George Cukor: A ‘Woman’s Director?’

f 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940)
The Philadelphia Story (1940) | MGM

“Even ladies’ man sounds better.”

This was how George Cukor, celebrated studio filmmaker during the Golden Age of Hollywood, responded to Boze Hadleigh in 1987 when asked how he felt about his categorization as a “woman’s director.”

I first came across Cukor via The Philadelphia Story, which I watched primarily because I was in the throes of a teenage infatuation with Jimmy Stewart. Attempting to crack Old Hollywood cinema had been something of a losing battle for me, but The Philadelphia Story unlocked everything, so taken was I with the fizzy, glamorous, sexy romantic comedy. I assumed that the director of the film would be considered a master—someone universally acclaimed and immensely popular—and was surprised to find that this was not the case.

Cukor does not, in the 21st century, have much of a profile amongst the wider public, despite adulation amongst cineastes. The director was lauded by none less than François Truffaut, who asserted that “[he] is an extraordinary director, who out of five films will make one masterpiece, three that are good and one that is interesting.” However, so superb was Cukor at eliciting career defining performances from iconic actresses—and, lest we forget, actors—that his contribution as a director is often considered secondary to the film’s central performances.

Further, the genres in which Cukor primarily worked—melodrama and romantic comedy—are often neglected by film theorists and academics, considered lightweight fodder. Perhaps Cukor’s light touch here works to his disadvantage—his direction seems effortless, and so his skill is often overlooked. His categorization as a “woman’s director” could have harmed his perceived longevity, and it seems undeniable that this compartmentalization stemmed, in part, from a particularly high-brow form of homophobia. After all, was Cukor not, as a gay man, inherently better suited to directing films for and about women? Everyone knows, surely, that gay men are instinctively more attuned to women than straight men, right? 

Such insidiously homophobic sentiments dogged Cukor throughout his career and were even perpetuated by close friends of the director; in her autobiography, Me, Katharine Hepburn asserts that Cukor was not “macho” enough to have directed her and Spencer Tracy in Woman of the Year.

George Cukor, one of the most beloved and lauded directors of his generation, is now largely forgotten. Perhaps the explanation lies in his dubious and, at times, demeaning moniker.

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Initially, the idea that Cukor was a “woman’s director” was used as a boon, a selling point that distinguished him from other male directors of the era, and it’s true that he was able to draw out exceptional performances from even the most difficult, mannered actresses. At age 12, Cukor was obsessed with vaudeville-turned-musical-theater star Ina Claire. He was a lifelong star-worshipper, and this meant he was highly adept at spotting and nurturing star quality. After seeing Jean Harlow’s disastrous performance as an archetypal vamp in 1930’s Hell’s Angels, Cukor observed that “she wasn’t a vamp, she was a comedienne.” Through casting her in his 1933 film Dinner At Eight, he proved his instincts right—Harlow was a scene-stealer in the film.

Katharine Hepburn was perhaps Cukor’s greatest discovery. Cukor would mean a great deal to me if only for introducing me to Hepburn; watching The Philadelphia Story, I was so taken with her—by the way she was framed, the way she was lit, and crucially, her luminous performance—that everyone else in the film barely registered to me. I was maybe 15 years old and had never truly felt represented by women I had seen on screen, and suddenly here was Katharine Hepburn, the high, angled planes of her face filling the screen. I thought that to be a movie star was to be pretty. Hepburn—with her cut-glass cheekbones, jutting chin and that voice—thoroughly confused me in the best possible way. Cukor allowed her to dominate every frame she appeared in, highlighting her confidence of movement. Under Cukor’s direction, it was always Hepburn who drew your eye. 

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Katharine Hepburn in Holiday (1938) | Columbia Pictures

Hepburn’s work with Cukor, particularly Sylvia Scarlett, means a great deal to me. For as long as I can remember, I felt markedly different from my peers in some strange, elemental way. My favorite actors and musicians were—and are—largely male, and sometimes it’s difficult for me to gauge whether I have a crush on these men, or whether I want to be them. Gender—in particular my relationship with femininity—was something I thought about, but it was never something which I truly, painfully agonized over. I wondered whether this, too, was wrong; every film I had seen exploring gender was so solemn and intense. As an 18-year-old, I still feel a little like a square peg in a round hole when it comes to my relationship with femininity, but seeing a nearly 90-year-old film explore gender in a way which is sprightly and fun, as opposed to portentous and worthy, has been intensely refreshing and comforting. 

