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George Dewey Cukor (July 7, 1899 – January 24, 1983) was an American film director. He mainly concentrated on comedies and literary adaptations. George Towers was Cukor's frequent companion and friend. His discretion on his homosexuality seems to have resulted from his arrest as part of actor William Haines' gay entourage in Hollywood at the beginning of his career, although the incident was hushed up at the time. Nonetheless, Cukor was never dishonest about his sexuality. When one studio mogul asked him if he was, in fact, a homosexual, he answered, "Dedicated." Hollywood is an American drama web television miniseries about a group of aspiring actors and filmmakers during the Hollywood Golden Age in the post-World War II era trying to make their dreams come true. Daniel London as George Cukor is a fictionalized version of the director and producer known for his grand house infamous parties.
George Cukor had a habit of using gay outsider like Oliver Messell and George Hoyningen-Huene on his films in place of straight studio personnel. One of his closest friends, who'd serve as his dialogue director on Romeo and Juliet and others, was James Vincent, who'd been stage manager for Katharine Cornell. Vincent committed suicide in 1953 in New York City.
It's fitting confluence that Dorothy Arzner began her career as a script girl to Alla Nazimova: the most famous lesbian of the silent era mentoring the young woman who would go on to become the "sole distaff-side director" of Hollywood's Golden Age. Arzner had an affair with Nazimova during the making of Stronger Than Death in 1919. Gavin Lambert, Nazimova's biographer, believed the story to be true. He sourced George Cukor, who was friends with both Nazimova and Arzner, and who scrupulously "separated falsehood from truth before passing on a story."
George Cukor had been in awe of Edmund Goulding since he first arrived in Hollywood in 1930, and the two retained an affection until Goulding's death in 1959. Irving Rapper was an occasional guest at Cukor's poolside parties; they shared several mutual friends. Cukor was close with Charles Walters' lover, the actor-turned-agent John Darrow; among Cukor's letters there's a note from Walters campily signed "Madeleine Carroll." On the other hand, there was a certain animosity between Cukor and James Whale. They had likely first met through Whale's lover, David Lewis, and occasionally found themselves in each other's company at the salons of Salka Viertel in the 1930s. But Cukor found Whale indiscreet, and Whale found Cukor pompous. In a note to David Lewis, Whale wrote he didn't care for Alexander Pantages because he was "too much like George Cukor." Mitchell Leisen also received a level of scorn from Cukor. Friends say Cukor considered Leisen crass; when David Chierichetti showed Cukor his book on Leisen, the director's only comment was "Very nice pictures." Of the seven gay directors of the 1930s, only Arthur Lubin seemed separate from the bunch, probably because he was a B-picture director among very status-conscious A's.
It was an open secret in Hollywood that Cukor was gay, at a time when society was against it, although he was discreet about his sexual orientation and "never carried it as a pin on his lapel," as producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz put it. He was a celebrated bon vivant whose luxurious home was the site of weekly Sunday afternoon parties attended by closeted celebrities and the attractive young men they met in bars and gyms and brought with them. At least once, in the midst of his reign at MGM, he was arrested on vice charges, but studio executives managed to get the charges dropped and all records of it expunged, and the incident was never publicized by the press.
Cukor scored a minor success with Tarnished Lady (1931), starring Tallulah Bankhead, and the biting parody What Price Hollywood?, the original A Star is Born. As Our Betters will demonstrate, the early Cukor has a sly impulse to tweak the prevailing culture. That's part of the reason he so adored Zoe Akins, turning to her story, "Girls About Town," for the freewheeling knockout of a picture starring Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman in 1931. One review called Girls About Town "very gay, very gay," adding, "Naughty, but nice enough to get by Papa Hays and the censors."
His career flourished at RKO when David O. Selznick, the studio's Head of Production, assigned Cukor to direct several of RKO's major films, including What Price Hollywood? (1932), A Bill of Divorcement (1932), Our Betters (1933), and Little Women (1933). When Selznick moved to MGM in 1933, Cukor followed and directed Dinner at Eight (1933) and David Copperfield (1935) for Selznick and Romeo and Juliet (1936) and Camille (1936) for Irving Thalberg.
