George Cukor (1899- 1983) led a private life that wasn’t so private in Hollywood. His Sunday afternoon pool parties were legendary, having been described in detail by some of the party guests, including gay 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, writer Somerset Maugham, screenwriter Rowland Leigh, costume designers Orry-Kelly and Robert Le Maire, and handsome actors Alan Ladd and 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.
Cukor would invite friends and colleagues he knew he could trust not to out him. In 1978, for Architectural Digest, he said of his Mediterranean style compound at 9166 Cordell Drive:
“The best times of my life I remember having here — in my own house. It’s been an intimate part of my life, my work, my friends — a great many friends indeed. As a matter of fact we used to work six days a week, and usually on Sundays, I don’t know how I managed it all, but we had lunch here.”
In 2000, Angela Lansbury told The New York Times :
“Cukor had a lot of wonderful-looking gay men around and waiters running around with champagne and people diving in the pool and people wandering in and out of the house talking in klatches.”
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 Noël Coward, or Cecil Beaton or 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. A favorite of the group was handsome, hunky, hairy Aldo Ray, whom Cukor seemed to like well enough to cast 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: actors Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., lovebirds Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, power couple Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Judy Garland, Gene Tierney, gay composer Cole Porter, the great gay director James Whale, costume designer Edith Head, Hollywood royalty Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg; talented writers Aldous Huxley, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, and Ferenc Molnár, plus Santa Monica power couple 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”. That’s unfair because he also was great directing male actors. He was the first to show Grant as a romantic comic actor in Sylvia Scarlett (1935). He gave the first boosts to the unlikely 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; and James Stewart, Ronald Colman and Rex Harrison in performances that did. Plus there is Lowell Sherman in What Price Hollywood? (1932), the great John Barrymore in Dinner At Eight (1933), Grant in The Philadelphia Story (1940), Spencer Tracy in Adam’s Rib (1949) and 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 are: Little Women (1933), The Marrying Kind (1952), Pat And Mike, and A Star Is Born (1954); none of these films is glossy, and none of them started as Broadway plays.
He made dangerous films for the era, featuring all sorts of interesting impersonations, lying, and bitchery. He was also 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.
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 Little Women or the thriller Gaslight (1944). Cukor’s emphasis on strong women, along with Clark Gable‘s “ick factor” over Cukor’s gayness, might have been some of 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 Gayest Film Of All Time, The Women (1939), with an entire cast of 130 speaking roles played by female stars Shearer, Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Lucile Watson, Mary Boland, Virginia Grey, Marjorie Main, Butterfly McQueen and Hedda Hopper. The Women does not have single male who is seen or heard, although men are much talked about, and the central theme is the women’s relationships with them. Florence Nash‘s character, Nancy Blake (“I am an old maid, a frozen asset”.) seems to be a lesbian. Even the props such as portraits, only have female figures, and the animals that appear as pets are also female.
Filmed in black and white, The Women includes a 6-minute fashion parade filmed in Technicolor featuring Adrian‘s most outré designs.
Although it received zero Academy Award nominations, The Women was a hit with audiences and critics and is one of the best films of 1939, a year of best films.