George Cukor‘s (1889-1983) private life was well known in Hollywood. His Sunday afternoon pool parties were legendary in gay circles, having been described in detail by some of the party guests, including writer John Rechy. Cukor’s home, decorated by gay actor turned gay interior designer William Haines, was the spot for Hollywood homosexuals to gather. The close knit group of regulars included Haines and his partner Jimmie Shields, plus Alan Ladd, Somerset Maugham, screenwriter Rowland Leigh, costume designers Orry-Kelly and Robert Le Maire, and actor Robert Walker. Frank Horn, private secretary to Cary Grant, was a frequent guest. Cukor and his sophisticated, artistic friends socialized with their boyfriends, hustlers, rough trade, actor wannabes, or ambitious artists and writers, who saw Cukor’s parties as a way into the exclusive Hollywood life.
My favorite anecdote: Hunky, young Forrest Tucker, who was straight, would show up at Cukor’s parties and swim naked in the pool for the viewing pleasure of Cukor’s famous gay guests such as: W. Somerset Maugham, Noël Coward, Cecil Beaton and other assorted influential gay guys from the art, literature, and theatre scenes. Tucker realized these men were important contacts. He was one of the many up and coming young actors who were willing to make a naked appearance for the sake of their careers. Among that group was handsome, hunky, hairy Aldo Ray, whom Cukor seemed to like well enough to cast him in Pat And Mike (1952) and The Marrying Kind (1952) with Judy Holliday.
Cukor’s personal reputation has suffered from some of the anecdotes about him. Rechy:
“Cukor was a catty, sometimes cruel queen who was as gifted at separating his private and public personas as he was at making films.”
Yet, he seems to have had close friends, at least those important enough for Cukor to have his home filled with their framed photographs: Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Stanley Holloway, Judy Garland, Gene Tierney, Cole Porter, James Whale, Edith Head, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Aldous Huxley, Ferenc Molnár, and Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy.
Interestingly, as a closeted gay artist in Hollywood, one of Cukor’s frequent themes in his films was how to reconcile a double life. His movies often feature an outsider or artist always at odds with his or her own queerness and the limits imposed by a staid society. For Cukor, this break with what society expects from an individual seems to represent authentic happiness.
With Holiday (1938), Cary Grant rejects his rich, stuffy fiancée in favor of her spinster sister, played by Hepburn, who turns out to be a free-spirited bohemian like him.
Cukor was often dubbed a “women’s director”, unfair because he also was great directing male actors. He was the first to show Cary Grant as a romantic comic actor in Sylvia Scarlett (1935). He gave the first boosts to the careers of Jack Lemmon, Tom Ewell and Anthony Perkins. He coaxed truly great performances from W. C. Fields, Lew Ayres, Spencer Tracy and James Mason that should have won each of them Academy Awards. He directed James Stewart, Ronald Colman and Rex Harrison in performances that did. Plus: Max Carey in What Price Hollywood? (1932), John Barrymore in Dinner At Eight (1933) Grant in Holiday and The Philadelphia Story (1940), Spencer Tracy in Adam’s Rib (1949) and Laurence Olivier in Love Among The Ruins (1975). All these actors were found to have new, interesting dimensions to their screen personas with Cukor’s smart, shrewd and sympathetic direction.
Among his very best and most personal films: Little Women (1933), The Marrying Kind (1952), Pat And Mike and A Star Is Born (1954); none of these films is glossy, but all are cinematic, and none of them started as plays in the theatre. Yet, Cukor was in love with theatre and theatrical effects. He made feverish, dangerous films for the era. He delighted with impersonations, lying, bitchery and putting a brave face on sorrow. He was a director who understood the deepest kind of pain. His films often feature actors and showoffs and impossible dreamers with big egos who put on an act onstage and off. He favored long scenes and long takes.
Many of his films feature characters who are chronic boozers: broken-down director Maximilian Carey (Lowell Sherman) in What Price Hollywood? (1932), washed-up actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore) in Dinner At Eight, sweet lost Ned Seton (Ayres) in Holiday (1938), edgy C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) in The Philadelphia Story, humiliated husband Barrie Trexel (Fredric March) in Susan And God (1940), marinated mother Evelyn Boult (Deborah Kerr) in Edward, My Son (1948) aging model Mary Ashlon (Ann Dvorak) in A Life Of Her Own (1950) and drunken film star Norman Maine (Mason) in A Star Is Born. Lady Sybil Wren (an intoxicating Kay Kendall) does a comic drunk scene for the books in Les Girls (1957), and, of course, Alfred P. Doolittle (Stanley Holloway) in My Fair Lady (1964) is the ultimate anarchic drunk.
Cukor did come from a booze-soaked generation and he moved in a liquor-heavy social set. But, he was only a moderate drinker, yet fascinated by alcohol and why people needed it, the loosening of social inhibitions that came with it, and the alluring self-destruction it predicted.
Cukor usually filmed stories from the viewpoint of a female main character. This is true in his Hepburn/Tracy romantic comedy Pat And Mike, just as it is in more obviously female-centric stories such as the classic Little Women or the thriller Gaslight (1944). Cukor’s emphasis on strong women, along with Clark Gable’s “ick factor” over Cukor’s gayness, are probably the reasons for Cukor being fired as director of Gone With The Wind (1939) by producer David O. Selznick. He directed what is possibly the quintessential Gay Film Of All Time, The Women (1939), with stars Shearer, Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Lucile Watson, Mary Boland, Virginia Grey, Marjorie Main; plus Butterfly McQueen and Hedda Hopper.
All of his life, Cukor fought an inferiority complex based on his less than handsome looks, weight and life in anti-Semitic America. His biggest non-secret was his gayness. Among the major directors of the Golden Age of Hollywood, only Cukor and James Whale were, more or less, basically openly gay.
He directed more than 50 films and he was nominated for five Academy Awards for Best Director, finally winning for My Fair Lady (1964). His first nominations were for two of the 10 films he made with Hepburn, Little Women and The Philadelphia Story.
“You direct a couple of successful pictures with women stars, so you become a ‘woman’s director’. Direct a sentimental little picture and all you get is sob stuff. I know I’ve been in and out of those little compartments. Heaven knows everyone has limitations. But why make them narrower than they are?”
He continued to work in his dotage, directing Maggie Smith in Travels With My Aunt (1972) and the turkey called The Blue Bird (1976), the first joint Soviet-American production. He reunited with Hepburn for the television films Love Among the Ruins and The Corn Is Green (1979). He directed his final film, Rich And Famous (1981), starring Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen, when he was 82-years-old.
Cukor’s final credits finally rolled in 1983. He is buried in an unmarked grave at Forest Lawn Memorial Cemetery.
My favorite Cukor moment is in Philadelphia Story, with Cary Grant’s speech on human frailty to haughty Hepburn as haughty Tracy Lord.