The Second-Hand Illusion: Notes on Cukor

In honor of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's George Cukor retrospective, an exclusive essay from Capricci's new book on the director.
David Phelps

The following is an essay featured in the anthology GEORGE CUKOR - ON/OFF HOLLYWOOD (Capricci, Paris, 2013), for sale at

The Film Society of Lincoln Center will be running a complete retrospective on the director, "The Discreet Charm of George Cukor," in New York December 13, 2013 - January 7, 2014. Many thanks to David Phelps, Fernando Ganzo, and Camille Pollas for their generous permission.


Notes on Cukor

Above: The Chapman Report (1962), A Life of Her Own (1950)

“There’s always something about them that you don’t know that you’d like to know. Spencer Tracy had that. In fact, they do all have that – all the big ones have it. You feel very close to them but there is the ultimate thing withheld from you – and you want to find out.” —George Cukor1

“Can you tell what a woman’s like by just looking at her?” —The Chapman Report


At some point in Cukor, the question arises what it must be like to live in a classic Hollywood film. For films that teeter on the threshold of conviction – or rather, films in which the actors themselves teeter on the threshold of self-conviction – there is still the promise, in film after film, that all the actresses who dream of a starring role on-stage or -screen have already claimed one in their own lives, in the alien comforts of their own home. As psychological mysteries, then, Cukor's movies don't so much ask why people act the way they do, as ask how it is that they react to the parts they've given themselves to play – the mystery comes from the subsumption of even these psychological reactions into the outward role-playing, to which Cukor allows little alternative. The question of whether the surface suppresses or betrays any deeper truths is not for the narrative or images to say: Cukor assumes, for perhaps the last time in pre-Method Hollywood, that the film can only present outer appearances – but also, in a way, that by prolonging these images to the point of narrative attenuation, they can become so enigmatic as to suggest their own failure to communicate. The internal reactions of the characters may be all that counts – no other perspective is hazarded than that of the actors' self-expression – but the movies remain forever outside these characters' point of view, as much as the characters themselves, over time, seem both alienated and liberated from any point of view on their own actions and behaviors. Above all, it's these actors' faces that are treated as the images of the film itself, but images whose legibility is always in question. By the 50s and 60s, Cukor's characters are still treating their lives as social conventions, but under an eye that seems to regard them above all as fluctuating light in shadows. The camera remains remote, as a function of the coy, proscenium spaces and the continuous, durational time – two principles of Cukor's that are perhaps most fully probed, almost scientifically, at one turning point of his ever-turning career, 1949's Edward, My Son.

Within the mystery of Cukor's whole career, Edward can serve as a kind of litmus test of just what it is that Cukor's up to. Cuts are few in Edward, an apparent piece of filmed theater in which the camera pulls forward and away from the characters as if trying to edge as close to them as possible without ever quite approximating their perspectives. Here, ten minute scenes are played out in two or three shots, and Cukor’s career-long deferral of close-ups becomes a near-absence of them, sustained by an almost total elision of shot-reverse-shots. In scene after scene of corporate baron Arnold Boult (Spencer Tracy) trying diplomatically to negotiate the fate of his unseen son, Edward, with his business partner, wife, and secretary, there’s a certain strategy with which Cukor maneuvers his actors around a scene to motivate these stray cuts when they must come: usually, after many minutes of the characters occupying the screen together, one finally draws away into isolation in the frame, so that Cukor can cut to the sparring partner at the other end of the room. The action operates by pivot points: as one stationary character, pondering an irreconcilable situation, functions as a fulcrum around which the other levels questions, accusations, and cajolements, a lot of the action, as in Cukor’s other chamber dramas, seems strangely to turn around chairs. The characters decamp to chairs in the mid-ground when they find their moral self-possession under siege; they rise slowly from the chairs when a counter-plot coheres in their mind; and in the most escalated moments of hysteria, one chases the other into the foreground, both facing forward as if trapped against the screen, their despair assured by the comprehension that, this close to the camera, there’s nowhere to go, and frequently nowhere to sit.

