Academic journal article CineAction

George Cukor's "Take" on the Literacy Narrative: Hollywood Style

Academic journal article CineAction

George Cukor's "Take" on the Literacy Narrative: Hollywood Style

Article excerpt

In his seminal The American Cinema (1966), Andrew Sarris relegates George Cukor to a section entitled "The Far Side of Paradise," dedicated to directors who "fall short of the Pantheon either because of a fragmentation of their vision or because of disruptive career problems" (83). However, in his brief assessment of Cukor's illustrious fifty year career as a Hollywood film director, he never once delineates what the "fragmentation" or the "disruptive career problems" were that places Cukor's work in this secondary category. As a matter of fact, he chastises those who only see Cukor as a "women's director," and praises Cukor's films as those of a "genuine artist" (90):

The thematic consistency of Cukor's career has been achieved through a judicious mixture of selection and emphasis. The director's theme is imagination, with the focus on the imaginer rather than on the thing imagined. (89)

However, in regard to his hierarchy, Sarris appears as guilty as the critics he debunks because he offers no criteria of his placement here. This is just another glaring example of the fact that critics and scholars alike have never known quite what to do with Cukor's incredible oeuvre. Spanning from the early sound era, working with Lewis Milestone as a dialect coach on All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) to his last project Rich and Famous (1981), Cukor's vision endured throughout the studio era and into the independent arena. Yet, critics and theorists both simply dismiss him as a "woman's director," a critical label akin to "box-office poison" levied at stars during the studio years who defied the moguls.

There are a number of reasons why Cukor suffers in critical circles, and we, namely, have to begin with himself to find the root cause. In his later years, Cukor became deeply suspicious of the advent of film theory, and while he donated large amounts of time and even greater amounts of money to film schools in California, he avoided, in a series of interviews with Gavin Lambert, the popular term auteur because of its elitist tone:

I'm not an auteur, alas. And the whole auteur theory disconcerts me. To begin with, damn few directors can write. I have too much respect for good writers to think of taking over that job. Also, to be frank, not all directors can direct ... I suppose I influence a great deal in many ways. I have ideas about a script, I influence the performances very much, and visually I go on a great deal about sets and clothes ... That, I choose to say, is style. You make big decisions and small decisions and decisions you aren't even consciously aware of. You do unexpected things on the set. You have a vision. (13-14)

Emphasizing the ideas of "style," and "teamwork," Cukor consciously defied the aueurist label because he felt it demeaned the collaborative effort that created a film--a theory that has only recently become more accepted among theorists.

A second "problem" with Cukor's work is its subtlety--a quality that continues to baffle those critics who pay more attention to camera movement as a plot contribution than to Cukor's whole reason for making films--to tell stories of people. In regard to this, Cukor believed that directors who paid more attention to shooting and editing for the camera rather than to the performance "revealed an ungenerous spirit" (19). Later, he told Peter Bogdonovich that he gathered his influences by walking down the street, or reading books--not from other film directors (443-44), because he believed the "director and his camerawork should not intrude on the story"

You should never move the camera unless you have to; you should remain unostentatious; because if you do a lot of fancy footwork, maybe they notice you as a director, but I think it hurts the story. (444-45)

Cukor's own theory, recognizing the collaborative effort of the film-making process, paired with his conviction that the director remain invisible, has made him a very difficult study for theorists. …

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