Hepburn’s first screen test was widely considered to be abysmal—even she thought so—but Cukor was enchanted by the way in which she picked up a glass with her back to the camera. Cukor’s hunch was vindicated when he cast her in 1932’s A Bill of Divorcement, her first film; Hepburn was heralded as a sensation. In 1933, the actress won an Oscar for her performance in Lowell Sherman’s Morning Glory. Hepburn certainly deserved an Oscar that year, but not for her performance in Morning Glory, which I find mannered and brittle—but rather for her warm, spirited performance as Jo March in Cukor’s adaptation of Little Women. Reviewing the film, The New York World-Telegram went so far as to conclude that Hepburn delivered “an unforgettably brilliant performance” and that “once and for all she definitely proves how unlimited and effortless an actress she really is.” This assertion, though, testifies to Cukor’s skill as a director—Hepburn’s range was actually rather limited, but Cukor instinctively knew how to ensure that the force and dynamism of her personality was conveyed on the screen. Hepburn’s performance as Jo is glorious; so impassioned that she is almost impossible to resist. Cukor allows Hepburn’s Jo to be boorish and rude, but also deeply compassionate and touchingly sentimental. It doesn’t seem to be coincidence that this first canonically “great” Hepburn performance was coaxed out of her by Cukor. Hepburn herself hit the nail on the head, asserting that Cukor had “wonderful taste, a smell for the right thing and a real understanding of performance.” 

Cukor was able to work wonders with even the most limited of actresses. Take his work with Greta Garbo on Camille (1936), for instance. Garbo’s early work in talkies was characterized by a certain aloofness. She was beautiful in the way a sculpture is beautiful: something to admire from afar. Cukor, however, gave her an intense earthiness and vitality; he made Garbo sexy. The climactic confrontation between Garbo’s Marguerite and Robert Taylor’s Armand is an intense, heady mixture of passion, rage, and lust. Garbo angles her body away from Taylor, tucks her chin down, nervously runs her hands over furniture. Yet when Taylor takes her in his arms, she melts into him, head thrown back, eyes closed. Cukor and cinematographers William Daniels and Karl Freund frame the start of the scene in mid-shot, allowing the spectator to take in Garbo’s hesitancy; a hesitant Garbo was a rare sight. As Taylor takes hold of her, the camera pushes in closer, and Garbo’s ragged breathing as Taylor falls to his knees and presses his face to her chest feels somewhat obscene. 

The director’s skill with actors stemmed, in part, from his sensitivity and adaptability. Usually, he had a habit of standing beside the camera and miming along with the actors. Garbo hated it, and Cukor made sure to stand out of sight when she was performing. Cukor liked rehearsals, Garbo did not; Cukor let her save her acting for the camera. She wanted no visitors, he largely complied. One of the only visitors to the set of Camille was the terminally-ill Irving Thalberg, who observed, “George, she’s awfully good. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so good…She’s relaxed. She’s open. She seems unguarded for once.” Garbo received rapturous praise for her performance in the film—again, to the detriment of Cukor. Frank Nugent of The New York Times rhapsodized about the “perfect artistry of her portrayal,” and yet gave little attention to the direction. According to Barry Paris’ biography of the star, Garbo broke her rule about never watching herself perform only once; she asked to see the final 10 minutes of Camille. This seems to encapsulate the degree of confidence which Cukor’s collaborators had in him. They knew that he would always endeavor—and usually succeed—in bringing out the best in them.

