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The Invisible Director Gets His Due

George Cukor was known for eliciting award-winning star turns. But he did so much more, argues a new documentary.

November 19, 2000|TOM GILBERT | Tom Gilbert is managing editor of the television trade journal Electronic Media

The late George Cukor once said, "I work through the actors, and the more successful I am, the less my work is apparent."

Ironically, the high degree of success Cukor did achieve--in films marked by stellar performances and evocative but subtle mise en scene--may be precisely the reason he is sometimes overlooked in discussions of the great Hollywood directors of the 20th century.

Known for his deft touch with sometimes light but always literate material and for his consistency at extracting extraordinary star turns, Cukor is the focus of a new "American Masters" documentary, "On Cukor," which will debut Wednesday on PBS. The film is patterned after onetime Cukor associate Gavin Lambert's 1972 book of the same name, which had extensive interviews with the director in a question-and-answer format. In conjunction with the PBS production, the book has been revised, updated with a new introduction and extensively redesigned.

"This is a guy who deserves a feature-length documentary who hasn't ever been given one," says Robert Trachtenberg, producer, director and writer of the documentary who also edited the text and photos of the new edition of Lambert's book (Rizzoli), which hit stores in October. The revised version is a high-quality, coffee-table tome that, while it retains the original's Q&A style, includes additional material and incorporates many more photos.

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Cukor, who died in 1983 at age 83, enjoyed a 50-year motion-picture career that resulted in such classics as "What Price Hollywood?" (1932), "Little Women" (1933), "Dinner at Eight" (1933), "David Copperfield" (1935), "Camille" (1936), "The Women" (1939), "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), "Gaslight" (1944), "Adam's Rib" (1949), "Born Yesterday" (1950), the 1954 remake of "A Star Is Born," and "My Fair Lady" (1964), and ended with 1981's "Rich and Famous."

Because of the highly lauded screen performances he elicited from such leading ladies as Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Ingrid Bergman, Judy Holliday and Judy Garland, Cukor became known in the industry, and later to film scholars, as a "woman's director"--a label that persists and one that "On Cukor" author Lambert deems unfair.

"That label was stuck on George very early," Lambert notes, adding, "To say that he was very good with actresses ignores the fact that he was very good with actors, as well. Look at Cary Grant. George discovered the 'Cary Grant' in Cary Grant in 'Sylvia Scarlett.' Then there's that wonderful performance by W.C. Fields in 'David Copperfield.' And James Mason was extraordinary in 'A Star Is Born.' "

Cukor also had an impressive track record with neophyte actors, Trachtenberg says, citing outstanding performances by then-newcomers Jack Lemmon in "It Should Happen to You" (1954), and Aldo Ray in "The Marrying Kind" (1951) and "Pat and Mike" (1952).

Lambert further contends that there was an additional, hidden meaning in this particular classification: "I always felt the dubbing of him as a 'woman's director' was a sort of code for him being gay, and that's probably how it started."

The fact that Cukor was homosexual doesn't figure much in either the book or the documentary, both of which focus on career rather than personal life. What comes through, however, is that there wasn't much of a personal life, at least one marked by lasting, intimate sexual relationships.

"It was his friends and his work. His friends were his personal life," explains Trachtenberg. "People find it hard to believe, but in three years-plus of research, by all accounts this was a really, really happy guy. This was not someone who came home from the studio at midnight and sat alone in the dark."

Lambert, a novelist and screenwriter ("The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone," "Sons and Lovers," "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden") who had a friendship and professional relationship with Cukor that predated his book, says that the director "would be quite personal with me off the record, but he was not at ease about the idea of it being in a book."

"I understood totally because he was of that generation, and in that situation, where you had to be very careful," Lambert says. "You just couldn't come out with it. Of course, later in life, when he had far less to lose, he rather enjoyed being quite frank and absolutely outrageous. He was suddenly liberated."

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