Saturday, November 11, 2023

Reel Adventures #5 - My Fair Lady Talk

Our fifth Reel Adventures at R.W. Norton Art Gallery was another special night! Stay tuned for our next one. Date and movie will be announced over the next month.

Here is my talk that included clips of a discussion I had with Shreveport Symphony Orchestra Music Director Michael Butterman. Over the coming days I'll share the clips of Butterman speaking as well:

Clip #1 of Butterman

I have other clips of Michael Butterman speaking about My Fair Lady and I want you to hear from him tonight as much as you hear from me. But before I play others I want to say a few things.

Hitchcock, Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Tarantino. These are filmmakers, directors specifically, who all have names that are as recognizable if not more than the films they made.

And then you have someone like tonight’s director, George Cukor ("cue-core"), who consistently took a back seat to the work he directed. During his career, Cukor made 10 films with Katharine Hepburn and 

Hepburn once said the following, “All the other directors I have worked with starred themselves but George starred the actor. He didn’t want people to say, ‘this great director.’ He wanted them to say, ‘this great actor.’

George Cukor was exactly the type of director Butterman described. Cukor was an interpretative director, somebody who excelled at bringing the vision that other people had to life. For instance, although Cukor made over 50 films he never once wrote the screenplay for a film he directed.

Tonight, I want to give you some background information on Cukor and explain why I think he took on more of this interpreter role as a filmmaker. And let me be clear, in calling Cukor an interpretative director, I’m not looking to demean his talent nor do I consider him less than the filmmakers I mentioned above who have more distinctive directorial styles. In fact, Cukor has long been among my favorite filmmakers. On the sheet of paper all of you have on your tables, I have listed three of my other favorite Cukor films but there are at least 5-10 others that I also hold in very high regard.

The first reason I think Cukor was more of an interpreter was his background as a theater director. Cukor started in the theater in New York and had directed numerous plays before going out to Hollywood. Almost all theater directors are interpreters. They take playwright’s plays, often works that were written centuries before, think of all the Shakespeare productions, and conceive of a way to bring them to the theater.

On the other hand, in film many of the quote/unquote artists are writer-directors, or directors who almost exclusively direct things they have written. That’s how Woody Allen is, the Coen Brothers, and almost all the famous international filmmakers you’ve ever heard about – Fellini, Bergman, etc.

But in theater it’s rare for the writer to also be the director.

After the next round of trivia, I’ll come back and talk about two more reasons why I believe Cukor was more comfortable as an interpreter than an initiator of the creative work he directed.

The next reason I think Cukor was more comfortable as an interpreter was how and when he got to Hollywood. In 1929, movies converted to talkies and experienced theater directors were in demand since theater directors, far more than silent film directors, knew how to work with actors speaking words. When Cukor arrived in Hollywood, he started as a dialogue director, just helping actors get comfortable with their dialogue. In fact, the first major film he worked on was as a dialogue director on All Quiet On the Western Front.

So why do I think it’s so important that Cukor arrived in Hollywood in 1929?

Before talkies, film was purely a visual medium. In other words, because directors did not have to worry about sound, they were free to do things with the camera and think visually and experiment visually in ways that were no longer possible once talkies came along. When talkies came along, they grounded the camera, limiting what directors could do with it and how much they could move it. All or most of you have seen what I’m talking about documented in the movie Singing in the Rain - the camera had to be placed in a soundproof booth so that mechanical noises would not be picked up on the soundtrack.

Again, why does all of this matter?

Well, because of their background in silent film, many of Cukor’s peers were much stronger visually and much more comfortable with a camera than Cukor was. We’ve talked about this in previous Reel Adventures, that filmmakers like Ford and Hitchcock made a string of silent films before they transitioned to talkies. Cukor, even though he was their peer in age, never made a silent film because he didn’t arrive to Hollywood until silent film was going out of fashion.

Therefore, from a technical standpoint, Cukor was far less confident than some of the other great filmmakers of his generation. And as a result, he was more comfortable putting the story and actors at the fore of the films that he made than his own directorial voice or style.

The final reason why I think Cukor was more of an interpretative director than a director with a flashy, recognizable style is because George Cukor wanted to blend in. His parents immigrated from Hungary and as a first-generation American Cukor aspired, more than anything, to fit in.

Cukor was Jewish, Hungarian-American and homosexual but sought to downplay all three of these aspects of his life. And I would argue that the downplaying of his directorial style is in line with this same behavior.

I have read where it has been described as Cukor’s “camouflage”. Cukor was Jewish but saw being Jewish as an impediment to his assimilation so he submerged his religious background. In a similar manner, I read where Cukor made a vow to himself not to be a “hyphenated American” like his grandfather and uncle who were both well-known figures in the Hungarian-American immigrant community. The submergence of his religious background and the downplaying of his Hungarian ancestry were all part of Cukor’s camouflage and his desire to blend in with American society.

Knowing the above, it’s not a far stretch then to see why Cukor would be so comfortable having an “invisible” directing style. Or, in other words, an approach to filmmaking where your attention is on the story and the actors and with little regard to whether the audience recognizes or knows the name of the director delivering them the product.

Cukor might not be a household name but he had an extraordinary career. He was born on July 7, 1899 and made films for more than half a century.

Cukor is 4th all-time among directors who have directed the most Oscar-nominated performances. 21 of his actors were nominated and 5 of them won Oscars for their work with Cukor.

I’m going to leave you with a number of clips from my discussion with Michael Butterman.

I appreciate you allowing me the opportunity to say a few words about Cukor. People have tried to shortchange him through the years by labeling him an actor’s director, a woman’s director and even an anonymous craftsman. While for me he simply made some of the best films in the history of American cinema.

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