Throughout the 1920s, Cukor worked as a stage director in Rochester and New York, rising to prominence with productions of The Great Gatsby, The Constant Wife, and Tier Cardboard Lover. In 1929, he did dialogue direction for Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and that led him swiftly into direction, originally at Para-mount, and then at RKO and MGM. These moves were made as the friend and most trusted director of David Selznick. It was a two-way exchange, for Cukor gave the producer his best films: the gentle satire of What Price Hollywood?; Hepburn’s debut in A Bill of Divorcement; the knockout comedy ensembles of Dinner at Eight; and the magnificent David Copperfield, still a landmark in literary adaptation because of its fidelity to the spirit and the look of Dickens.
It is only proper that Cukor should be admired for his work with actresses, but that is not his sole or most vital asset. For what Cukor delights in with women, and especially groups of women, is the element of play or masquerade. His abiding preoccupation is theatricality and the various human postures between acting and lying. He made so many films dealing with theatre, movies, or show business: The Royal Family of Broadway; What Price Hollywood?; Zaza; A Double Life; The Actress; A Star Is Born; Les Girls; Heller in Pink Tights; and Let’s Make Love. But many of the others turn on deception between man and woman, the attempt to alter personality or some whimsical make-believe. Sylvia Scarlett has Hepburn dressed as a boy. Keeper of the Flame is about an erroneous and manipulated public image. Born Testerday and My Fair Lady are versions of the Pygmalion legend. The Philadelphia Story. Adam’s Rib, and A Double Life involve role-plaving in the theatre of life. David Copperfield might have emerged from the sort of dramatic company that Dickens loved. Gaslight—unusually somber in the body of Cukor’s work—concerns a sinister plot to distort reality. While Little Women, The Women, and Les Girls—an unwitting trilogy—show the battling imaginations in a gathering of females beating down the chance of truth.
His great discovery was Katharine Hepburn, and she thoroughly repaid his trust and generosity, especially in A Bill of Divorcement, Sylvia Scarlett, Holiday, Philadelphia Story, Keeper of the Flame, and Adam's Rib, and she was denied Graham Greene’s aunt only because of studio anxiety. But Cukor did as well by Constance Bennett in What Price Hollywood?; Garbo in Camille; Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind (he prepared her and his influence remained); Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight; Judy Holliday in Adam 's Rib. Born Yesterday, and It Should Happen to You; Ava Gardner in Bhowani function; Sophia Loren in Heller; Claire Bloom in The Chapman Report; and |udy Garland in A Star is Born.
But don’t forget Grant and Stewart in Philadelphia Story; Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement. Lowell Sherman in What Price Hollywood?; Grant and Lew Avres in Holiday; James Mason in A Star is Born; Fields as Micawber; Ronald Colman in A Double Life; an unusually restrained Anthony Quinn in Heller; and the grunting naturalism of Spencer Tracy in a handful of films.
George Cukor is now taken for granted as a test case of the embattled homosexual in Hollywood. Patrick McGilligan’s biography of him made a hinge in Cukor's life of the way the director was fired by his old friend David Selznick a few days into the shooting of Gone With the Wind. Hearsay evidence and crusty legend were invoked to claim that Cukor was victimized because he was gay, and because he troubled Clark Gable. There is better evidence to suggest that Cukor had grown tired of Gone With the Wind, overfamiliar with scenes he had screen-tested for years, and deadly slow in pacing on a project that desperately needed drive and energy if it was to avoid turning to stone.
Cukor and Selznick remained friends. Cukor was reassigned to The Women at MGM. He thrived, as did other gay directors such as Mitchell Leisen and Vincente Minnelli. Cukor was a fine director of women; he was also the director of some of the screen’s most complex and mature heterosexual relationships. GWTW was a blow to Cukor, and he was someone who went in dread of not being found pleasing (but that anxiety is known to heterosexuals, too). More than that, these Hollywood rules should be remembered: stars did not have the power attributed to Gable; people who did the job effectively were hired; gays no more dreamed of forcing their life-style on their movies than radicals thought to promote Red messages; and gay sensibility was, and is, so central to movies that there was never anv need for promotion.
Cukor’s work was seldom assertive; he was never as sure of himself or as eager after about I960. He seemed always comfortable within the scope of the industry and (lie glamour of the studios. But his kindliness and his unforced visual grace do not date, or simplify, stories. lie hardly knew how to turn in an ugly frame; and he would work hard to maintain wit and originality, so long as the effort did not show. It is a body of work that will improve with age, surpassing that of many directors more highly prized at the time.