Greta Garbo in Camille (1936) | MGM
Greta Garbo in Camille (1936) | MGM

Cukor was as confident in his collaborators as they were in him. Famed for his loyalty, he would often entrust his favorite actresses with the meatiest roles of their careers. Judy Garland’s role in A Star Is Born, for example, represented a huge leap of faith on Cukor’s part, as Garland’s star status had been in decline for a number of years before A Star Is Born began filming. Cukor first met Garland when he was called in to supervise the production of Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz. Though he was not credited for his work, he was considered instrumental in adapting the character of Dorothy from page to screen. In truth, he had little interest in the film, and was employed on the set for only a week. As a celebrated “woman’s director,” however, he was assigned to shape Garland’s character and performance. Cukor did away with the blonde wig and heavy makeup that former producer Richard Thorpe had decided on, and recommended that Garland play Dorothy in a naturalistic, down-to-earth manner, in order for the character to serve as the emotional and psychological anchor of the film. As with Hepburn, Cukor was instinctively attuned to Garland’s strengths; A Star is Born was widely lauded upon release, and Garland’s Oscar snub truly astounds me. One of the film’s scenes directly mirrors Cukor’s work on The Wizard of Oz: Garland is shunted out of the studio makeup department wearing, of course, a blonde wig and heavy makeup. Her wounded, tearful denunciation of her face (“I’ve got no chin!”) pierced me—and, I felt, cut to the core of how oppressive womanhood can feel. 

Garland’s quiet acceptance of her apparent homeliness rang almost uncomfortably true with me. I have often felt somewhat divorced from my body—it feels like it belongs to other people more than it does to me. To be a young woman is, as I see it, to adopt various different guises and personas in order to appease everyone else. In essence, I often feel that to be a woman in a society geared around men is to be an actress. Perhaps this is why A Star is Born touched me to the degree that it did, as Garland’s Esther Blodgett is forced to become Vicki Lester to mollify the men who run the studio. Writing about women and really, truly understanding them are two different things. Cukor, it appears, truly understood.

Though he could coax excellent performances from male stars, Cukor’s relationships with female actors seem deeper and more intense than his connections with male actors. At its most positive, this is what “woman’s director” can be interpreted as meaning—a skill and capacity for eliciting great performances from female stars who perhaps would have been unfairly cast by the wayside had it not been for his keen eye. 

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If you asked me two years ago whether I was a fan of romantic comedy as a genre, I would probably have snorted disdainfully. The only romantic comedy I would ever confess to adoring was Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, because I had convinced myself that it was, in some way, far more elevated and sophisticated than, say, Four Weddings and a Funeral. This attitude was undoubtedly rooted in internalized misogyny on my part—the idea that light-hearted films for and about women are of less value than films about men. 

Some viewers and critics assume that, because most romantic comedies are naturalistic—with low-stakes and a less rigorous structure than, say, a thriller—directing a successful romantic comedy is not a hugely demanding task. Certainly, Cukor was less iron-fisted than some of his contemporaries; Katharine Hepburn once observed “he [Cukor] doesn’t shut them [actors] into his own trap, like some directors who push them around like dolls.” He was always willing to adapt, keeping screenwriters on set so that they could change the script at the last minute if necessary. Cukor’s romantic comedies are rarely bloated or self-indulgent, but always leisurely and luxuriating. For better or worse, this has meant that whilst Cukor’s films have endured because of their vitality, his stature as a great director has only diminished, because his naturalistic style is sometimes perceived as laziness. Cukor did not boast a singular “style” in the way some studio-era directors did, but this versatility has almost been weaponized against him. The implication is that the lack of ostentatious showiness which characterizes many of his films is more indicative of anonymity than of adaptability or subtlety. 

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Cukor’s literary adaptations are vastly different from his contemporary romantic comedies and melodramas; his version of Little Women is as wholesome, chaste, and edifying as Holiday is flirty, coy, and pleasantly sly. Versatility is perhaps undervalued in the modern cinemascape. Cukor may not necessarily have as distinctive an auteur signature as, say, Spike Lee’s woozy dolly shots or Wes Anderson’s extensive use of symmetry, but his films share a kindred spirit. The films that make up Cukor’s oeuvre are all sympathetic to the various complexities of the individual, boasting a degree of warmth which, to some degree, reminds me of Mike Leigh’s intricate explorations of what it is to be human.

