Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Integrity, survival, excellence: On the double life of George Cukor, one of the Golden Age's great Hollywood directors.


Portrait of George Cukor in 1973 at home in Los Angeles.


Q&A WITH BIOGRAPHER PATRICK MCGILLIGAN


What is the first thing we need to know about George Cukor?

Starting out, I myself knew very little about him really, even though I had met him when he was doing publicity for one of his last films. I didn't even know how to pronounce his name properly. I fondly remember (American writer and director) Garson Kanin correcting me, "It's CUE-kor, as in CUE-cumber." So the learning curve begins with that and ends with the revelation that he is an under-rated important director with a fascinating life story reflected in a modern, sophisticated way in his best films.

Your book delves deeply into Cukor's private life. Is anything off limits in the biography of a celebrity?

Personally I am interested in every aspect of life, and that includes sex, politics, religion, and probably anything you can name. One of the gentlemen in his circle asked me in an incredulous tone, "You don't want to know what went on behind bedroom doors, do you?" I answered, "Yes, I want to know everything." I want to know as much as possible, and later on I decide if it merits inclusion in the book.

How important is it to his life story that he was homosexual?

Very important. He and his circle didn't really use those modern words 'homosexual' or 'gay.' Katharine Hepburn read an early draft of my book and urged me to take those words out as much as possible. She was right. But Cukor's sexual orientation informed his intelligence and humanism, and it becomes the subtext of many of his films, especially those with Hepburn.

Cukor greets Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh
in 1957 at an airport in Los Angeles.

What does Cukor's life teach us about Hollywood's Golden Age?

The best biographies present role models (sometimes reverse role models) and teach life lessons. Cukor had to cope with setbacks and prejudices. His life teaches many things: integrity, survival, excellence. He was a very practical artist, so he compromised at times but he also thrived and made enduring films.

What do you remember most about writing the book?

The struggle to try and get it right. Honestly, I have a very bad memory for things like "the number of times so-and-so was Oscar-nominated"; I myself always have to look those things up and forget them shortly after. What I remember, long after a book is done, is the key people I met along the way: not only famous people like Kanin and Hepburn, but the many non-public people in Cukor's circle who became friends of mine because they were such lovely people. I say 'were' because most of them are gone now, sadly. The book couldn't have been done without their trust and cooperation.

What are your own favorite Cukor films?

It depends on my mood. The Philadelphia Story and Adam's Rib suit any mood, but some of the other Katharine Hepburn films and A Star Is Born are also wonderful. He was the best director of Hepburn; she said so herself. I enjoy many of the obscure films as well, like his one Western, Heller in Pink Tights, for example—the ones that are less known and less often revived. Cukor has a very high batting average for entertaining films in his career. I'd rank him high among great directors of the Golden Age.

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Patrick McGilligan’s biographies include the Edgar-nominated Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light and Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, a New York Times Notable Book. He is author of George Cukor: A Double Life, which University of Minnesota Press will put back in print this month, and coauthored (with Paul Buhle) the classic oral history Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist (Minnesota, 2012).

"McGilligan’s biography is the defense that Cukor could never bring himself to write. Much more than just a posthumous ‘outing,’ it gives Cukor his full due as a director of both style and wit, whose long career is all the more impressive given the double life he was forced to live."
—Los Angeles Times Book Review


"That rarity of rarities among Hollywood biographies: a full-bodied study of a man and his metier, equally insightful about the life and the art."
—Andrew Sarris, New York Times


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