In George Cukor's Our Betters (1933), Tyrell Davis played one of the swishiest homosexual of them all. He appears just in the last minutes of the film, waltzing into the drawing room of Constance Bennett, his wrists limp, his nose in the air, his painted lips pursed as it for a kiss. "You must excuse me for coming in my town clothes," he lisps, "but your chauffeur said there wasn't a moment to lose, so I came just as I am!" Our Betters was based on a script by Cukor's good friend, W. Somerset Maugham, and was all about rewriting sexual mores. When Bennett kisses her rival, Violet Kemble Cooper, on the lips, Mr Ernest clasps his hands together and gushes: "That's what I like to see. Two ladies of title, kissing." Cukor knew Tyrell Davis, and he chose him specifically for the swishy interpretation he knew he'd bring to the small but climactic part. In this way, gay director made gay life visible on the screen.
Among Douglass Montgomery's most celebrated roles was Laurie in Little Women (1933) directed by George Cukor, opposite Katharine Hepburn's Jo March. Laura Barney Harding faced the upcoming shoot of Little Women with some trepidation, as by then she'd learned that Hepburn had a habit of falling in love with one or even two of the people she worked with on a film. Laura had studied the cast and crew of Little Women and had concluded that Kate would not possibly have a romantic interest in any of the people either starring in or working behind the scenes on the film. "I know you can't run off with Joan Bennett, Jean Parker, or Frances Dee because they like men," Laura said. "Paul Lukas is not your type. Your beau in the film, Douglass Montgomery, is as gay as a goose, and Cukor will probably be spending time in that pretty boy's dressing room. That leaves only dear, sweet Spring Byington. I'd bet my fortune that if there's one woman in Hollywood who's not a lesbian, it's Miss Spring Byington."
By the mid-1930s, Cukor was not only established as a prominent director but, socially, as an unofficial head of Hollywood's gay subculture. His home, redecorated in 1935 by gay actor-turned-interior designer William Haines with gardens designed by Florence Yoch & Lucile Council, was the scene of many gatherings for the industry's homosexuals. The close-knit group reputedly included Haines and his partner Jimmie Shields, writer Somerset Maugham, director James Vincent, screenwriter Rowland Leigh, costume designers Orry-Kelly and Robert Le Maire, and actors John Darrow, Anderson Lawler, Grady Sutton, Robert Seiter and Tom Douglas. Frank Horn, secretary to Cary Grant, was also a frequent guest.
In the 1940s, for important visitors, the homes of George Cukor and Cole Porter were the first stops elite visitors to Hollywood always made, with Laurence Olivier, Ethel Barrymore, Noël Coward, Jean Cocteau, and Lady Mendl regularly paying homage to those rival queens and lifelong friends.
Cukor's friends were of paramount importance to him and he kept his home filled with their photographs. Regular attendees at his famed soirées included Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, actor Richard Cromwell, Stanley Holloway, Judy Garland, Gene Tierney, Noël Coward, Cole Porter, director James Whale, costume designer Edith Head, Norma Shearer, especially after the death of her first husband Irving Thalberg, and Ethel Barrymore. He often entertained literary figures like Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Hugh Walpole, Aldous Huxley, Lesley Blanch, Ferenc Molnár, and close friend Somerset Maugham.
Filmed in the summer and fall of 1935, Sylvia Scarlett, by a novel of Compton Mackenzie, was the story of a girl (Katharine Hepburn) disguised as a boy who teams up with a con man (Cary Grant) and falls in love for an artist. It was Hepburn's idea. She brought the story to George Cukor; he liked its naughty challenge to traditional male-female relationships. For screenwriter, they engaged John Collier, a British novelist recently brought to Hollywood. It was a sympatico collaboration, despite the fact that Collier was straight. "He was fascinated, just fascinated, by the queer world," said Don Bachardy, who, with his lover Christopher Isherwood, often hosted Collier at their Santa Monica home. "He wasn't the least bit gay, but he'd pump Chris for information about parties or dates he'd gone on." Sylvia Scarlett was a flop, but when it was released in the 1970s and received cult acclaim, Cukor fel some vindication. "It took a mere 35 years before we came into out own with Sylvia Scarlett," he wrote to John Collier. "You see, John, we were right all the time, it was just "before its day"."
Soon after Sylvia Scarlett was released and just prior to starting work on Camille, the legend goes that Cukor was arrested on morals charge. No record remains of such an incident. Most likely, it was a close call rather than an actual arrest, and it appears to have occured in May 1936, and the Manhattan Beach summer house of William Haines and Jimmie Shields. On the night of May 31, a mob attached Haines and several of his friends, later accusing Shields of molesting a 6 years old boy, which later proved to be false. Haines was off the screen by this time, but the incident still prompted headlines across the country. The charges were later dropped.
