Legendary, Oscar-winning, enormously prolific Old Hollywood director George Cukor was gay. It wasn’t public knowledge at the height of his career, but it also wasn’t necessarily hidden. People in the industry knew about him, as well as his relaxed Sunday afternoon parties attended by closeted celebrities and their boyfriends. Among this circle were Somerset Maugham, Orry-Kelly and William Haines.
Yet he was also important enough in broader Hollywood society that this must have been even less of a secret. His regular evening dinner parties were attended by the likes of Vivien Leigh, Tallulah Bankhead and life-long friend Katharine Hepburn. He never settled down with a permanent partner, but his homosexuality was certainly transparent to those in-the-know. The rumor, after all, is that Clark Gable had him fired from “Gone with the Wind” in a homophobic fit.
This is a rough, rough overview. Much has been written about Cukor and his private life. In fact, sometimes our memory of the bon vivant seems to overshadow his legacy as a director. Yet at the same time, it’s impossible to separate the two completely. So, in the context of a complete retrospective opening tomorrow at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, it seems an appropriate time to try parsing out this question: Is the filmography of George Cukor a queer filmography, or a bunch of films directed by a man who happened to be gay?
Of course, as a studio director of the Golden Age, he never actually made a film with any gay characters. The most common way to describe Cukor’s style, especially in the first couple decades of his career, was that of the “woman’s director.” He came to find this particular phrasing grating, in part due to the less heralded but equally fantastic performances by men that he directed over the years. In the context of Old Hollywood it also has the sting of a presumption of insignificance, that movies about and for women are less of a serious accomplishment. (Though today, in the era of the “chick flick,” things might actually be worse.)
However, it’s also impossible to deny the overwhelming number and quality of female performances that he did direct. Garbo in “Camille,” Norma Shearer in “Romeo and Juliet,” and the all-star cast of “The Women” are perhaps the stand-outs of the 1930s. Then there’s Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning “Gaslight,” four films with Judy Holliday including her Oscar winner, “Born Yesterday,” and collaborations with Anna Magnani, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Shelley Winters and Judy Garland. While hardly all of these were hits, more often than not Cukor directed these women to some of the finest turns of their careers.
Was that because he was gay? It’s been said that he was simply more equipped to make actresses feel relaxed on set, without them worrying about any sort of Hitchcock-like creepiness, but even if that might be somewhat true it also feels a bit asinine. A more interesting theory comes via “The Celluloid Closet,” the now classic book and documentary that looked at the history of cinema with a queer eye. The idea there was that gay men, faced with a complete absence of anyone exactly like themselves on screen, identified instead with strong female characters and the star actresses that played them. In Cukor’s case, perhaps this can be flipped. As Angela Lansbury points out in the American Masters documentary “On Cukor,” “He could express his feminine side through the actresses that he worked with.”
Simple enough. Yet again we seem to be selling Cukor a little bit short. This is a psychological explanation for his attentive treatment of character and performance. It isn’t one that analyzes his talent, skill or authorship. The great performances are great, in part, because of the films around them.
Cukor is actually a bit of an anomaly among the significant directors of Old Hollywood, especially compared to those that have been more quickly taken up by film historians. He began in theater, and never quite achieved the same degree of technical mastery as some of his colleagues. Yet his priorities were also different. He didn’t trust editors, for example, often choosing to shoot longer takes in order to prevent anything from being cut up in ways he didn’t like. This also belies the skill of a theatrical director in working with his actors, making sure they’re good enough that he didn’t need to cut.
The best example of this might be the first big musical triumph of “A Star Is Born,” Judy Garland’s late-night rendition of “The Man That Got Away” (one of Film.com’s Top 50 Musical Moments). The camera is glued to her, intent on capturing every little emotional detail, every inflection of her face. Yet this sort of faith in the talent of actors also comes through in less showy moments, be they the comic victories of Judy Holliday or the rapid fire banter between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. The long take is often seen as a tool of the formally ambitious auteur, playing with space or time. Yet its potential is equally embodied by those of Cukor, which are works of great faith in the resonance of the living, talking actor.
Hepburn might be the key to finally figuring out exactly how queer we can consider Cukor’s work. He directed the star in his first ever film, 1932’s “A Bill of Divorcement.” It was the first of ten films that they would make together, the last of which was 1979’s “The Corn Is Green.” Few actresses fit the mold of the androgynous, charismatic object of closeted gay male identification more than Hepburn, and few of her films are more willfully playful with gender than those directed by Cukor.
In 1935, the pair tried to capitalize on that androgyny in a surprisingly explicit way. “Sylvia Scarlett” is the story of a young woman on the run with her father, fleeing creditors in Paris. In their escape she disguises herself as a boy, and maintains the ruse for most of the film. This gets complicated when she meets con man Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant), proud womanizer. Then she falls in love with a painter, played by Brian Aherne. It has some dangerous moments, particularly when Aherne’s artist begins to notice Sylvia’s charms while she’s still known to him as Sylvester. Its fluidity might seem tame compared to contemporary films, but for the 1930s this was quite something. It was also a total flop at the box office and a temporary disaster for both Hepburn and Cukor’s careers.
If their intention had been to address questions of forbidden sexuality, they must have been crestfallen but perhaps unsurprised when it didn’t end well. They would never push the envelope so far again. Yet later on, with the help of Spencer Tracy and screenwriters Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, they would tackle gender politics within the safety of heterosexuality. “Adam’s Rib” is nothing if not a feisty assertion of controversial ideas, which haven’t quite lost their luster after six decades.
The Hepburn films show that Cukor’s leading ladies were more than a simple conduit with which he could express his repressed femininity. He didn’t live a repressed life, after all, though most of America was ignorant of his Sunday pool parties. Rather, he was an active author participant, shaping films around the career-best work he got from his actors. Many of these performances would become iconic, and some of them even specifically iconic to the gay community. To watch “A Star Is Born” and think that this is anything less than the conscious, complicated work of a wise and ambitious director would be absurd.
As to whether these films have a “gay sensibility,” such a concept is harder to articulate. Yet there’s plenty of evidence in Cukor’s filmography that he worked to engage with ideas of gender and sexuality, even if it was to mixed popular success. And what is our role now, well after even “The Celluloid Closet,” if not to look back at Cukor’s works, even the forgotten ones, with a set of queer eyes? He’d probably find the whole thing a bit silly, but that shouldn’t stop us.