George Cukor was a director who deserved his pigeonholes. Even when he was an old man and it was too late to argue about it, he still insisted he wasn’t “a woman’s director.” He was also “the guy who directed film adaptations of plays.” That’s what he was and it certainly wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, especially because he was extraordinarily gifted at it.
He wasn’t just Katharine Hepburn’s director, working with her on over ten films. George directed Hep, Garbo, Bergman, Kerr, Maggie Smith, Judy Garland and Judy Holliday in Oscar-nominated performances. His eleven films with women or women’s names in the title include: My Fair Lady, Tarnished Lady, Les Girls, Two-Faced Woman, The Women, Little Women, Travels with my Aunt, Romeo and Juliet, Pat and Mike, Justine, and Camille. Not a woman’s director?
From the film version of Kaufman and Ferber’s “Dinner at Eight” in 1933 to the triumph of “My Fair Lady” in 1964, for which he won an Oscar, and even on to “The Corn is Green” in 1975, most of Cukor’s best films were actually his best filmed plays.
Born in NYC in 1899, he directed plays on Broadway during the ‘20s, then came to Hollywood in 1929. By 1933, Cukor was directing “Dinner at Eight,” with such luminaries as John and Lionel Barrymore (he had worked with Ethel Barrymore on the stage) and a half-dozen other stars. He made a few more classics in the ‘30s, including “Holiday” and “Camille.” By 1939, he was with MGM, and had the honor of being a short-term director on both “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind.” George was fired from the latter after disagreements with David O. Selznick and star Clark Gable.
George Cukor bounced back big, though, directing Hepburn’s comeback and brilliant performances by Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart in the classic “The Philadelphia Story.” His ‘40s contributions to the pantheon also include “Gaslight,” “Adam’s Rib,” and “Born Yesterday” - about as far from Tara as you can get.
Though critics, cinephiles and apologists like to point out the six or so films that aren’t witty, light comedies to show that he could do different genres (and he could), it’s no shame and certainly no coincidence that those are rather outside of his milieu.
Cukor’s cinematic style seems to be born out of the theatre. That’s where he got his start, and most of his actors were equally at home on stage. So, at first when you’re watching them, you think he just didn’t know about cross-cutting (cutting back and forth between characters in conversation). But then you get caught up in the easy naturalness of his long, long (the time, not the lens) two-shots, which let the actors act and let the brilliant dialogue ring out. Sure, it’s proscenium, but so was Shakespeare.
Ironically, George’s Oscar and his most famous film was “My Fair Lady.” Of course, it’s not the Cukor of the lush black and white. But it is the stage-adapation Cukor, the witty Cukor, the get out of the way and let the stars shine Cukor, and (though she wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar) the director of Audrey Hepburn Cukor. That’s one fine pigeonhole indeed.
-- Nate Lee
PHILADELPHIA STORY - Listen carefully to Cary Grant’s constant zingers, especially with John Howard, his rival for Hepburn. - Jimmy Stewart finally gets drunk. - Cary Grant’s speech on kindness to the uppity Kate as the really uppity Tracy Lord.
HOLIDAY - Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn work beautifully in this high-society play cum film - Grant and Hep do amazing acrobatics with the help of their audience Lew Ayres and especially Edward Everett Horton.
BORN YESTERDAY - Judy Holliday playing gin with the overbearing gangster, Broderick Crawford, is a classic.
CAMILLE - Just watch this Parisian tragic romance story to enjoy every gesture and glance of Garbo and revel in that unmatched style and voice.
PAT AND MIKE AND ADAM’S RIB - This Spencer Tracy Katherine Hepburn duo duet must be seen together. In the first, natural athlete Hep saves manager Spence from being beaten up, and then repeats the scene hilariously in the police station. - In the latter, as dueling attorneys, both their speeches on the law and on rights are lovely, but Spence’s “suicide” one is beyond brilliant.
MY FAIR LADY - Your favorite song is your favorite scene, no matter what, but you’ve still got to love the opening Covent Garden scene where Higgins (Rex Harrison) discovers Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn).
GREAT MOVIES THAT WERE ALREADY GREAT PLAYS:
My Fair Lady
Dinner at Eight
Pat and Mike
A Star is Born
Love Among the Ruins
Travels with my Aunt
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