To say of any director that what one remembers most in their films are the performances may seem a backhanded kind of compliment, but George Cukor was happy to be known as the consummate actor’s director, especially noted for his skill in getting the best from often temperamental actresses.
Katharine Hepburn, Garbo, Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow all repaid his sympathetic attention with some of their finest work. He once explained that he preferred to watch actors’ faces, as opposed to directors who like “showing doorknobs being turned, things like that.”
He was also one of Hollywood’s subtlest and most literate directors, with an especial gift for perfectly pitched dialogue scenes and for preserving the essence of plays and novels. His David Copperfield (1934) remains the best Hollywood ever did by Charles Dickens, and while he wasn’t quite able to turn Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer (combined age: 82) into Romeo and Juliet (1936) it is hard to imagine any other director in town capable even of trying.
.His confidence in juggling large star casts was first evidenced in Dinner at Eight (1933), a sublime attempt to recreate the all-star success of Grand Hotel, distinguished in particular by a superb comic performance from Jean Harlow. This rare talent for keeping fragile egos happy without disrupting the fabric of ensemble narratives made him the ideal choice for The Women (1939), which manages quite miraculously to show Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine all at or near their best. By the same token, there is no doubt that the vivid spectacle so ably handled by Victor Fleming in Gone With the Wind (1939) would have carried far less emotional weight if Cukor had not been there first to coax and encourage so complete a performance from Vivien Leigh.
His best work is additionally characterised by an unfussy precision in all technical details. Camera placement, set dressing, lighting and composition are always as unobtrusive as they are perfectly judged. For Cukor good direction is invisible, the director who announces his presence with showy technique and effect without meaning has failed in his job. Something like Gaslight (1944), for instance, essentially a barnstorming melodrama quite unsuited for him, becomes in his hands a thing of sheer elegance, sumptuously detailed and magnetically performed by Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and, safe in his hands, the untested Angela Lansbury.
As with several of his peers, the collapse of the studio system left him with little option other than safe, expensive ‘prestige’ films. Glossy handling, big budgets and attractive stars were not enough to turn My Fair Lady (1964) or The Blue Bird (1976) into projects worthy of his gifts, though his instinctive rapport with actresses did coax some nice work from Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love (1960).
Under the circumstances it hardly mattered that Rich and Famous (1981) was a basically unsuccessful update of Old Acquaintance: the point, surely, is that it was made at all, and that the 82 year old Cukor was still around to make it.