Of course, this kind of unnatural frontality should be a melodramatic cliché, as if they could only face each other to unleash the bitter truth of loves and hatreds, admissions and allegations of guilt. Still frames attest to Cukor’s newfound love for the motif in subsequent films – one character jammed against the camera without recourse from the harassments of a character just behind:

Above: Edward My Son, Born Yesterday (1950), The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951). Click image to enlarge.

The emphasis, here — not only on a heroine’s magnified reaction, but on the emotional cross-currents of that reaction, open torment stifled by abstention lest she be seen by her interlocutor as the camera has just seen her — might seem to mark a transitional style between Cukor’s earlier films, in which motivations tend to be telegraphed comprehensibly through the faces of his heroines, each darting eye a sign, and his later films of the 50s, starting with A Life of Her Own (1950), but signaled by Susan and God (1940) and A Woman’s Face (1941), in which the interlocutor drops out, and the heroine, now responding to unseen prompts, seem to struggle for self-expression even as she walks across the street or her own room. Reactions speak louder than words. However elusive their referent.

What Cukor seems set to capture, then, is fluctuations rather than anything like idealistic poses: not actions directly nor even reactions directly, but the hints of both as the characters attempt self-composure. None of which mitigates the melodrama of cultivated suffering. Cukor’s compositions only play up their entrapment as an aesthetic of its own: the confrontation of the characters with their own buried emotions and outer torments becomes a confrontation directly with the camera too. That these sequences elude any revelatory close-ups suggests that the interest isn’t quite subjectivity, however: what we watch is less an unmasking than its opposite, a measured sort of suppression seen from the outside, each of two characters reacting to the other without any conspicuous culprit for their problems other than each other. So the characters revolve constantly to switch roles, and take each other’s places: one takes the foreground, and the other retreats, both forever looking forward towards one side of the room as if still performing on-stage. It’s probably characteristic of Cukor that he modulates the intensity of improbable, arch-theatrical poses like the ones above only by accentuating their staginess – each confrontation occurs within a longer, shifting shot, as the characters draw towards and away from the camera, as if being tracked on-stage.

Each pose they assume becomes, as in the plot points of these movies, only one possible crystallization of their relationship among many. Cukor’s direction, in these movies, is an almost totally discreet pushing-and-pulling of personalities in and out of spaces, closer and farther from the camera. So perfectly cued are the movements of the camera to those of the characters, that the camera's constant reframing of the action is nearly concealed by the blocking. In moments of self-revelation, like the one above, the camera will press forward to draw out a depth effect from the gap between the characters; but then, at tentative resolutions, slacken back to let the characters rejoin each other on screen. The strategy, characters switching places in fluid shifts from near to far, makes each character a kind of liminal hero – always on the threshold of becoming the movie’s central subject, a stable point of perspective, but held in check by the other. Whatever performances they give are inevitably elicited by their audience. At the same time something is withheld: Cukor’s characters, almost always on the verge of reciting some fragment of an old memory or desire, of bring their thoughts into visibility, might never quite be trusted as stable points of perspective onto their world at all.


Already by The Royal Family of Broadway (1930), Cukor has found one way to reframe his beloved scenes of hysteria so that their overwrought theatricality becomes, self-consciously, its own pursuit. As the royal family’s grand matron reenacts some abstracted night of her Broadway youth by thumping her cane on the ground at each simulation of backstage prep– “Half an hour Ms. Cavendish! Half an hour! Grease paint, rouge, mascara – 15 minutes Ms. Cavendish!” – the poignance of her performance seems spun from little else than its delirium; again, the most melodramatic touch of all will be her arising feebly out of a chair at the hallucination that the curtain has risen with her. So she performs doubly: the performance she can’t recreate becomes channeled into a new one in her living room, and her scions tremble at such a display of dramatic bluster and cardiac peril. The objective truth of what’s being said – near-nonsense – dissipates into a kind of structuring absence of some emotional truth of the characters’ belief in what they’re saying. Throughout the 30s, in Bill of Divorcement (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Little Women (1933), Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Holiday (1938), Cukor returns again and again to the conceit that the characters, switching off as spectators at the edges of the room and soliloquists in the center, are watching each other perform — that their theatricality is not only excused, but the only way they have to express themselves at all.

