George Cukor’s Way with Women

“To begin with, Gone with the Wind is a woman’s story . . . Mr. Cukor, one of Hollywood’s finest directors and the man who has directed Hepburn and Garbo in some of their best, is known as a woman’s director . . . Mr. Gable became aware of these two facts and became suddenly unhappy, not without reason, one must admit.”

—“Cal York’s Gossip of Hollywood,” Photoplay, May 1939


This pseudonymous tidbit—about George Cukor’s infamous and still-debated firing as director of Gone with the Wind—is one of few references in the era’s movie magazines to a tag well known in the industry: George Cukor, woman’s director. And there’s a reason why that description was generally kept out of print. William Wyler also directed actresses to acclaim and Oscars in movies aimed squarely at what critics of the time called “the femmes” or “the distaff side,” and the phrase was almost never applied to him. In studio-era Hollywood, “woman’s director” didn’t merely describe Cukor’s skills or the scripts he chose. They were calling him gay (“not without reason” was the extra hint for the hip). Of course he can direct women, went the argument. He’s gay, that means he’s effeminate, that means he understands women in a way that macho guys never could.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz put it this way: “The women adored him simply because they felt at ease. And women by and large didn’t feel at ease [in that era].” That thesis isn’t unreasonable, but the flaws aren’t hard to spot. Many directors, from gentle souls to absolute tyrants, have drawn great performances from actors. But the ability to work with them in true collaboration is a talent you either have or you don’t. The very heterosexual Mankiewicz was himself a great director of women, while a number of actresses are alive to testify that Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s being gay didn’t make him any easier to work with.

As revered as Cukor is, his uncanny knack with actresses is often undervalued, even by admirers. All of the films in the Criterion Channel’s program this month exhibit the beauty of Cukor’s direction, such as the magnificent series of tracking shots that trace the heroine’s first entrance to the studio in What Price Hollywood? (1932). If they also emphasize the abilities of legendary stars like Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo, that isn’t a minor consideration. It’s the essence of Cukor’s genius.

What Price Hollywood?

Imperious Constance Bennett, described by Louise Brooks as one of the “Hollywood detestables,” admired and respected Cukor as she did virtually no other director. “George Cukor was a miracle man, both Constance and Joan agreed,” wrote Brian Kellow in his book about the Bennett sisters. For What Price Hollywood?, Cukor was pretty much the first film director who ever rehearsed with Constance Bennett. He did the work needed to set aside the brittleness and artificiality that had grown on her like Spanish moss. Bennett’s character, Mary Evans, begins the film as a waitress at the Brown Derby, and those scenes require a fresh and unaffected quality, or else we won’t believe she could catch the eye of the dissolute director Max Carey (Lowell Sherman). She must then move to flustered newbie actress, to star, to loyal friend of Max as his drinking begins to ruin his life. Bennett correctly called What Price Hollywood? the best film she ever made. Later that same year, she agreed to make Rockabye (1932) with Cukor, and when that one didn’t turn out to be a feather in anyone’s cap, Bennett still was happy to make Our Betters (1933), based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham. Cukor had fond memories of Ina Claire’s performance on stage, and while Bennett wasn’t capable of the kind of rapid-fire drawing-room delivery that made Claire’s name, the director still managed to make the most of the actress’s natural elegance and love of showing off. Bennett’s character, a rich American unhappily married to an English lord, turns her home into a glittering salon, and surely Cukor knew how that should go, as by this time his own home was becoming a magnet for his Hollywood friends.

Cukor was already favorably disposed to Bennett—and later her sister Joan, whom he cast as Amy in Little Women after seeing her get tipsy at a party. He had seen their father, Richard Bennett, many times on the New York stage. Indeed, part of Cukor’s regard for actresses can be traced back to his upbringing, and the youthful years he spent attending every Broadway play he could manage. The son of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants who had carved out a secure middle-class existence, Cukor, as they say, didn’t quite fit in, and he soon realized he would never be a lawyer like his father. Instead, young George’s artistic bent was encouraged by the mother he adored and an uncle who took the boy to vaudeville shows at the vast, long-gone Hippodrome. During his high school years, he and two like-minded friends often cut class to go to the theater. “From the safe remove of the second balcony—all they could afford—the future film director fell in love with the stage beauties of that generation,” wrote biographer Patrick McGilligan. He adds that years later, long after Cukor became famous, he would meet the idols of his youth and astonish them with his precise memory of their roles, down to their line readings. (When Cukor died in 1983, none of the big Hollywood stars he had directed went to his funeral, but his long-ago favorite Ina Claire, age ninety, did.) 

