George Cukor, Master of Elegance
Cukor’s name is not that well known, but he directed a number of quality films, including DINNER AT EIGHT (1933), LITTLE WOMEN (1933), CAMILLE (1936), THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940), ADAM’S RIB (1949), A STAR IS BORN (1954), and MY FAIR LADY (1964). Levy argues convincingly that quality acting rather than a signature cinematic style or recurrent thematic concerns unifies Cukor’s underappreciated fifty films. Although Levy’s approach risks slighting Cukor as little more than a stage director for the screen, his study offers a number of insights.
The book succeeds most in describing Cukor’s proficiency at bringing out effective performances from actors, sometimes in ways that introduced new refinements to the stars’ careers. Cary Grant’s comic turns in Cukor’s SYLVIA SCARLETT (1936) and Joan Fontaine’s and Rosalind Russell’s work in THE WOMEN (1939), for example, uncovered new ranges to their talents. Cukor also directed ten of Katharine Hepburn’s films, including three of her collaborations with Spencer Tracy.
Levy’s approach, however, may ultimately be too narrow for a book of this size. He misses the chance to sharpen his point by branching out to an analysis of Cukor’s film style. Cukor, like his studio-era contemporary William Wyler, spoke about the need to de-emphasize style so as not to distract from content. Yet a subtle, austere style, as in Wyler’s many classics, is not at all the same as an indifferent style. Which style does Cukor’s films more closely resemble? Levy disappoints by shirking this area. Since Cukor sometimes allowed photographers and editors to determine his camera placements, the book may unintentionally imply that Cukor imparted little else to his films than the stage director’s skill of inducing quality acting. Another lapse is Levy’s failure to mention, much less address, Patrick McGilligan’s 1991 biography of Cukor.