BOOK REVIEW / Puzzle of a reel ladies' man: 'George Cukor: A Double Life' - Patrick McGilligan: Faber, 16.99

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The Independent Culture
GEORGE CUKOR is usually labelled a 'woman's director', but it would be more pertinent to say that he was primarily a studio contract director, one of the workhorses who turned out the products of Hollywood's so-called Golden Age. It is true that his main interest was in actresses, actors and stars: he would coach them incessantly during rehearsals, irritating some and eliciting exceptional performances from others, while tending to marginalise any characters he had decided were not the main focus of the film. A good teamworker, he seldom put his eye to a camera, but left the job of lining up shots, with design, scriptwriting and the rest, to other specialists. Though he set his mark on the best of his oeuvre (Camille, The Women, A Star is Born, My Fair Lady), he was dependent, sometimes fatally, on the contribution of writers and cameramen.

Efficient at work on the studio lot, he remained a Hollywood outsider, not because of his Hungarian-Jewish parentage, but because of his sexual orientation. In fact, as McGilligan records, he saw himself as an (unhyphenated) American and spoke disparagingly of Jews and homosexuals. Yet, the more he was assimilated into Hollywood and America, the more he affected a European sensibility, liked to think of himself as still a theatre director and, when asked for his favourite movie, would mention Heifits's Lady With the Little Dog. McGilligan implies that this preference for 'an obscure Russian film' (it took a prize at Cannes, incidentally) is an eccentricity. Anyone else might see the choice as entirely consistent with Cukor's stance in life.

Homosexuality was a determining factor, and the label 'woman's director' sometimes a coded reference. It may be that actresses felt easy with Cukor because they knew that he would not demand anything from them except a good performance. More than that, he liked women and sympathised with their needs; in 1930s Hollywood this was by no means the case with some of Cukor's colleagues, who advertised a fondness for the opposite sex, and understood no needs but their own. The book unveils what it can of the gay lifestyle that Cukor organised around his cronies, 'the chief unit', at his mansion - 'remodelled along the lines of an Italian villa - preserving the Regency details,' McGilligan tells us.

This is not the only point on which his book supplies information, but not enlightenment. He never really explores the paradox of a director who made films about sexual passion, but who preferred only casual relationships in his own life. He dismisses A Scott Berg's claim (in a recent biography of Samuel Goldwyn) of an enduring love between Cukor and Frances Goldwyn, yet fails to give a convincing explanation for Cukor's wish to be buried beside her. His research reveals a lot of the facts about a man who felt himself to be physically repulsive, and who lived for much of the time in fear that revelations about his lifestyle would threaten his career; but the 'double life' of the title is about as far McGilligan goes in conveying the significance of it all.

Despite everything, Cukor seems to have achieved a fair measure of happiness and to have functioned successfully as a sexual, social and professional being. This is partly because he took care to cover his tracks, and McGilligan admits by the end that he has largely failed to uncover them.