“In addition to being one of Hollywood’s more cultured directors, Cukor was and remained a fanboy, whose years of star-worshipping became an ability to spot and nurture star quality.”

Dinner at Eight

So in addition to being one of Hollywood’s more cultured directors, Cukor was and remained a fanboy, whose years of star-worshipping became an ability to spot and nurture star quality. Even with an established name like Jean Harlow, Cukor could work wonders. “What a challenge!” Mankiewicz teased Cukor when the latter was casting Dinner at Eight (1933). “I can’t imagine how you will ever get Jean Harlow to play a tart.” Cukor had spotted Harlow in the 1930 Hell’s Angels (well, how could he miss her), but thought she was terrible: “She wasn’t a vamp, she was a comedienne.” His words were prophetic. Having noticed Harlow’s true gifts from the beginning, Cukor helped fashion Kitty Packard into Harlow’s comedic peak. One wonders if even Mank expected her to be that good. With Cukor as accomplice, Harlow nimbly steals the epic marital fight scene from Wallace Beery, who was twice Harlow’s size and one of the biggest smokehouse hams in the business.

Little Women

Katharine Hepburn failed to impress anyone in her first screen test—save Cukor, who found himself entranced by the way the long-limbed actress moved to pick up a drink, even though her back was to the camera. He tried to explain his interest to the others in the screening room, writes McGilligan, but nobody had any idea what the director was talking about. Her unique quality was more apparent in A Bill of Divorcement (1932—what a year for Cukor!) and by the time Little Women was released a year later, everyone understood. Hollywood Magazine ran an unusual article in 1934, centered on the relationship between Cukor and Hepburn. They had fought during Little Women, and writer Ruth Biery asserts that the set was barred because outsiders “might misunderstand Cukor’s ‘Shut up!’ at one of Katy’s tirades at doing a scene as he saw it. Or her answer of ‘Oh, come and do it yourself.’ ” (This sounds plausible enough.) But the article also quotes Hepburn giving him credit for her wondrously physical Jo March and the movie itself: “It is great because George Cukor is great.” “There is no doubt he knows her better than anyone in Hollywood,” concludes Biery, and for once, the fan magazine is right. No matter what happened at the box office, no director ever admired or understood Katharine Hepburn like George Cukor. 

Sylvia Scarlett
Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett

That may not have been an advantage for their ill-fated 1935 collaboration Sylvia Scarlett, much loved today for its gender-bending playfulness and dreamy mood. Hepburn wears men’s attire for nearly the entire running time and defies all expectations for a feminine star: “I’ll be a boy, and rough and hard, and I won’t care what I do!” It was filmed on location in Malibu, away from studio offices and the bosses inside them, as McGilligan notes, and cast and crew picnicked on the cliffs and had a high old time for a while. The finished picture was choppy and episodic, although that probably isn’t why it flopped. The real problem was that Sylvia Scarlett dared to joke in ways that made the audience uncomfortable, even those who had no inside knowledge of Cukor’s (or Cary Grant’s or Hepburn’s) sexuality. Like a black swan turned loose in the bridal department, Sylvia Scarlett tramples the usual boy-meets-girl romance that was the studios’ bread and butter. The film was a flop even before its release. At a preview attended by Cukor and Hepburn, the audience failed to laugh even once, then began to walk out. Director and actress blamed themselves. McGilligan says privately, Hepburn and Cukor referred to it as “their misbegotten love child.” Even Sylvia Scarlett’s eager embrace by latter-day cinephiles failed to soothe the wounds. When the Museum of Modern Art proposed opening a Cukor retrospective with Sylvia Scarlett in 1970, he asked them to screen Holiday (1938) instead.

