Oscar-Winning Director George Cukor (as in “cucumber”)


George Cukor was nominated for five Academy Awards for Best Director, ultimately winning in 1965 for MY FAIR LADY (1964). His first nominations were for two of the 10 films he made with Katharine Hepburn, LITTLE WOMEN (1933) and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940).

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Producer Jack Warner, Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, and George Cukor at the 1964 Academy Awards

Although Cukor was known primarily as a “women’s director,” he actually holds the record for having directed the most male Oscar winners: James Stewart in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940), Ronald Coleman in A DOUBLE LIFE (1947), and Rex Harrison in MY FAIR LADY (1964). (TCM Classic Movie Trivia)

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Cukor directs Ruth Hussey and Jimmy Stewart in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940)

His reputation as a women’s director evolved in the same way type-casting can build up around an actor. Some of his best pictures did feature notable Hollywood starlets, often in films with female-centred themes.

“You direct a couple of successful pictures with women stars, so you become a ‘woman’s director’…Direct a sentimental little picture and all you get is sob stuff. I know I’ve been in and out of those little compartments. Heaven knows everyone has limitations. But why make them narrower than they are?”

“I suppose they call me a women’s director because there were all these movie queens in the old days, and I directed most of them.” (Cukor)

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Cukor directs the women of THE WOMEN (1939)

If Cukor’s nomination for LITTLE WOMEN (1933) so early in his career (he had only been working in films for three years) first labelled him a women’s director, THE WOMEN (1939) made the label stick. Cukor was one of the few men on the set of that film, which boasts an entirely female cast including some of Hollywood’s hardhitting divas: Crawford, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Marjorie Main, Phyllis Povah, Paulette Goddard, Lucille Watson, and little Virginia Weidler. Add to that his ten films with Katharine Hepburn, with Ingrid Bergman in GASLIGHT (1944), his Oscar-nominated work with Judy Holiday in BORN YESTERDAY (1950), Judy Garland in A STAR IS BORN (1954), and Audrey Hepburn in MY FAIR LADY (1964), and you have quite the canon of female films. Eleven of his movies have a female indicative in the very title (i.e. woman, lady, girls, etc.).

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Cukor directs Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Frances Dee, and Jean Parker in LITTLE WOMEN (1933)

Katharine Hepburn, a longtime friend and colleague of Cukor’s, has her own ideas about why Cukor was “seldom listed with the so-called great directors” (from Me, 178):

“He was primarily an actor’s director. He was primarily interested in making the actor shine. He saw the story through the eyes of the leading characters…. His own focus was the actors. He presented them.”

“In George’s interviews he would describe and focus on the brilliance of the actor’s performances, and the interviewer would give the credit to the actor in his review. So we got the credit and George didn’t.”

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Cukor was also known in studio-era Hollywood for his adept adaptations of stage plays. This may be one of the reasons he has been largely overlooked by scholarly critics, who often link an original story to the auteurism of the director. Cukor’s focus was always on the actors’ performances, and much less on building a story around plot. Scholar James Bernardoni suggests that studying Cukor’s film work by focusing on the mise-en-scene will lead most directly to an understanding of the director’s style, which was distinctly less with the cinematically artistic montage and much more with the behavior of characters within situations.

Cukor shows Audrey Hepburn how it's done in MY FAIR LADY (1964)

Cukor shows Audrey Hepburn how it’s done in MY FAIR LADY (1964)

Cukor was of Hungarian Jewish decent and grew up as a member of a large immigrant family on East Sixty-eighth Street in New York City. He went to temple as a child but was not particularly religious in adulthood. (George Cukor: A Double Life, Patrick McGilligan)

Some blame Hollywood homophobia for the lack of credit Cukor was given for his pictures, though it is clear that no such sentiments damaged his career or his films’ popularity with the public. Boze Hadleigh has devoted an entire chapter of his book Celluloid Gaze to Cukor:

“On the surface, Cukor was not bitter. He played by Hollywood’s rules; he was never a rebel. Above all, he wanted to work and to avoid controversy. Until his final years, he was very much in the closet, although his sexuality was common knowledge in the industry.” (Hadleigh, 143)

Aside from being a very skilled director, George Cukor was also known for hosting some of the most lavish parties of intellectuals at his extravagant mansion on Cordell Drive. His gatherings of the Hollywood elite could rival Gatsby‘s bashes any day!

Cukor gave a great number of interviews throughout his career, and many of them are featured in this compilation. I can also recommend reading On Cukor by Gavin Lambert, a great coffee table book with interviews, photographs, and great trivia about Cukor’s work.

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Katharine Hepburn and George Cukor having a laugh on the set of THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940)

This post is written in conjunction with the 31 Days of Oscars blogathon hosted byOnce Upon a ScreenPaula’s Cinema Club, and Outspoken & Freckled. Week one featured historic Oscar snubs. Week two is devoted to miscellaneous categories (check out my post about writers Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin). Academy-nominated actors were celebrated week three. The directors are the focus for this week. Stay tuned for the movies in week five!


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