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First Person

Celebrating Cukor

July 12, 1999|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At a private memorial gathering, writer Fay Kanin, then president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, stood before a Hollywood crowd and observed with a smile: "George Cukor had so many friends, I wonder how he found the time to make all those wonderful movies."

That was in February 1983, after Cukor died of a heart attack at 83. Certainly, a gift for friendship characterized Cukor as much as his talent for directing movies of enduring wit and charm over a film career that spanned more than half a century.

Cukor had long won the respect and affection of those in the industry; late in life, Henry Hathaway, that most colorful and macho of directors, spoke movingly of Cukor's devotion to Hollywood and its institutions. "You might say that while the rest of us married and had children, George had married Hollywood." (On the set Cukor's No. 1 rule was, "Never try to fool your crew.")

The academy, along with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Directors Guild of America and the Hungarian Film Commission--Cukor was of Hungarian-Jewish ancestry--is sponsoring a 32-film retrospective marking the centennial of Cukor's birth. The celebration begins Thursday at the academy as Kanin joins art director Gene Allen, writer Gavin Lambert, and directors Paul Mazursky and Istvan Szabo in a panel discussion about Cukor moderated by film historian and Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel. This follows an 8 p.m. screening of clips from Cukor films and his scintillating 1932 film "What Price Hollywood?," which would be remade as "A Star Is Born," first by William Wellman and then by Cukor himself.

On the screen Cukor was able to bring alive with unpretentious grace the worlds of romance, drama and comedy. His films were set in the past as well as the present and spanned all strata of society and include such classics as "The Women," "The Philadelphia Story," "Camille," "My Fair Lady" and "Adam's Rib," among many others.

Cukor adored many women, empathized with them, yet he understandably hated being tagged "a women's director" because it overlooked his considerable skill with actors. He drew splendid performances from such varied male leads as John Barrymore, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Anthony Quinn, Rex Harrison and Jack Lemmon.

Typically, Cukor's movies were inhabited with charismatic stars, and he viewed the challenges facing the characters they played so effectively under his subtle direction with a bemused yet compassionate detachment. Arguing that Cukor's theme was imagination, "with the focus on the imaginer rather than the thing imagined," critic Andrew Sarris concluded that Cukor "was committed to the dreamer, if not the content of the dream."

A discreet homosexual, Cukor was an inspiration to generations of gays in the film industry. Cukor was at ease about his own sexuality, but he never felt comfortable in coming out publicly. This ultimately blocked his repeated attempts to write a memoir, even though he was fully aware that once he was gone it would be much written about. He hated the term "gay," feeling it too frivolous-sounding, and late in life said, "I know I should come out, but I'm just too old."

Dialogue Director on 'All Quiet'

When he arrived in Hollywood 70 years ago as a dialogue director on "All Quiet on the Western Front," he had already befriended such literary lights as Somerset Maugham. Yet he quickly became great pals with such hearty, ethnic comedians as Polly Moran and Fanny Brice. Most important, especially for the eras he spanned, Cukor became a mentor for at least three generations of gay men at various levels in the motion picture industry. Cukor believed strongly in knowing your worth, standing up for yourself and never, never indulging in self-pity--no matter who or what you were or your circumstances.

If he did not make a public declaration of his homosexuality, he never pretended to be other than what he was, and surely within the film industry and, for that matter, well beyond it, his sexual orientation was as well known as that of Rock Hudson. Public identification as a homosexual, especially in regard to celebrities, has often been--and still is--a matter of degree rather than the either-or situation of being in the closet or out of it.

However, there's a current tendency to take an "outer than thou" view of gays in Hollywood's past. William Mann, who wrote "Wisecracker," an excellent recent biography of William Haines, silent star turned leading interior decorator (who in fact decorated Cukor's elegant West Hollywood hills home), admitted that his publisher had stretched a point in proclaiming Haines, on his book's dust jacket, "Hollywood's first openly gay star," even though the actor decided to put a longtime relationship ahead of his screen career.

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