The ending of Zaza (1938) offers a good case: having sacrificed her great love to his rightful wife and family (like so many other Cukor heroines), Claudette Colbert’s showgirl sings their private love song to a public among whom only her former lover, Herbert Marshall, can understand this secret communiqué. That the song itself is fairly trivial has already been pointed out by the characters themselves, the first time they sing it; its significance, then, is not so much in the song itself, nor even in the tear-jerking performance, which she goes through every night, but in the context of a love affair that subtends both. Again the content of what’s being expressed becomes little more than a vehicle of the heroine’s effusions, though a necessary one: she can only express herself through this code. The converse to this private transmission masquerading as a public one would be something like the scene in Rockabye (1932) in which Constance Bennett’s actress, swaggering downstairs – in some early variant of the predatory sashay adapted by Cukor heroines from Joan Crawford to Candice Bergen – lays into Joel McCrea’s playwright for doubting her dramatic potential for his new work. Of course, such hostility charms him, exactly as the play requires. Her private burst of venom is treated only for its valence as a prospective public spectacle, but the conceit is otherwise the same as in Zaza: the words are excuses for dramatic airs, and the dramatic airs are at least inoffensive enough to McCrea that her tragedy delights him. Both McCrea and Marshall, watching these girls in alternate perceptual frameworks of reception other than those intended, ignore what the girl is saying in favor of her style, which even of itself means very little except as a code. The credibility of the girls’ performances isn’t even a question.

So in Zaza, the entertaining public spectacle is seen as a private show of suffering; in Rockabye, the private show of suffering is seen as an entertaining public spectacle. The commonplace about Cukor’s work interweaving private and public realms until its actors conflate the two completely, comically in Adam’s Rib (1949), melancholically in Love Among the Ruins (1975), and literally-mindedly in A Double Life (1947), might find its neatest proof in A Star Is Born (1954) – an open remake (like Wellman’s) of Cukor’s What Price Hollywood? (1932) – in which Norman Maine’s private tribulations become a public spectacle while Vicki Lester’s public persona, “Mrs. Norman Maine,” gradually becomes the only outlet for her private anguish. Even in Holiday, Cukor manages to avoid the more obvious comedy of manners that would oppose the artifice of public decorum against some deep-set truth of private feeling; even here, it is in the living room, locus of public decorum, where Cary Grant’s upstart candidly proclaims his blue-collar background, and in the children’s room upstairs, locus of private fantasy, that the characters assume theatrical rituals whose artifice is precisely their point. Both Let’s Make Love and Love Among the Ruins end with the same modal miracle as the hero, within the personal realm of the film, begins to perform for his love as if on a public stage, and she reciprocates in turn – a twist that suggests that the “private” relations between characters have been all along a performance to repress their feelings. They’re the kind of weird moments, in which the characters sacrifice all former identity for the performance they give in a moment, that will proliferate in Losey, Oshima, and Resnais between these two films.

But this vague idea that no sentiment in Cukor can be articulated or registered as anything other than a performance still only really works to align him with a lot of unrelated peers from Lubitsch to Ophuls to Minnelli. What’s weird about so many of Cukor’s performances is that they are presented neither as true (raw testimonials of the soul) nor as false (parlor ceremonies or social masquerades): the only framework of truth becomes the one the viewer applies. Even as Cukor’s films through the mid-40s oppose the world of stagecraft delusions – “if he wants to dream for a while, he can dream for a while,” says Katharine Hepburn of her faith in her lover at the end of Holiday – with an outlying reality, the delusions turn out to be increasingly self-willed; by Susan and God, Joan Crawford’s fussbudget seems nearly to have convinced herself of her own performance as cocktail missionary, as Crawford in A Woman’s Face is disquieted to find that with a pretty face she can become anyone she wants. The dream has already turned to nightmare by Keeper of the Flame (1942), and by Gaslight (1944), even Ingrid Bergman’s paranoiac, one of Cukor’s few fully-delusional heroines, misled by someone other than herself, simply needs to be told by a handsome detective to toggle another mode of viewing her own life for her to choose which of two truths to see according to alternate frameworks. But by the 50s – starting around Edward, My Son – these truths more or less evaporate into fantasies of the past and future that remain, whatever their plausibility, only as residues in the characters’ expressions. When, in another ironic truism at the opening of The Marrying Kind (1952), a judge sermonizes that “there are three sides to every story: yours, his, and the truth,” the attorney responds that “Mr. Keefer has said nothing but that, the truth.” “As he sees it,” instructs the judge. “What is the truth?” a blind man’s overdetermined sandwich board asks at recurring intervals throughout Les Girls (1957); “That is what the truth is to you—what you want,” Anthony Quinn seems to respond in Heller in Pink Tights (1960).

