BOOK REVIEW / Little Women given their big breaks: George Cukor: A double life - Patrick McGilligan: Faber pounds 16.99

GEORGE CUKOR never rated himself as a looker. 'Not especially attractive' was his own appraisal; 'Ugly is the word that frequently cropped up,' remarks his biographer Patrick McGilligan. Yet the face on the cover of George Cukor: A Double Life argues otherwise. The creamy skin, the sensuous mouth, the serene gaze - these are scarcely the features of a duffer. The Cukor phiz turns out to be one more aspect of a portrait which this handsome but inconsistent book fails to agree upon. Nobody can expect a definitive likeness, but even the broad strokes here tend to run and blur.

One would be more surprised nowadays by a Hollywood biography that didn't uncover a 'double life' in its subject. In biographical terms, the most obvious doubleness running through Cukor's life involved the tight cordon he threw around his sexuality. While his films courted the conventions of Wasp romance, it was an open secret in the showbiz community that Cukor was homosexual; less well known were his Sunday afternoon poolside parties, where young men - gigolos, hustlers, 'trade' - would mix with the haut monde of Hollywood.

By the end of the book, however, this contrariety seems far less significant, or even interesting, than one would have imagined. Cukor has been hailed as the great 'women's director' (a tag he despised), a facility which could be traced to his sexual orientation, but it's worth pointing out that he also coaxed terrific work from the likes of James Stewart, Spencer Tracy and Jack Lemmon, who called him 'the greatest actor's director I've ever worked with'. One could just as easily call him a writer's director, given his scrupulous devotion to the primacy of the script.

The facts of the life are uncontroversial. Born to Jewish middle-class parents in New York in 1899, Cukor was expected to become a lawyer. In 1918, on the point of entering law school, he decided to up sticks and take a job as assistant stage manager in Chicago. Tyro work backstage, drilling understudies and supervising rehearsals, prepared him for directing a summer-stock company in Rochester, from where he eventually graduated to Broadway.

The techniques that Cukor forged in the theatre - attention to the rhythms of a script, a sympathetic intimacy with actors - were profitably adapted to the cinema when he signed for Paramount in 1928. His reputation for ease and know-how had already secured him the gratitude and respect of Ethel Barrymore, Helen Hayes and Dorothy Gish, though the best line from this period goes hilariously against the grain. Gish once asked Cukor to explain her 'motivation' for crossing the stage in a particular scene. Cukor, who regarded the whole Method school as 'pretentious maundering', replied succinctly: 'Just motivate your ass over there and sit in that chair.'

It quickly became clear that Cukor was a one-off in Hollywood. Whereas many directors of the day made a song and dance about their beefy machismo, spending break-time in sport and sexual intimidation, he was very much a non-combatant. Little wonder that actresses were so attracted to him - the only performance he demanded from them was the one in front of the camera. Tallulah Bankhead said he understood her moodiness during menstruation, and didn't behave 'as if you've contrived the complete female anatomy as a personal affront to him'.

His greatest casting coup came in 1932 when he gave the lead role in A Bill of Divorcement to a 24-year-old New York actress who had only stage experience. His partnership with Katharine Hepburn (for it was she) spanned five decades, yielding at least one masterpiece, The Philadelphia Story, and Cukor's personal favourite, Little Women.

The discovery of Hepburn would count as the brightest feather in any director's cap. But Cukor did other brilliant and inspirational things, overseeing Garbo's finest hour in Camille, Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday and Judy Garland in A Star is Born. His enthusiasm and patience with actors made him something of a guru, but he still knew how to pay a suave compliment. Of Constance Bennett, generally considered a mediocre actress, he said: '(She) had one kind of romantic, Scott Fitzgerald look about her. It was the look of the 1930s - or perhaps the 1930s looked like her.' Not everybody warmed to the Cukor charisma. In 1939 he was devastated when his friend David Selznick fired him from the helm of Gone With The Wind. The reason remains nebulous, though Cukor's habit of calling Clark Gable 'dear' certainly didn't help. It was the one hiccup in a career which followed an even and unflappable trajectory.

Cukor made a number of great films, but whether he was a great director is a moot point. There remains a feeling that he was primarily an able craftsman who could accommodate the trammels of the studio system. Kenneth Tynan wrote in a 1961 profile: 'I am not sure what kind of artist he is; in fact, I am not sure he would like to be regarded as an artist at all. If art has to do with the expression of a heartfelt and consistent attitude toward life, then Cukor scarcely qualifies'. If we hardly know him as an artist, we know him even less as a man: the contradictions in his character crowd too thickly for us to make any plausible judgment.

McGilligan portrays a highly social animal who remained a loner; a gentleman whose language was cheerfully obscene; an individualist who made his name as a company man. Entertaining and articulate though it is, George Cukor: A Double Life constitutes an object lesson in the unknowability of others. The more we read, the closer he fades towards invisibility. As Dietrich says at the end of Touch of Evil: 'He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?'

(Photograph omitted)