FOR MONTHS now, we've been waiting nervously for the fallout.
Cukor's new film, his 20th for MGM, stars Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen as best friends over a 20-year period, starting in college in the early '60s and leading up to the present. The comedy-drama traces their ups and downs with men, careers (both are writers), and children. It's the kind of picture that MGM does well, and that Cukor does better than anybody. The list of Hollywood classics turned out by Cukor over his filmmaking career of 50-plus years is almost too long to print, including great comedies ("Dinner at Eight" with Jean Harlow and the Barrymores; "The Women" with Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford; "Pat and Mike" in collaboration with Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and the Kanins), classic adaptations ("David Copperfield," "Little Women" with Hepburn, "Gaslight"), and throughout his career he's been known as a "woman's director" -- with Greta Garbo, Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Joan Crawford.
But Cukor is just as much an actors' director, with Academy Awards won by James Stewart, Ronald Colman and Rex Harrison in his films, and great performances by Cary Grant and James Mason, to name two more.
His career began on the stage in New York in the '20s, and much of See CUKOR, K*, Col. * CUKOR, From K1 his best film material has come from plays or books. Although he claims without question that he is not a writer, he has gravitated toward certain kinds of material: classic drawing-room drama, romances, and extremely sophisticated comedy. Cukor presents his material impeccably, with a fluid camera that always manages to put the audience front row center. Whatever genre or milieu he's working in, a Cukor film is always beautifully photographed and designed. His last 20 years in the business, in which Cukor became more of an independent, saw some of his richest and most original work -- Cinemascope musicals, intense romantic dramas, and perhaps the best "movie-of-the-week" of all time, "Love Among the Ruins," with Hepburn and Laurence Olivier. This film for TV, from a script by James Costigan won Cukor an Emmy for Best Direction in 1975 at the age of 74.
Cukor, spry and smiling in pajamas, led me through the art-and-book-filled house looking for the coolest room to escape the heat. In the hallway, a framed color photograph on the wall of Hepburn glowed like a three-strip Technicolor jewel. We settled in a downstairs bedroom, where Cukor took his time in answering the following questions.
Q. How did you find working with Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen? How would you describe them?
Cukor: "Surprising, both of them. When you start working with someone you haven't worked with before, there's a mutual getting-used-to-each-other that goes on. They have to get used to you. Candice Bergen was much funnier than I thought she could be. Before this and her last picture 'Starting Over' she was sort of a . . . Swedish beauty. Bisset was very thoughtful, a developing actress, and very cooperative."
After 48 feature films, do you ever get nervous about directing?
"Oh yes, the first three or four days are uneasy. Christ, the whole thing may turn out to be lousy. And then after a while, I become perfectly relaxed, and when other people come in after I've been working for a week or so and they're nervous, I think what are they nervous about? By that time, all the terrors have gone."
What are the major changes in production conditions on the set over the last 50 years?
"I haven't seen any change. I direct the way I used to -- brilliantly. We had a new cameraman, Don Peterman. A sensitive, marvelous cameraman. This film has a very expensive, lush look. Maybe I have something to do with that . . ."
Do cameramen ever resist your way of photographing or covering a scene?
"No, they never resist. They never, never resist. But, mind you, I was the smartest. I've always worked with good writers, and this writer, Gerald Ayres, is wonderful. It's a witty script that works, a good story, that's what I liked."
How important is realism in films?
"Believability, that's the important thing. And also, in a comedy, you hope it's funny. Sometimes realism doesn't capture the delicacy of the thing. But if they act it lightly . . . attractively . . ."
How did you become involved with the project?
"There was a strike, and the director, Robert Mulligan whom I have never met -- isn't that funny? -- wanted to leave, if possible. They called me and said, would you like to undertake it? I read the script and liked it and said, yes, yes, if you will."
Jacqueline Bisset had a hand in developing the project?
"Oh, my a--."
In other interviews, you've spoken in a way that makes me thing you're very generous with actors. Letting John Barrymore improvise in "Grand Hotel" . . .
"No, I don't believe in improvisation, I think that's the kiss of death. Occasionally on the set something happens, but I don't think you get a first-class piece of work by any improvisation. I'm amazed that people think you can. Every director adds business -- hot suggestions -- but it's really the script I'm directing. For me, making things up as you go along is frightening. You can't make it spontaneous if the writing isn't good. I'm very sensitive there, and that's what attracted me to this thing. I don't like it made up; that I find really intolerable."
Do you rehearse before going into shooting?
"Sometimes I do, on certain pictures.
Ahh. But we went to New York to look at all the locations. I made a lot of changes in before we started."