Andrew Sarris’ disputed formulation, that the only truth in Cukor is the subjective truth of characters reacting to some absent source of feeling, could pigeonhole gestures as concrete as Ms. Cavendish’s reminiscences, making her nightly task meaningful only so much as they’ve spurred such a histrionic reenactment. But it could as easily categorize the conceptual ploys of The Women (1939), Keeper of the Flame, and Edward, My Son, in which the prime movers of the narrative are referred to but never seen (only one of these is a detective story around an absent center). Sarris: “The director’s theme is imagination with the focus on the imaginer rather than on the thing imagined. Cukor’s cinema is a subjective cinema without an objective correlation…Cukor is committed to the dreamer, if not to the content of the dream.”2 But as Dan Sallitt has responded, “subjective cinema” is a weird designation for a director so persistently external to his characters, though also for one whose characters are so performative that even their reactions, as Sallitt suggests, are willfully acted out: “along with the emotionality – and here is the essence of Cukor’s approach – comes a self-consciousness that continually pulls the actor back from fantasy into an awareness of being observed.”3 The self-consciousness of John Barrymore lighting his own death in Dinner at Eight through to Katherine Hepburn concocting her own battiness in Love Among the Ruins suggests performances that dictate the framework in which they’re to be perceived: the performers reveal nothing but their manipulation of their potential audiences to perceive them a certain way. The submerged intimation, here, that they themselves might even play audience to their own behavior, seems to become an open proposition of Cukor’s 50s works, as his heroines of A Life of Her Own, The Actress, It Should Happen to You, A Star Is Born, Bhowani Junction (1956), and The Chapman Report struggle for self-conception in the iconic, prefabricated images of the world around them. This proposition, a lynchpin of political tragedy in the Civil Rights/Second Reconstruction era Bhowani Junction, becomes a kind of comic ploy of warm-blooded human beings mistaking themselves for automaton-like celebrities and vice-versa throughout the televisual imbroglios of Let’s Make Love. Here, even Milton Berle has to play Milton Berle playing himself, duplicitously, for a crowd of Greenwich Village nobodies that includes Marilyn Monroe. The question for the characters in all these films becomes something like: how should they perceive themselves? What performance could they give that they themselves could possibly believe?

The performance of their life – an illusion in which they struggle to believe through the sheer conviction of their act – only works as a screen reflecting some fear or dream as distant from them as they are from Cukor’s audience. The illusion, as the heroine describes her house in Bhowani Junction, is second-hand, seen only in the heroine’s reaction, itself quite possibly a fabricated veil. Cukor’s cinema becomes, more and more over time, a kind of cinema of apartness. The hesitant reactions of characters to surrounding events become reverse-shots of the world around them, marking their distance from it, and yet it’s a privileged distance, a distance between the characters and the viewer as well, who is given little hold on their consciousness; only the most delusional expressions are fully legible, as in The Actress’ single close-up of Jean Simmons, watching an operetta at the film’s start, and these are of a subjectivity that’s not to be trusted. In some ways, this kind of theatrical cinema, at its most cryptic in A Life of Her Own and the Claire Bloom sequence of The Chapman Report, studies in psychology in which the heroine’s thoughts are never quite disclosed, could be considered akin to the theaters of Dreyer, Rossellini, Mizoguchi, or Naruse in which a heroine only becomes visible to the audience in her reaction to the roles an outside world forces her to play.

