DURING THE production of his last feature, the 1981 comedy-drama "Rich and Famous," George Cukor was frequently asked by interviewers to summarize the changes he had observed during half a century as a successful Hollywood director. Just as frequently, he deflected the question: "Film may be more advanced technically, of course, but a good, witty script is still the basis for a great performance."
Script and performance, preferably witty and great. These remained the most desirable elements of a movie experience in the estimation of Cukor, who left several astutely depicted scripts and showcased performances to movie posterity when he died yesterday at the age of 83: "Dinner at Eight" with the fabulous ensemble of Marie Dressler, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Lee Tracy, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore and Billie Burke; the beguiling recreation of Louisa May Alcott's fictional world in the 1934 "Little Women" with Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Frances Dee and Jean Parker in the title roles; Greta Garbo's stirring "Camille"; the definitive movie versions of Philip Barry's plays "Holiday" and "The Philadelphia Story," both with Hepburn and Cary Grant as romantic comedy costars; Ingrid Bergman's first Oscar-winning performance in the theatrical thriller "Gaslight"; the finest of the Hepburn-Spencer Tracy comedies contrived by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, "Adam's Rib" and "Pat and Mike"; the best of Judy Holliday's comedy vehicles, "Born Yesterday" and "It Should Happen to You"; and the precariously elaborate but still impressive musical blockbusters "A Star Is Born" and "My Fair Lady."
While still a promising young theater director, Cukor was lured to Hollywood during the changeover from silents to talkies. His first credits were as "dialogue director," most auspiciously on "All Quiet on the Western Front," and in certain respects his career might be analyzed as the systematic refinement and perfection of a dialogue director's original duties, the coaching and rehearsal of the cast. Rarely obtrusive or flamboyant with camera placement or movement, Cukor achieved some of his most sparkling effects by keeping the camera riveted on inspired performers during sustained scenes. The most notable examples can always be rediscovered and savored: a long conversation between Dressler and Lionel Barrymore in "Dinner at Eight," Hepburn's interrogation of Holliday in "Adam's Rib" and Holliday's gin rummy game with Broderick Crawford in "Born Yesterday."
However, there's a third aspect to Cukor's theatrical talent that might not suggest itself by recalling his backlog of entertaining Broadway adaptations or marvelous performances--he was alert to settings as well as the spoken word and the line-reading actor or actress. This scenic appreciation extended beyond the contemporary comedy of manners that one thinks of as a Cukor specialty and could result in an expansive and sometimes sensual period flavor. One finds it in pictures like "Little Women," "David Copperfield," "Gaslight," "The Actress," "Bhowani Junction" and "My Fair Lady," although Cukor's well-publicized lack of rapport with designer Cecil Beaton may explain the rather ponderous, literal aspect of the Edwardian sets in "My Fair Lady." At any rate, it was this kind of pictorial elaboration and amplitude, rather than dynamic forms of composition or editing, that distinguished his appproach to the medium.
Given his affinities for period settings, literary source material, intimate social comedy and the sensibilities of women, especially strong-minded and endearing heroines, it's a shame that Cukor never guided a movie adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. The MGM production of "Pride and Prejudice," for example, seems an ideal Cukor project directed by someone else. At least he was instrumental in launching and sustaining the career of Katharine Hepburn, the closest thing to a living embodiment of a Jane Austen heroine in Hollywood over the past two generations.
The enormous success of "Little Women" in 1934 probably sealed Cukor's reputation as a "woman's director," although his first solo directing efforts came on starring vehicles for Tallulah Bankhead and Constance Bennett. He resisted this far-from-unflattering label in vain, despite the obvious evidence of exceptional performances by actors like Grant, Tracy, James Stewart, Charles Boyer, Ronald Colman, Jack Lemmon, James Mason, Rex Harrison and Laurence Olivier under Cukor's supervision. The greatest irony of his career is that he probably lost the directing job on "Gone With the Wind" because David O. Selznick, who had been Cukor's great Hollywood mentor throughout the '30s, decided that a "manlier" presence was necessary to appease Clark Gable, the most indispensable element in that high-anxiety production. According to historian Roland Flamini in "Scarlett, Rhett and a Cast of Thousands," Gable "could find little common ground with this fussy, gossipy little man of great sensitivity and sophistication, and he was suspicious and resentful of the director's closeness to Vivien Leigh." As an afterthought, Falmini adds that Cukor "didn't help matters much by addressing [Gable] as 'darling.' "
Selznick was in a bind, of course, but he didn't seem to realize that "Gone With the Wind" was fundamentally Cukor's sort of thing--a superlative "woman's picture" far more than a sweeping historical spectacle. After firing Cukor, Selznick arranged for him to direct "The Women" at MGM, a hit that underlined his reputation with a vengeance, since the cast had 135 actresses and no actors. Nevertheless, Cukor's guidance had become so crucial to both Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland that they kept on surreptitiously consulting him while "Gone With the Wind" was directed on the set by Selznick's replacements. It's estimated that perhaps 5 percent of the finished film was, in fact, directed by Cukor, and years later de Havilland tried to summarize the nature of Cukor's approach by directing attention to some of those remnants: "Look at the scene where Mammy's lacing up Scarlett, and then at the next one, where Scarlett sits on the stairs eating a chicken leg. There are no other scenes in the film with so much detail, such richness--all these were Cukor touches."
She exaggerates, but this obsession with the nuances of setting, characterization and acting interplay was regarded as Cukor's esthetic strength--and commercial weakness, when pursuing it threatened to slow down production. Cukor described his basic method to historian Gary Carey several years ago for the book "Cukor & Co." while recalling his work with Hepburn and John Barrymore in "A Bill of Divorcement":
"What dictates your approach very often isn't you, but it's the situation--it's the text. It's what the play tells you. I envy directors who have everything written on a piece of paper and then just go up on set and do it. I can't make up the dialogue, but I see things. The actors suggest things to me . . . Some people are in themselves fascinating, you get them in a strong situation, and you do it simply, and it carries you along with it . . . You just 'ride it.' You do it naturally, I suppose . . . Sometimes you're not right; sometimes you're too slow. But if it's a good strong situation--and you have interesting people who carry it, and you're in the saddle . . ."
Evidently, he left the line of thought unfinished on that occasion, but the approach itself remains exquisitely illustrated in the best work of George Cukor.