Considering the work of classic Hollywood's gay directors and gay producers, a small but vital subset of the studio system, suggests "queer cinema" might not be such a modern postulate. Occasionally, a convergence of director, producer, writer, and star came together, such as happened with Camille (1937). The gay writer DeWitt Bodeen said that Camille "represents a meeting of talents that were perfect for its interpretation." In fact, wags like to call the picture a rare "all-gay" studio production, and in some ways it comes close: producer David Lewis, director George Cukor, screenwriter Zoe Akins. Greta Garbo, too, and Mercedes de Acosta had a hand in the early draft of the script before Akins took over. Robert Taylor, who played a stunningly beautiful Armand, was rumored to be having an affair with the film's set decorator, Jack Moore. There was also Adrian on costumes and Sydney Guilaroff doing hair. Rex O'Malley infused his Gaston with a natural feyness, a quality perhaps intended by Cukor and Akins, and another gay actor, Rex Evans, played several bit parts. ("Who is that big man and what part is he playing?" Garbo asked Cukor. "That man is Rex Evans," the director replied, "and he's playing the part of a friend who needs a job.") Cukor also manuevered the hiring of another friend, and another gay man, as the picture's true art director, supplanting the ubiquitous Cedric Gibbons, whose contract nonetheless decreed screen credit. This was Oliver Messel, esteemed scenic and costume designer from the London stage, whose outsider status evoked suspicion in the competitive world of the Hollywood studios. It wasn't Messel's first encounter with the studio bureaucracy; in 1935, during the filming of Romeo and Juliet, Cukor had caused a near war by insisting Messel design the costumes instead of Adrian, whom Cukor, according to several friends, viewed as pompous and pretentious. Cukor, as discreet as he was, never tried to obfuscate either his Jewishness or his gayness in the way Adrian did. "I get annoyed with statements that call George "closeted",", said his longtime friend and Los Angeles Times film critic Kevin Thomas. "George was never closeted. He never pretended to be anything he wasn't. He lived according to the rules of his time, that's all."
Cukor was replaced as the director of Gone with the Wind (1939), but he went on to direct The Philadelphia Story (1940), Gaslight (1944), written by John Van Druten, a brilliant study of paranoid terror, Adam's Rib (1949), Born Yesterday (1950), A Star Is Born (1954), Bhowani Junction (1956), and My Fair Lady (1964). He continued to work into the 1980s.
The disaster Cukor faced with Sylvia Scarlett convince Cukor that the Code had indeed altered the landscape, and to survive he had to adapt to new rules. When he tried a little naughtiness in Two-Faced Woman (1942), Joseph Breen had a fit, and Cukor this time had to agree to reshoot parts of it, completely undercutting the film's premises.
In The Actress (1953), the sheer notion of heterosexual coupling is brushed off by Jean Simmons; her suitor, Anthony Perkins, exists not for romantic interest but as a symbol of the life she, as an aspiring actress, is rejecting. Cukor wouldn't have made the film any other way, wouldn't have tolerated any conventional Hollywood meddling with his friend Ruth Gordon's autobiographical narrative.
Les Girls, also known as Cole Porter's Les Girls, is a 1957 musical CinemaScope comedy film made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It was directed by George Cukor and produced by Sol C. Siegel, with Saul Chaplin as associate producer. The screenplay was by John Patrick, based on a story by Vera Caspary.
In the late 1950s, Cukor became involved with a considerably younger man named George Towers. He financed his education at the Los Angeles State College of Applied Arts and Sciences and the University of Southern California, from which Towers graduated with a law degree in 1967. That fall Towers married a woman, and his relationship with Cukor evolved into one of father and son, and for the remainder of Cukor's life the two remained very close.
Frances Goldwyn, second wife of studio mogul Sam Goldwyn, long considered Cukor to be the love of her life, although their relationship remained platonic. According to biographer A. Scott Berg, Frances even arranged for Cukor's burial to be adjacent to her own plot at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery.
The PBS series American Masters produced a comprehensive documentary about his life and work titled On Cukor directed by Robert Trachtenberg in 2000.
Cukor died of a heart attack on January 24, 1983, and was interred in Grave D, Little Garden of Constancy, Garden of Memory (private), Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale), California. Records in probate court indicated his net worth at the time of his death was $2,377,720.
In 2013, The Film Society of Lincoln Center presented a comprehensive weeks-long retrospective of his work entitled "The Discreet Charm of George Cukor."
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