But two, very opposite types of “theatrical cinema” seem to collapse in Cukor: on the one hand, the durational treatment of characters as little more than physical vessels interacting within a self-contained space at the patient remove of the camera (an ostensible objectivity, à la Rivette), and on the other, a space of sweeping artifice that seems to extend from the characters’ emotional conceptions of the world around them (an ostensible subjectivity, à la Minnelli). Even the acutely unremarkable middle-class homes, decorated with the artifacts of an era in Little Women or The Marrying Kind or The Actress, are testaments to the lives the characters have conceived for themselves even as they begin the Cukorian process of reconceiving it entirely. All their hopes of grandeur, however misconceived, serve to accuse the world they’re already living in of being a drabber kind of illusion from which they’d do anything to escape. Yet it’s this drabber kind of illusion, these family homes and parlors, that is the closest thing to affirmation Cukor offers: the only spaces where it’s safe to play whatever role they want.

The result, again and again, is movies that are neither really subjective, with their judicious medium-shots of two characters brokering their lives, nor objective, as the even-handed allocation of advantages or faults to each of the characters in Cukor’s early films, his many exquisite pieces of job security, turns into in the 50s the clashes of alternate characters whose conceptions of their world – whether in Wild is the Wind (1957) or Les Girls – are equally valid, and therefore, equally invalid. The personality clash of Bhowani Junction, already a structural remake of A Woman’s Face, will transpire entirely in front of Ava Gardner’s mirror and wardrobe as she decides which of her two races – British or Indian – she will play. Cukor’s theater can encompass politics as it encompasses numerous living rooms and courthouses, because there never is another alternative: even the “true” realities attained by the end of Susan and God and Gaslight are social stages absent of any of the emotional experience the characters have spent their films desperately unable to express. As always in Cukor, the fumbling reenactments of old memories and projected desires becomes moving, if at all, for their failure to articulate their nebulous objectives; though not even because the performers’ great wells of feeling suggest the powerful truth of whatever it is they’re talking about, as if fact, sublimated into feeling, had come alive once again. It’s exactly the fumbling quality of these reenactments that only suggest the characters’ disconnect and distance from a question they can’t quite articulate – often enough, the question of their own personality.


Above: A Woman’s Face

So rather than be depicted as a type of naturalist Minnelli, a self-effacing melodramatist, Cukor might be fitted in with another kind of filmmaker, one whose style would solidify in the early 30s with the possibilities of early sound: with Leo McCarey and Gregory LaCava, the “piano directors.” That is, directors whose style, rooted almost entirely in spiraling reactions, seems to consist of little more than an orchestration of distracted gestures, off-screen irritations, and overlapping monologues; and whose favorite method of orchestration is to stage entire scenes around a piano while one character, only half-engaged in the conversation, tinkers out notes in one plane while in another, barely noticing the music at all, a complementary character tries to get his/her thoughts straight as the music purls on. As the characters, unable to converse even on the same plane, pursue activities unrelated to each other at opposite ends of the room, the piano serves as a convenient structuring device for halting soliloquies, dramatic vagrancy, and domestic picaresques. Style becomes simply a matter of marshaling their characters, in this world of diffuse attentions, into an isolated space where they can be reconciled on the same terms. The piano finally serves a final function to bring the characters together on the bench and, against all their wavering ability to articulate inner thoughts or grasp an outer reality, to sing together, harmoniously: the ending of A Bill of Divorcement.

Above: Bill of Divorcement, A Life of Her Own, Rich and Famous (1981). Click image to enlarge.