While its failure turned out to be a blip in Hepburn’s long career, Sylvia Scarlett  wouldn’t be the last time Cukor took a woman star he’d guided to great heights and drove her next vehicle straight into a ditch. If it weren’t for Her Cardboard Lover (1942), the movie that made Norma Shearer throw in the towel (and not a moment too soon), Two-Faced Woman(1941), Greta Garbo’s final film, would have a strong claim to being Cukor’s biggest disaster. The movie itself is weird but fascinating, neither an unfairly maligned classic nor an unwatchable dud. The script demands that Garbo act in a mode—farce—that was alien to her temperament. Ironically, the best performance is given by Cukor’s old friend Constance Bennett, as Garbo’s rival. Bennett’s stardom was slipping, and Cukor, known for his loyalty, cast her as a favor. “What little there is to steal, Constance steals,” remarks Kellow. Despite the fact that it’s virtually impossible to overcome miscasting on top of a rickety script (unfinished when shooting began and continuously revised as they went along), many Garbo fans hold a grudge to this day. Years later, writes Garbo biographer Barry Paris, the topic caused Louise Brooks to rage about Cukor’s failure to understand the great star, lapsing into anti-gay slurs and declaring “Garbo allowed Cukor to destroy her in Two-Faced Woman.” 

Camille

The response, for anyone willing to risk telling Brooks she was wrong, should have been that Cukor understood Garbo well enough to direct her in one of the most sublime performances of the 1930s, as Marguerite Gautier in Camille (1936). That too wasn’t a promising property. Camille was a warhorse seemingly ready for the glue factory: first an 1848 novel, then a play toured endlessly by Bernhardt and Duse, then Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, then no fewer than four prior American silent-film versions. But Garbo’s art was at its height, something Cukor understood, and he gave her all she needed. Cukor liked rehearsals; Garbo did not, preferring to save her acting for the camera, and he let her run through scenes in a mechanical fashion as she did just that. She wanted no visitors, he mostly complied, and when Irving Thalberg came to the set—just days before his death—Cukor said nothing as Garbo ignored the head of production. Cukor had a habit, according to McGilligan, of standing beside the camera and almost miming along with his actors as they played a scene. Garbo hated it, and so when she was acting, he got out of sight.

The results speak for themselves. Garbo adamantly refused to watch rushes, believing that it would make her self-conscious. But according to Barry Paris, she broke her rule once: She asked to see the last ten minutes of Camille.

On the set of The Women
The Women

Ironically, Her Cardboard Lover was the very next film Cukor directed after Two-Faced Woman, but he had done right by Norma Shearer previously with The Women (1939). She was one of the most mannered and least naturally gifted of the great stars, but in The Women Cukor carefully drew out a less affected side to Shearer. It’s one of his most beloved films, remembered with great fondness not only by audiences but by nearly everyone who was in it, even Joan Fontaine, whose weepy character was not her best work. Rosalind Russell recalled how Cukor demanded an exaggerated comic style for her role, Sylvia Fowler, despite her initial protests, and that it was Sylvia who established her as a formidable comedienne.

But it is Joan Crawford as Crystal Allen who nearly steals the movie, and Cukor seems to relish this villainess most of all. Beyond knowing how actresses wanted to look and move on screen, Cukor also knew the flip side, the things that women don’t want other people to see, the ugliness inside and out that we’re trained from the cradle not to show to the world.

Crawford “made no appeals for audience sympathy,” Cukor recalled. “She was not one of those actresses who have to keep popping out from behind their characters, signaling, ‘Look—it’s sweet, lovable me, just pretending to be a tramp.’ ” She did the same for Anna Holm, the scarred and embittered main character of A Woman’s Face (1941) and Cukor marveled at Crawford’s nerveless ability to give her all to close-ups in an era before zoom lenses, when that could mean a dozen men pushing a giant camera to within inches of your face. 

Gaslight

In 1944 Cukor was brought on board to film a version of the hit play Angel Street by Patrick Hamilton. Ingrid Bergman wanted to play the lead as Paula Alquist, whose husband is trying to drive her crazy in order to steal her inheritance. Screenwriters Walter Reisch and John Van Druten didn’t fancy Bergman—tall for the era at five foot nine and the epitome of glowing Swedish health—as the delicate heroine of what was now titled Gaslight. As McGilligan records, Cukor thought such objections were superfluous: “What if we do have a powerful woman? It will be twice as interesting to see whether she will be able to fight back, whether he will be able to really ruin her, or break her.” And indeed, Bergman’s strength makes her Paula that much more sympathetic. Another director might have encouraged her to fluttery neurosis. Cukor, Bergman later recalled, peppered her with details and questions until she begged him to stop, using Bergman’s sharp mind to show how Paula’s thoughts are overrun by intrusive ideas planted by her husband. Other directors relied on an actress’s instincts. As he entered another rich phase of his career, George Cukor always remembered their intelligence.

Our ten-film series George Cukor’s Women is available to stream on the Criterion Channel through July 31, 2019. Click here to watch!