The University of Minnesota Press has recently re-released George Cukor: A Double Life, by Patrick McGilligan. Originally published in 1991, the book became known for its “outing” of the Hollywood director, the first biography to write about his “double life.”
Meticulously researched, A Double Life spends equal time investigating what went into the making of his films as it also tries to go behind the facade of Cukor’s Hollywood homosexual life. McGilligan manages to portray Cukor as a well-rounded man, but one wonders what the director, who tried so hard to keep his open secret under wraps would think about his “tricks” being discussed alongside his A-list friendships with such movie stars and celebrities as Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Somerset Maugham, and Vivien Leigh. Cukor would never have mixed the two groups in his life. In fact he went out of his way to keep his public and private lives very separate.
While it may have seemed revealing when first published, McGilligan tends to be a bit repetitive when discussing Cukor’s homosexuality, constantly emphasizing that the director liked a certain type of “rough trade.” He does draw a good picture of Cukor’s fabulous Hollywood home, which became a home-away-from home on Sundays to “the chief unit,” a group of Hollywood gay men who could relax and enjoy each other’s company. Cukor reportedly formed few close relationships, sexual or otherwise. He preferred to keep things light. Even life-long friend Katharine Hepburn — who he championed when her career was labelled box-office poison, directed in ten films, and who lived for many years in a guest house on his estate — was kept at a distance when it came to his personal, sexual, life.
The most controversial anecdote in the book, and perhaps the most impactful in Cukor’s Hollywood life is the detailing of how he lost his job as director on the epic Gone With the Wind. There are most likely many reasons, including Cukor’s tendency to shoot many takes and spend lavishly on sets and costumes, but certainly the most significant, and most hurtful to Cukor was how his leading man, Clark Gable, felt about him.
“Everyone was dumbfounded. Because whatever else he was, Gable was an absolute professional. Somebody asked, ‘What’s the matter with you today?’ And suddenly, Gable exploded. ‘I can’t go on with this picture! I won’t be directed by a fairy! I have to work with a real man!’
The bigoted Gable was the King of Hollywood, but most likely he was mostly concerned that Cukor was spending most of his time showcasing Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland’s performances in the film, to his detriment. Cukor didn’t find any support from long-time friend and producer David O. Selznick.
“I think the biggest black mark against our management to date is the Cukor situation and we can no longer be sentimental about it. We are a business concern and not patrons of the arts.”
Gone With the Wind wasn’t the only film that Cukor was dismissed on as director, but it was the one that he and Hollywood never forgot.
As comprehensive as his behind-the-scenes detailing of Cukor’s many films (and film ideas that never came to fruition), McGilligan is not much of a film critic. He completely dismisses Cukor’s classic The Women in just a few negative paragraphs, while dwelling on the merits of lesser efforts like The Chapman Report and The Blue Bird. He does help bring Cukor’s early days to life and his youth in New York City. Cukor was able to turn a love of going to the theater into a career, first by directing summer stock shows in the 1920s in Rochester, N.Y. and later on Broadway, to joining the talkies revolution and heading out to Hollywood in 1929, first as a dialogue coach, and later as a director.
Once Cukor left New York he never really looked back. He loved living in Hollywood and was an enthusiastic product of the studio system. He worked with all of the great producers, including David O. Selznick and Irving Thalberg. Cukor was dubbed “the women’s director,” which some came to take as a euphemism for homosexuality. But Cukor truly was interested in actors, and helped direct many Academy Award-winning performances, including Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story, Ronald Colman in A Double Life, Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.
Cukor was definitely the recipient of homophobic attitudes, but seemed to not hold any grudges. He was especially appreciative of films by the “macho” director John Ford. In his own films he tended to showcase stereotypical homosexual characters. It’s hard to determine whether this approach was some inner self-loathing or an attempt to “fit in.” Cukor had every reason to try to keep his sex life secret. MGM helped dismiss a morals charge (when Cukor and interior designer friend Bill Haines were involved in a bar fight) and Cukor was apparently very concerned to never breach any moral turpitude clause in his contract.
Hollywood seemed more than a little aware of Cukor’s sexuality. Producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz could be both dismissive and insightful on the topic,
“In a way, George Cukor was the first great female director of Hollywood. … A woman could come on his set and be absolutely safe. … With the other directors, there was always that moment, Is he going to make a pass at me?”
As good a director of actors as Cukor was, he never seemed to be too interested in the camera, preferring to stage a scene and perfect a particular piece of dialogue or bit of business for an actor. His cameramen were more responsible for a shot’s composition — something that seems anathema in our concept of how Hollywood directors/auteurs should work.
What really comes through in George Cukor: A Double Life is the sheer amount of wonderful and eclectic films that were directed by Cukor. He definitely had a flair for comedy, as evidenced by Dinner at Eight (1933) and two films with Judy Holiday, Born Yesterday (1950 ) and It Should Happen to You (1954). Although not particularly interested in musicals (he would usually have the dance numbers staged by someone else, like choreographer Jack Cole), he directed quite a few: A Star Is Born (1954), Les Girls (1957), and My Fair Lady (1964). He even directed two films with Marilyn Monroe, Let’s Make Love (1960) and her last film, the unfinished Something’s Got to Give (1962).
George Cukor: A Double Life more than anything makes one want to hold their own mini Cukor film festival. So many of his films are Hollywood classics, and film buffs could program a few movie marathons, depending on where they would like to focus. The films he made with Tracy and Hepburn? Try Keeper of the Flame (1942), Adam’s Rib (1949), and Pat and Mike (1952). The five that were written by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon? How about A Double Life (1947), Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike, The Marrying Kind (1952), and It Should Happen to You. Or maybe check out some of the films that helped give him the reputation as a “women’s director.” Camille, with Greta Garbo (1936); Susan and God, with Joan Crawford (1940); Gaslight, Travels with My Aunt (1972), with Maggie Smith; or Rich And Famous (1981), with Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bisset. No matter what the choice, it will be impossible not to think of George Cukor reading those scripts and working out the costumes for his actors after one of his lavish Sunday night parties.