You're famous as a great director of actors and especially actresses. How do you bring out their best?
"Years and years of experience. I listen to them. I behave differently with a Katharine Hepburn than I do with Jacqueline Bisset. Kate's a master. She's been at it a long time, and I have a different attitude. She knows a great deal now. Not that she's always right; I'm always right."
How would you behave differently with Bisset?
"Forcing the discipline. There's no bull----!
Scenes in this film and many of your other films are often composed of long two-shots, master shots without much cutting into close-ups and coverage. Many of your strongest scenes are single long takes . . .
"Yes, I find them very satisfactory. If the actors can do it, and if it's the style of the film, I don't like to cut and cut and cut."
The long close-up of Jacqueline Bisset in her love scene with Hart Bochner her younger lover -- was it pre-planned that way?
"We shot other angles. It so happened that I thought it would be very advantageous -- staying on her. I don't think every scene should be 50-50. I found that was the way to do that scene."
Are you tyrannical on the set?
"Yes, I can be. On the face of it, I'm not. I don't allow any bull----. I do it very nicely . . . I don't let them make hot suggestions to each other."
Do you shoot a lot of takes?
"Yes, and the studio doesn't like that. They think I'm very extravagant. If you do a scene, and you've almost got it, and then you say well, all right, we'll do another take. Well, that means a cut, then they come in and put makeup on again, check wardrobe . . . I say, let's do it again right now, leave the camera rolling and let it flow. I like that . . . do three takes without stopping. MGM doesn't like it particularly, but I've done it for many, many pictures. You find you've got something going. When you cut, and they start to makeup, you lose the drive."
Have you worked with actors who often gave their best performance on the first take?
"Spencer Tracy said he was never good after the third or fourth take. He just flattened out. But then, Kate Hepburn never used to tire, never minded doing it over and over. Now that she's a very experienced actress, she's much more accomplished, and doesn't need to. You've got to know that in directing, too: when to shut up, when to press. You must free them. You can't coach them over-minutely or you rob them of their spontaneity. You find that out after a few days' work with people. It's something that you learn."
On the Barbara Walters TV special, Hepburn said some very critical things about . . .
No, she said she thought there were too many bedroom and sex scenes in movies today.
"I think that's silly. If she doesn't like it, that's too damn bad, but I don't agree with her. I should tell Miss Hepburn, things are different. She's fastidious, and things that she thinks might be considered vulgar are not. It depends really on the way they're doing. She liked the movie, though, thought it was fun."
There are quite a few scenes of lovemaking in the film. People associate you more with great romantic scenes, but your love scenes are often very frank, with a great deal of intensity and style, even violent sometimes. When you do a bedroom scene . . .
"I get very sexy."
I liked the scene in the airplane bathroom.
"Exciting. Not too serious . . . and realistic. I think if I were doing 'Little Women' I wouldn't have done it the same way. The times are different. Twenty-five years ago, I would have shot this picture less candidly. The writing would have been less frank. The film is rather bold, but not vulgar. That's the trick. The preview audience in San Francisco, right off the street, screamed with laughter, and I don't think it offended anybody."
Did you go to the previews?
"Oh yes, always, and very nervously. The first preview is scary, 'cause it may be a flop. Did you like 'Sylvia Scarlet'? That was a famous catastrophe. Katharine Hepburn and I make big jokes about it. We had this preview, and Kate and I went there, and when we came back, Pandro Berman, the producer, and this lady cutter came, and we said, 'Pan, let's scrap this picture and we'll do a picture for you for nothing.' We were very eager. And he said, perfectly seriously, 'I hope to Christ I never see either of you again!' But he did, poor darling, 'cause we did a great many pictures together after that."
From what you've said then, you put script and acting above cinematic technique?
"Oh yes, for God's sake, yes. I ought to know about technique after all these years. I don't think it should be obvious. I'm an accomplished director, but I don't think you should be aware of technique. And one isn't, really, if the script is well-written. I don't try any tricks. We just played the scenes the way I felt they should be played. Sometimes I make arbitrary movements when I'm directing; they're not really important, but they just move the thing . . . this is something I've learned for years and years and years. Not that I'm right all the time, but you learn things. I could talk more, but I'm just too damn old."
Do you think your age has slowed you down much?
"That's a stupid question. If I've slowed down any, they shouldn't engage me! If you ask tactless, irritating questions, you'll get irritating answers."
Are there projects you'd like to do now?
"I'd like to do this picture with Sophia Loren, and she wants to do it, too. 'Anna Karenina.' I don't think they'd do it at Metro. I don't know what they they want. She'd be great in it. And it's a great man's part, too."