March 5, 2013  |  An Auteurist History of Film
George Cukor’s The Actress
Spencer Tracy and Jean Simmons in The Actress. 1953. USA. Directed by George Cukor

Spencer Tracy and Jean Simmons in The Actress. 1953. USA. Directed by George Cukor

These notes accompany screenings of George Cukor’s </em>The Actress</a> on March 6, 7, and 8 in Theater 3.</p>

George Cukor (1899–1983), a graduate of DeWitt Clinton High School, was barely out of his teens when he began working on Broadway. Less than three years younger than Ruth Gordon, Cukor must have shared some of the hopes and aspirations of the actress, as expressed in her play, Years Ago, from which she adapted the screenplay for Cukor’s film, The Actress. I assume Cukor aspired to work more behind the scenes than Gordon, but the theater was in his blood. It should come as no surprise that The Actress is upfront about revealing its stage origins. In his first two years in the movies, after all, Cukor had directed The Royal Family of Broadway (a spoof on the Barrymores, some of whom he had already directed on the stage), directed Tallulah Bankhead, and discovered Katharine Hepburn. Many of the director’s films had proscenium origins (Romeo and Juliet, Holiday, The Women, The Philadelphia Story, My Fair Lady); many were about backstage life (What Price Hollywood?, Zaza, A Double Life, A Star Is Born, Les Girls); many were tales of lives that were intrinsically theatrical (Sylvia Scarlett, Camille, Travels with My Aunt). To say, however, that Cukor was a “man of the theater” would deny him his status as one of America’s dozen or so greatest native-born directors (and arguably the greatest from New York).

Ruth Gordon’s career never quite made it to the front burner. Although portrayed by the gorgeous Jean Simmons, the real Gordon was, sadly, more pedestrian. The critic Heywood Broun wrote of her first starring role, “Anyone who looks like that and acts like that must get off the stage.” After dabbling with the movies in Fort Lee, Gordon finally attained a fair degree of acclaim as a stage actress in the 1920s and 1930s. She finally had some film success in 1940, playing Mary Todd opposite Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Her acting opportunities remained sporadic, and she’s mostly remembered today as a witch (a witch which won her an Oscar) in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and the foil to an orangutan in two of Clint Eastwood’s lesser efforts. Gordon’s real contribution to cinema was in the screenplays she and her husband, Garson Kanin, wrote for Cukor, culminating in The Actress.

Spencer Tracy had already made four films for Cukor, and he was at the height of his long career. The Actress, however, came out at a time of great hoopla in Hollywood over widescreen, 3-D, etc. This small black-and-white film, lacking in spectacle and gimmickry, lost $1 million. Critics praised the performances, and Tracy’s biographer, James Curtis, rightly points out that in the actor’s care his character “became an amalgam of all the fathers of the world who want something more for their children than what they had for themselves.”

Spencer Tracy and Jean Simmons in <i>The Actress.</i> 1953. USA. Directed by George Cukor

Jean Simmons in The Actress. 1953. USA. Directed by George Cukor

Much has been made of Cukor’s superb directing of actresses, and he guided a number to Oscars, including Ingrid Bergman (Gaslight), Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday), and Vivien Leigh (Gone with the Wind—albeit credited to Victor Fleming). A listing of just a few of the other great performances under his direction would include Greta Garbo (Camille), Judy Garland (A Star Is Born), Audrey Hepburn in Cukor’s own Oscar winner (My Fair Lady), and a slew of Katharine Hepburn triumphs from A Bill of Divorcement, Little Women, and Holiday in the 1930s to Love among the Ruins and The Corn Is Green in the 1970s. Jean Simmons and Teresa Wright in The Actress were not far behind. What Cukor lacked in visual stylistics, he made up for in the intensity of feeling and humanity he generated in a career that spanned over half a century.

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Word reached us a couple of weeks ago from Tokyo of the death of my friend and former colleague Donald Richie. No one had done anything comparable to Donald’s achievement in opening up the richness of Japanese cinema to American audiences. His many film books, including his definitive monographs on Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, were but surface manifestations of his exploration of Japanese culture. Dive into his The Inland Sea and delve into The Donald Richie Reader. For those of us who were fortunate enough to visit Donald in what became his natural habitat, he was a gracious host and guide, a candid yet worshipful critic of Japanese society. When I first came to MoMA, Donald was attempting to survive in New York and serving as a curator in the Department of Film; he was, in effect, my boss. With some trepidation, I called to Donald’s attention an unfavorable review I had recently published of his short monograph on director George Stevens for the Museum. He graciously explained to me that it was something he hadn’t really wanted to write, but that he had done so out of necessity. From then on, we remained on respectful terms, although I never felt that I had gotten really close to him, and I doubt that many people did. But then, of course, I was no Chishu Ryu or Toshiro Mifune.