HOUSTON VOICE • JANUARY 14, 2000
OUT ON THE BAYOU
by DAVID BIANCO
A 'brave and foolish9 darling
by DAVID BIANCO
Who was George Cukor?
Hollywood director (leorge Cukor worked
in a variety of film genres over his long career,
but the comedy of sexual manners became his
particular forte. A gay man whose homosexuality was an open secret in Hollywood,
Cukor's comfort with both male and female
sexuality and identity shines through many of
his now classic comedies.
Cukor was born in New York City in 1899
to middle-class, I lunganan Jewish parents. If
his family had gotten its way, he would have
attended Columbia University and become a
lawyer like his father .mi.\ uncle. But Cukor,
who had been entranced by New York theater since childhood, had Broadway in mind.
At first, he wanted to be a playwright, but
he soon found he hated one unavoidable
aspect of writing—working alone. Naturally
gregarious and witty, Cukor discovered he
was better suited to stage—managing and
directing. I le got his start in summer stock in
the early 1920s and within a few years had
founded his own seasonal company in
Rochester, NY. In regional theater, Cukor
gained a reputation as a director whom actors
could trust because he both listened to them
and modestly refused to take credit when
their performances excelled. "He had great
pride," one colleague recalled, "but no vanity." Cukor moved on to Broadway, where his
productions were only moderate successes.
Still, he was in demand because of his talent
for working with actresses, whose roles he
seemed to understand and empathize with
better than straight male directors did.
Ihe appellation "woman's director" (a
slight, given the sexism in the entertainment industry) followed Cukor when he
went to Hollywood in 1929, and over the
years he made his mark with a number of
so-called "women's films." Besides his
affinity with actresses. Though not particularly political or feminist, Cukor was sensitive to women's issues.
Cukor fell into comedy by accident, but it
proved his strong suit. I le once quipped that
the studio moguls "used to judge your talent
by your personality It you walked into the
front office with a long face, they gave you
straight drama; if you cracked jokes, they
gave you comedy. I cracked jokes."
I lis first few films were unremarkable. But
in 1932, he garnered kudos for "A Bill of
I Mvorcement" starring 24-year-old Katharine
Hepburn in her first screen role. I hat movie
launched a lifelong friendship with I lephurn,
who went on to star in nine ot his films.
Another uillahoration with Hepburn was
"Sylvia Scarlett," a gender-bending comedy
a>-stamng Cary Granl "Sylvia Scarlett" was
Cukor's most personally revealing film,
"brave as well as foolish," as he later phrased
Academy Award-winning director George
Cukor was originally selected to direct 'Gone
With the Wind/ until he and Clark Gable had a
falling out on set.
it. The lead character is an embezzler's
daughter, who cross-dresses to escape a run-
in with authorities. The plot direct!)' challenged traditional male-female roles and
boldly winked at homosexuality.
Cukor was David O. Selznick's original
choice to direct "Gone With the Wind." But
after only a few weeks on the job, there were
conflicts with Clark Gable, who hated
Cukor's fey manner, especially the way he
called cast members "darling." One day
during filming, Gable stormed off the set,
shouting, "1 won't be directed by a fairy! I
have to work with a 'real man'!" Shortly
thereafter Cukor was replaced by Victor
Fleming, a pal of Gable's
Although the general public was
unaware of Cukor's sexual orientation, his
homosexuality was well-known in the
industry. For years, he hosted soirees at his
Hollywood villa, which had been decorated by gay actor William Haines. At these
lavish affairs, the queer elite could see and
be seen. Cukor's Sunday afternoon parties
competed with the all-male fetes of Cole
roller, and the two were sometimes called
"the rival queens of 1 lollywood."
Cukor's career spanned five decades, but he
won only one Academy Award, for directing
"My Fair Lady" (1964). When he made his last
film, "Rich and Famous" (1981), he was 81, the
oldest director still working in Hollywood. He
died two years later.
Many of his films have become queer cult
favorites: "Camille" (1937), with its exquisitely painful death scene; "The Women" (1939),
with a campy "hitchiness" reminiscent of
drag culture; and the musical remake of " A
Star is Born" (1954), a comeback vehicle for
gay icon Jud) Garland.
/ tevid Bianco is the author of Gay Essentiab, a
collection of his history columns. He can be
reached al 1 aoicom.