestyles was smooth, with no major adjustment problems.  “It bothers me when people disparage Los Angeles and say that they miss the culture of New York and that New York is so stimulating.”  His response to this snobbish criticism was: “Well, if you’re not dull yourself, you’ll find it just as stimulating here.”

Cukor: The Raconteur

A witty personality, Cukor was a buoyant raconteur, whether he talked about his favorite actresses (Garbo and Hepburn), or his nine cocker spaniels.  One journalist noted that when he talked, he tended to use his mouth, hands, and “every terminal part of his body.”  But above all, Cukor treasured the value of friendship, always considering himself to be lucky to have so many intimate friends.  “Friendships are of enormous importance to me,” Cukor said in an interview, but every friendship was handled according to its own logic, which he described as: “You must maintain the relative position of the first meeting.”  To illustrate his point, he used his friendship with Ethel Barrymore: “When I first met Ethel, I fell on my face. We became good friends. She was very dear to me. But when she stayed here, it was always the same. She’d contradict me; she’d say go here, go there.”  On the other hand, he said: “there are people I meet, and they’re young and you always think of them that way–no matter how distinguished and successful they become in the future.”

In addition to being a great conversationalist, Cukor was an omnivorous reader and loved to travel.  He was so eager to read The Queen and the Hive, that he skipped every one of the introductory pages.  Noel Coward, a dear friend of Cukor, had to point out that Edith Sitwell actually dedicated the book to him.  “He was a marvelous man,” Cukor said about Coward, “very kind, very sweet.  He was a good friend to everybody, and everybody liked him.”  Coward used to stay in his guest room, when he was in California.  The shelves in Cukor’s huge library contained many books inscribed to him by their authors: Aldus Huxley, Anita Loos, Christopher Isherwood, Somerset Maugham.  Cukor was befriended by many literary celebrities, who held the highest respect for him as a director and as a friend.

For example, Cukor received books from Aldus Huxley with personal inscriptions.  Huxley was interested in writing the screenplay for the biopic, Madame Curie, with Cukor as director and Greta Garbo in the title role.  This project failed to materialize.  In 1944, it was made into a film by Mervyn Le Roy and starred Greer Garson.  Huxley wrote the script (in collaboration with Jane Murfin) of Pride and Prejudice (1940), based on Jane Austen’s famous romance, which Cukor was initially assigned to direct, with Norma Shearer and Robert Donat in the leading roles.  The movie was directed, however, by Robert Z. Leonard, with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier.

Cukor was a great admirer of humor: “I think the element of fun is the most wonderful element in friendships, as well as in working relationships.”  “I don’t mean the mechanical laugh,” he explained, “but a kind of humorous sense of fun–a sense of absurdity.  It’s not pompous, and it makes everything much more enjoyable.”

Rising to six feet, he was bulky and, though, not attractive in a conventional way, his appearance was pleasant and congenial.  A gourmet, he often had to go on diets in order to lose weight.  Yet good food was always important to him.  Indeed, while he directed The Blue Bird, the first American-Soviet co-production (in 1975), his biggest “problem” was not financial or even ideological, but rather culinary: the food was so terrible he gave orders to ship his food from London’s “Fortnum and Mason.”

During the Depression, Cukor proposed that the film industry cooperatively produce one film a year for the benefit of the old and the needy of the industry, and he volunteered to direct the first film.  He also suggested to establish a school of acting to which all the studios could send their promising young talent.  Unfortunately, nothing came out of these suggestions. A generous man with an eye for the future, Cukor decided to do it on his own.  In the l960s, he contributed to the enhancement of dramatic and cinematic education in colleges: he endowed an annual scholarship at Brooklyn College, as a tribute to his origins in New York, and a graduate fellowship at the University of Southern California.

With his long period of inactivity, from My Fair Lady in 1964 to Justine in 1969, rumors started to circulate in Hollywood that Cukor was on the verge of retirement.  But he vehemently denied these rumors: “I never considered that I had stopped making pictures. I simply worked on a number of projects that never turned out.”  Cukor continued to lead a busy life with an active schedule to the very end of his life.  Throughout his life, he never lost his great passion for film; he loved movies–not only as a director, but also as an avowed moviegoer.  He always maintained his zest for life and sharp curiosity about film, willing to see anything that promised to be interesting.  “I wish the pictures today weren’t so hopeless,” he said in the 1970s, “I wish they could get you more involved emotionally; you see some pictures where you don’t really care if anybody lives or dies.”  But he neither despaired nor condemned the younger generation of filmmakers.  This was his nature: to seek the best in everything he did or saw.  His companions always marveled at his ability to single out some achievement–even in bad films.