Directors who worked within the studio system without complaint, as Cukor did, are often considered merely competent filmmakers willing to bow down to studio heads, but this is unfair. By lodging himself firmly within the studio system, Cukor was able to take his pick of stars with whom he wanted to work. The ability to create a successful crowd-pleaser is often derided, but cinema comes alive when it reaches out and touches an audience. I certainly feel that it’s possible to argue that pulling punches, as Cukor sometimes did (the ending of Adam’s Rib is thoroughly disappointing) is an acceptable sacrifice to make in order to ensure that your film is able to engage with a mass audience. Scorsese’s 2019 comparison of Marvel films to theme parks ignited a furious debate as to whether or not blockbusters can be considered art. Though I agreed with Scorsese in this instance, I think that it’s important to be cautious when it comes to denigrating films which people really, genuinely adore. Immense popularity does not invalidate artistic merit, and it saddens me to see Cukor’s films analyzed with the caveat that they are studio productions. Cukor wanted his films to be seen by thousands, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. If anything, this tension—between his genuine artistry and his desire to communicate with the wider American public—makes his films all the more interesting; A Star is Born, for example, acknowledges Hollywood’s allure and beauty, and yet viciously, vehemently hates it for that very same seductiveness.

Many critics of Cukor’s work imply that his films succeed in spite of their themes or genres. Camille is often derided as sentimental; many critics fail to recognize that the film’s unabashed sentimentality is what makes Garbo’s performance soar. Sentimentality is often seen as a weakness solely in relation to films starring women. Little Women was criticized for its perceived sentimentality, where Cukor’s 1935 adaptation of David Copperfield was not. Many of Cukor’s films have struck me precisely because they are so emotional—Cukor was never pretentious, never arch, never ironic. I am, naturally, a fan of Orson Welles, but truthfully, I find watching too much of his work back-to-back fatiguing. He is draped all over his films in a way which, after a while, feels oppressive. Cukor has been so appealing to me as a young adult because whilst his work is identifiable, his signature—like that of an artist’s—is confined to the corners of his work. His lack of showiness seems, to me, indicative of a quiet confidence in both his own ability and the abilities of his actors, screenwriters, costume designers, etc. Why Cukor is often not credited for the intense vitality and warmth of his films is a mystery.

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It has long been posited that actresses enjoyed working with Cukor because they felt some kind of kinship with him. Joseph L. Mankiewicz maintained that the reason women felt so comfortable working with Cukor was because “a woman could come on his set and be absolutely safe…with the other directors, there was always that moment, is he going to make a pass at me?” Perhaps there is something to this—the studio system was undeniably predatory, and, as we still see today, young female actresses were often on the receiving end of lecherous advances from older male talent. Yet this seems too simplistic. The heterosexual Mankiewicz was himself able to elicit great performances from women, while Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s homosexuality did not make him any easier to work with. The idea that women get on with gay men because they are “safe” is rooted in cliche, and this trope has actually begun to be re-evaluated. However, there is perhaps something to be said regarding the shared experience of marginalization. Take Cukor’s friendship with Hepburn. At first glance, the intensity of their relationship seems somewhat strange. Cukor was elegant, witty, and a consummate professional, whereas Hepburn was headstrong, scruffy—grating, even.  That Cukor and Hepburn were such kindred spirits suggests to me that Cukor empathized with and intuitively connected with those who felt excluded from Hollywood’s inner circle, and it is no coincidence that many of those people were women. I feel that, underneath it all, Cukor was more of a misfit than he appeared.

Nonetheless, the generally accepted wisdom was that Cukor was largely adept at directing women solely because he was a gay man. Why Cukor was fired from Gone with the Wind has never been officially confirmed, but an excerpt from Photoplay magazine maintains that “Gone with the Wind is a woman’s story…Mr. Cukor, one of Hollywood’s finest directors and the man who has directed Hepburn and Garbo in some of their best, is known as a woman’s director…Mr. Gable became aware of these two facts and became suddenly unhappy, not without reason, one must admit.” The snide little “not without reason,” serves as a further hint for those uninformed as to why exactly Gable is rumored to have demanded Cukor be replaced. 

Cukor received criticism throughout his career regarding his flamboyant, unconventional female characters—Katharine Hepburn’s titular role in 1935’s Sylvia Scarlett perhaps exemplifies such creations. Hepburn postures as a man with an exceptional sense of swagger, and the cheeky kiss she shares with Dennie Moore is daring and playful; Brian Aherne’s Michael wonders aloud precisely what it is about Hepburn’s “Sylvester” that gives him such a “queer feeling.” I once loudly declared to anyone who would listen that femininity and womanhood were constructs, something which could be donned at will like a costume. At the time, I really believed that what I was saying was revolutionary. Watching Cukor’s sprightly subversion of gender roles in Sylvia Scarlett quickly humbled me, but in the friendliest possible way. 

