Perhaps the most astute assessment of George Cukor’s moviemaking career, which spanned 51 years (1930–1981), was delivered by the auteur himself. “There are lots of creative directors who can seize a script and make it part of their world — like Lubitsch, or Ford, or Hitchcock,” Cukor told Kenneth Tynan in a 1961 profile of the filmmaker. “And there are others who try to become part of the script’s world. Like me.” Many, however, interpreted the director’s modest approach to his work uncharitably, such as this anonymous screenwriter quoted in Tynan’s piece: “Oh, Cukor doesn’t make movies. Cukor just makes actors.”
But what actors! Many of Hollywood’s most enduring icons made their first films — and many others — with Cukor, who admitted to Peter Bogdanovich in a 1969 interview, “I think that maybe I have nose for talent.” He also magnificently revived careers that had stalled and presided over the swan songs of Greta Garbo (Two-Faced Woman, from 1941) and Norma Shearer (1942’s Her Cardboard Lover). Even 30 years after his death, Cukor is sometimes condescendingly referred to as a “women’s director” (a term that was also used to show contempt for his homosexuality, an open secret for five decades), as if eliciting some of the greatest performances from Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and Judy Garland were no extraordinary accomplishment. The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s complete, 50-title Cukor retrospective proves the foolishness of such dismissals, showcasing the gifts of a director as deft in noirs (see 1941’s A Woman’s Face) as in comedies.
Born in New York City in 1899 to middle-class Hungarian Jewish immigrant parents, Cukor began as a theater director, overseeing a Broadway adaptation of The Great Gatsby in 1926. In 1929, he relocated permanently to Hollywood, part of a group of stage talent recruited to serve as dialogue directors during the transition from silents to talkies. Two years into his screen-helming career, he cast an actress he admired, per Tynan, for her “gawky self-confidence”: Hepburn, making her screen debut in A Bill of Divorcement (1932). She would star in nine more Cukor projects; this felicitous collaboration illuminated the performer’s fey, gender-bending charms in Sylvia Scarlett (1935), her command of fierce fragility in Holiday (1938), and her knack for courtroom zingers in Adam’s Rib (1949), in which she argues a sensational case opposite her husband, played by Spencer Tracy. (Speaking of open secrets, Hepburn and Tracy, according to Bogdanovich, spent many years of their adulterous relationship in Cukor’s guest house.)
Shelley Winters had her first credited screen role in the noir A Double Life (1947); she would reteam with the director in The Chapman Report (1962), a lurid, often incoherent ensemble drama inspired by Alfred Kinsey’s convention-shattering findings about female sexuality, here in the service of the highly conventional message that marriage cures all. Yet even in this major misstep — largely the result of studio interference and timidity — one can still sense Cukor’s deep empathy for his four suburban heroines and their profound dissatisfaction.
But nowhere was Cukor’s compassion for his distaff protagonists more touchingly evident than in the four comedies he made with Judy Holliday, the quintessential smart dumb blonde; she is yet another incomparable talent whose movie career commenced with Cukor, in a small role in the fervently patriotic (and anomalous) Winged Victory (1944). This quartet includes Adam’s Rib — wherein Holliday’s neglected, two-timed spouse is defended against attempted-murder charges by Hepburn — Born Yesterday (1950), The Marrying Kind (1952), and It Should Happen to You (1954; cast opposite Holliday was Jack Lemmon in his screen debut). These (and other titles) were written, either individually or together, by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, the husband-and-wife team whose partnership with the director was as invaluable as those he formed with his most cherished performers.
For all of Cukor’s impeccable instincts in launching careers, he was also responsible for the legendary resurrection of a star whose colossal gifts were frequently overshadowed by her incorrigible tendencies toward self-sabotage: Garland. He cast her in his CinemaScope musical adaptation of A Star Is Born (1954), her first film since MGM suspended her contract in 1950 for failing to complete several projects. As Esther Blodgett — an aspiring performer deeply devoted to her husband, Norman Maine (James Mason), an A-lister rapidly declining — Garland uncannily plays an idealized version of herself: punctual, non-neurotic, steadfast. Late in the film, Esther breaks down, fretting over Norman, whose own dysfunctions and addictions mirror his co-star’s real-life troubles. “What is it that makes him want to destroy himself?” she sobs, and it’s impossible not to think about the same impulses that bedeviled the woman delivering the line. However poignant, Cukor doesn’t emphasize these painful ironies, concentrating instead on Garland’s transcendent musical numbers “The Man That Got Away” and “Lose That Long Face.” He’s not “just” making an actor — he’s remaking one.