Practically everything ever written about the venerable George Cukor has focused on his facility with style, his ability to elicit elegant turns from his actors, his enthusiasm for the perfectly pitched nuance. Little wonder, then, that in this compilation of 21 interviews, all conducted in the latter part of the director’s half-century-long career, Cukor is urged to reminisce about the moments that made his work memorable and the skills that created them. While not prone to great modesty, Cukor consistently waves off praise for some of his particular achievements and calls attention to others less obvious, lest they be passed over as the annals of cinema are compiled.
Cukor, who died in 1983, has ample claim to a firm place in that history. He made Greta Garbo’s last picture and Jack Lemmon’s first. He worked long enough to make six movies and two TV films with Katharine Hepburn, and worked with practically every other leading lady of the last century.
By no means was everything in Cukor’s career rosy. He was notoriously fired as the director of “Gone With the Wind” after almost four months of shooting, and, like Orson Welles, sparred with studios over final cuts, most notably on “The Chapman Report” (1962), which he said was rendered “absolutely incoherent” in the editing room by producer Richard D. Zanuck.
But he would be the first to defend the old studio system, telling The San Diego Union in 1978 that the legendary moguls of Hollywood were showmen who ran tight ships. “There was discipline and not self-indulgence,” Cukor says. “They didn’t have hysteria and stars didn’t become instant successes without the backgrounds to sustain themselves. It was a young buccaneering time and all the movies that we talk about came out of that system. I think everyone is too damn noble these days.”
Cukor’s withering opinion of pretension in the film industry and in movie criticism is amply illustrated in the interviews. “All this attitudinising is peripheral,” he says in Sight and Sound in 1972. “(N)ow everybody has a line, and they’re very plausible. But when I see the results I think to myself, Christ Almighty, what was all this highfalutin talk about? Big messages and grand intentions, and none of it there on the screen. If you talk too much you let the magic out.”
By the same token, Cukor appears not much impressed with his own canon. “I don’t think all those masterpieces of my past are all that hot,” he says in the same 1972 conversation. “When we saw some of them together it was a painful and rather shaming experience.”
The book is filled with his views on actors great and small. With Garbo, whom he directed in “Camille” and “Two-Faced Woman,” the trick to getting the somewhat emotionally impervious actress to show feeling, he said, was to “create a climate in which she trusts you.” Of Monroe, with whom he worked on
“Let’s Make Love” and the unfinished “Something’s Got to Give,” Cukor says, “She was a complicated creature, you know, and undisciplined, and rather tragic.” Still, in the first picture, he says, she gave an “enchanting performance.”
Predictably, the somewhat irascible director reserves some of his most pronounced scorn for movie reviewers. When several lambasted the look and color of “Les Girls” at its London premiere, Cukor remembers thinking, “You’ve got a hell of a nerve. You’re just poor cornball provincial people, you critics; you just don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”