It’s exactly the kind of improvised digression Hepburn and Tracy made strangely iconographic – stammering speeches in fluctuating rhythms as if they were strings of asides – that seem to define the puttering movement and structure of so many of Cukor’s films. The Actress is secretly constructed around a harried Tracy, fiddling with the grocery bill, the phone, the furnace, and his precious telescope, turned from his family, only half-aware what they’re saying, until finally he turns to look them in the eye. Wild is the Wind wrings similar counter-rhythms out of household items. Anthony Quinn’s homesteader and Anna Magnani’s immigrant wife ruffle each other in the kitchen – “Now she’s gonna talk all night!”/“No, not with you, don’t be afraid” – as he pours wine, mom thwarts her attempts to wash the dishes, and she boxes the top of his head; as the film segues into the living room, he's found sitting in his favorite armchair in steadfast devotion to his newspaper against her continual persuasions, as she stands tapping the sole of his shoe with her heel, to take her on a trip, while her English instruction record plods on just behind them. “Gino, are you going to take me with you tonight? Does the young lady eat some fish? Yes she does. Gino, why don’t you take me with your neighbor, never?” His response in impersonating her for his farmhand family – “hey, is that the way you’re teaching her, ‘why don’t you took me out in your trip tonight’?” – for all its Methody bluster is not so different from McCrea’s reaction to Bennett in Rockabye: whatever desperation these girls intend to express, it’s only their delivery, the expression as such, that the men evaluate like a paying public. In this film in which body language continues on a plane apart from speech, only intersecting in those rare moments when the characters manage to look at each other, Cukor is not necessarily so different from the men, ignoring the content for the delivery, except that the only expression he allows them is quotidian routine.

Above: A Life of Her Own, The Actress, Wild is the Wind. Click image to enlarge.

In McCarey’s ritual indulgences or LaCava’s drunkard utopias, the characters try to understand each other at best, or at worst, already do – to their own frustration. In Cukor, the most tender rapprochements tend to be manipulative performances if not, as whenever one of his heroines meets the wife of her lover, privations of their personality altogether. For the most part, the social status quo is beyond their control except to lament. Again, then: in the distance between these characters, any internal feelings cannot quite be communicated, though it’s only this sense of distance that appears to be internalized by each in turn. And again, as in so much of Cukor, it’s the failure of feeling to adequately express itself that becomes the dominant feeling. Somewhat like the Warhol/Morrissey films Cukor later claimed to love, Dinner at Eight entangles the most iconographic figures of its era in melodramatic love triangles and irreversible declines, only to subject them to the dawdling duration of scenes in which they’re left to react to successive revelations as they hang around a room, as if each had no more a stable emotional tenor than the audience watching. Again these two conceptions of theater, artificial contrivance and real-time duration, collide; Cukor’s iconographic figures – famous literary figures, genre constructs, or, most often, actors playing actors playing a role – forced to inhabit a durational reality of banal chores and conflicting emotions, bring genre to a breaking point even while pointing up just how theatrical this construct of “everyday life” really is. In It Should Happen to You, only the Zaza paradigm of public spectacle as private expression seems possible, as the characters express themselves to each other and the world in billboard ads, documentary films, and sky typing, with little recourse to anything like honest conversation: everyone is treated only as iconography. By Let’s Make Love, the “reality” half of the story is a Hollywood fantasy of a billionaire’s sustained performance telling jokes to his sycophants, and the “theater” half of the story features a cabaret duo performing a kind of singing newsreel about real-life figures. At the point when, as The Chapman Report would attest two years later, Hollywood was moving towards some sort of prestige waxworks of actors as pictorial icons, each a symbol functioning as such in the plot, Cukor’s class-conscious ad for corporate finance makes the entrapments of iconography his very subject: not even Yves Montand’s slumming jetsetter, in Let’s Make Love, can ever escape his own conception of himself as an icon, a walking and talking signifier of the luxury class. His attempt to do so only lands him a part in a Vaudeville revue as an even more clichéd likeness of himself; his decision to act poor only proves what a construct any version of himself must be. The difference between this and a classic comedy of errors, probably, is that Montand’s true self is the same one people keep mistaking him for.

Again Cukor can only show the theater as such when confronted with the same question facing his protagonists: how to present themselves? Delineating an easier opposition of private fantasy against the social realm, Cukor in the 30s and early 40s could simply compose each of these mini-theaters as mannered choreographies of speakers discoursing before a crowd:

Above: Little Women (1933), Holiday (1938), Susan and God (1940). Click image to enlarge.