Katharine Hepburn in 'Sylvia Scarlett' (1935) | Warner Bros.
Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett (1935) | Warner Bros.

Films like Sylvia Scarlett have since been re-evaluated and reclaimed as camp classics. Acknowledging that a film is “camp” is a way to admit to blindly adoring a film that is far from perfect. Perhaps if there were more space for imperfect but fascinating films in what has been established as the canon of “great” cinema, Cukor would prove to be a greater cultural force. It’s also possible to speculate that the continual side-lining of LGBTQ+ voices in the realm of film criticism has a part to play in the decline of Cukor’s popularity. Sylvia Scarlett is, frankly, astonishing for a 1935 film when it comes to its exploration of gender politics. Straight women, however, perhaps did not recognize themselves in Sylvia, and thus a large portion of Cukor’s regular audience was lost. The film tanked at the box office. Had Cukor been uplifted by marginalized voices, he may today be a household name. Sadly, the realm of film criticism remains predominantly straight and male, and it therefore seems likely his body of work will not be re-evaluated until those to whom his “camp” masterpieces truly spoke are able to express their opinions from a public platform. 

Cukor’s work with Hepburn means the world to me as a young woman looking for reassurance when it comes to the way in which she expresses unconventional femininity. A male critic can acknowledge that Hepburn represented a shift when it came to on-screen representations of women, but will never understand how it felt for me, as an androgynous, confused young adult, to suddenly see Hepburn on screen and feel as if everything had fallen into place. Cukor seemed to inherently understand the power of on-screen representation, perhaps because of his own marginalization. As such, it’s perhaps unreasonable to ask a straight, white cis male to look to his work with powerful women and ever truly understand the seismic impact these performances might have had on viewers who fell outside the patriarchal norm. This is fine; you either feel such performances on an incendiary, subconscious level, or you do not. However, offering more of a platform to marginalized voices in film criticism wouldn’t be a bad start. There are many, many more George Cukors out there looking for a champion.

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Cukor’s oeuvre is overdue re-evaluation. His films are, for the most part, naturalistic, warm, and thoroughly accomplished. The subtlety and selflessness that characterized his work as a director should no longer be considered flaws, but strengths. Without Cukor, there would be no Katharine Hepburn, no Jean Harlow-as-comedienne, no Constance Bennett-as-ingenue. Cukor’s many years of star-worship fueled a career in which he continually ceded center-stage to his actors. Cukor’s women have always been of great importance to me because I feel as though it is still rare to come across a male director who truly allows his female characters to exist as human beings first, and women second. The rise of the “strong female lead” has undoubtedly been a good thing, but this trope often prevents female characters from being imbued with a sense of true humanity. Hepburn’s Jo March, as directed by Cukor, is undoubtedly a “strong female lead,” but Cukor allows her to sob wretchedly over having her hair cut off. Women in Cukor films are charismatic and funny and driven, but never unattainably so—they are never denied human frailty.

Cukor was never a tyrant, like Preminger or Hitchcock, and the manifold charms of his body of work makes Old Hollywood cinema seem effortlessly accessible. He was, for the most part, modest, but once said of film in general (and his work, specifically) that “anyone who looks at something special in a very original way makes you see it that way forever.” I would argue that that special something which Cukor renders in an intensely original and vibrant manner is on-screen femininity. My ongoing exploration of gender will forever be entwined with Cukor’s frothy, witty, fundamentally kind depictions of women, and it is against Cukor’s work that I hold male directors’ renderings of female characters. 

There’s a scene in Holiday where Cary Grant’s Johnny Case and Katharine Hepburn’s Linda Seton are engaging in a bit of playful banter regarding Linda’s toy giraffe, Leopold. Hepburn playfully turns the giraffe’s head to the side and compares her profile with it. “Looks like me!” she cheerfully remarks. It’s a brief moment, but, I think, says a lot about Cukor’s willingness to allow women on-screen to be real. This exchange underscores the depth and complexity of Cukor’s female characters; in the hands of another director, this might have been a quietly sad line, a woman criticizing her unconventional appearance. Under Cukor’s direction, it’s a funny quip. But this light moment—a woman allowed to be different, to poke fun at herself, to maintain self-possession while doing so—carries so much weight.