By Edward, My Son, however, the characters have little self-consciousness that they’re playing roles, and as the characters exchange positions within a shot, it’s no longer quite clear between them who is the spectator and who the performer. In the newfound duration of the shots, the year after Rope (1948), the shots no longer simply block out these poses but also track them as they’re composed and dissolved, as to follow the characters struggling to construct their relationships in the scene. But it is these durational shots, filmed as if external to an action unfolding live on screen, that also seem to approximate the characters' own position as something like spectators of their lives. When, for example, a character talks on the phone for a lengthy conversation, the shot doesn’t cut to the counterpart at the other end of the line, but continues rolling to capture only the reaction. In this adaptation of a play about a marriage as mapped across 30 years of critical crises, each shot becomes a kind of reaction space to the movie’s unseen, outer world – again a reverse-shot of uncharted spaces and times figured only as they’ve been internalized, or failed to be internalized, within the shot. The movie’s few cuts sometimes leap across decades; each of its crystallizing moments, condensing the action of years into seven or eight minute reflections, must have a durational continuity exactly as the movie is composed only of discontinuities.

The result of these long-held reaction spaces is that they assimilate all the elements they seem to exclude. They’re the reverse shots of times and places that might never even have existed, as the movie gives no evidence that they exist except as they do now, as all of Cukor’s heroes and heroines give little evidence that what they’ve ever narrated on-stage or on-the-stand has ever occurred except as it does, now, in the imagination. And it’s this now that conquers all, as scenes are filmed in one or two shots each, so that the time of the scene unfolding becomes concordant with the time of watching it. That the same strategies will somehow be reattempted by Resnais (Smoking/No Smoking [1993], Pas sur la bouche [2003]) and Oliveira (Le Soulier de satin [1985], O Gebo e o Sombra [2012]) years later in their own adaptations of sometimes hoary plays, might suggest how these cinemas of apartness, for all their theatrical recitations – of characters reenacting old texts memories, as if to summon them to life, but only recalling the deadened theater of their own predetermined gestures – still abandon everything, as in the theater too, to the phenomenon of the present.


For Cukor’s later heroines, the question of how to perceive themselves outside the frameworks of such predetermined gestures might only be answered by the asking; there’s a moment in A Woman’s Face, A Life of Her Own, The Actress, A Star Is Born, Bhowani Junction, and The Chapman Report, liberating and fatalistic, when the heroine seems to realize that the image she sees in the mirror of a pretty girl is the one she chooses to reflect. A role she can play however she likes; it's a role that must be played nonetheless:

Above: Mirrors in A Woman's Face, The Actress, A Life of Her Own, Bhowani Junction, The Chapman Report. Click to enlarge.

And we are back at the point where we started: in a way, each of Cukor’s films, lingering on the fluctuations of his heroines' faces, in and out of shadows, offers only their fledgling expressions as its own; the characters exist as little more than images, figures of light that seem mostly to communicate their inability to communicate, like half-erased slates, open traces of some inscrutable source. But the point is that they exist, that they have a life of their own beyond iconography: even the nowness of the extended durations and the glassy distance of Cukor's medium shots only serve to stress their deeper existence within a reality more fully dimensional than the world, the only one the film can show, of outward appearances. Images made to inhabit a theatrical space in a prolonged real-time, they both belong to the scene and don't.

Above: A Life of Her Own, The Actress, The Chapman Report

The psychological mystery is how any psychology might be divined; most of the time, Cukor's characters, ever lost in thought, seem to have no idea what to think themselves.

Somewhere between Manet on one side and Yoshida and Garrel on the other, they seem to suggest some inaccessible place beyond their appearance as unwitting studies in light, mainly by suggesting that their appearance will reveal nothing but the light anyway. The women recede so far inward that they don’t seem to see a thing, and so deep into the shadows that they can barely be seen. And yet this play of light and shadow is all that's needed for the expressions of the characters to seem to shift without the actors doing a thing. In Cukor, even the blankest gaze is acquiescent to a world it refuses to register; but no gaze, with light on it, is ever really blank.


1. George Cukor. Interview. In Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors, Peter Bogdanovich (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997). Ebook.

2. Andrew Sarris, “The American Cinema”, Film Culture 28 (1963): 12-13.

3. Dan Sallitt, “George Cukor: A Life of Grand Gestures”, La Furia Umana 2 (2013): 97.

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