It’s common for profiles of George Cukor these days to start out by declaring that the director, who was known for "women’s pictures," was not limited to directing films featuring and aimed at women. This is certainly true, but why not celebrate him for directing these films? In the current film landscape, there are scarcely any directors with any particular facility for these types of movies anymore. It's difficult to think of more than a handful working in Hollywood who can turn out a decent romance or romantic comedy regularly. And it's especially rare to find director-actress pairings as fruitful as the ones that Cukor enjoyed with Katherine Hepburn and Judy Holliday.
My favorite of his pictures is his most well known and most celebrated, "My Fair Lady," based on the Lerner and Loewe stage musical of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion." I don't consider it the best example of Cukor's work - that would probably be "Gaslight" or "Born Yesterday" - but I am unable to resist the combination of Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, and Cecil Beaton's iconic art direction and costumes. To some degree it's a nostalgia pick, because it's the first of his films I saw, but it's stuck with me over the years and my relationship with it has changed as I've gotten older. I knew and liked it primarily for its music as a kid, but I've since reconsidered. As a musical I find it leaves quite a bit to be desired now - the songs are fun and Marni Nixon dubs Hepburn's vocals just fine, but Rex Harrison speak-singing through the whole film strikes me as more peculiar every time I see it. As a film about gender and class relations, though, it's become far more fascinating.
What I really appreciate about Cukor films isn't just that they tend to feature great performances by strong leading ladies, but that they feature them in such interesting relationships. I commonly see "My Fair Lady" categorized as a romance, and always found this misleading. Romance is certainly alluded to between Eliza Dolittle and Henry Higgins, but that's not really what their relationship is based on. They're strictly teacher and student for the vast majority of the film. Even at the end, there's nothing really more than the potential for a love match between them. Others may interpret romance as the inevitable outcome of this, but that's not what happens in the Shaw story, and I always preferred to imagine that the two became good friends instead of lovers. Eliza and Freddy's pairing is much more explicitly romantic, but it's really more of a complication to Higgins' and Eliza's relationship than anything else.
And fifty years later, I can't think of another examination of a male-female onscreen relationship quite like this. All the other Pygmalion stories I've seen, like "Educating Rita" and "She's All That" insist on making the romance explicit. As a result, the much more interesting gender and class dynamics have a tendency to get downplayed. In "My Fair Lady," Cukor spends no small amount of time poking fun at the upper classes with the Ascot Racetrack sequence, the embassy ball, and of course the antics of Eliza's father Alfred, who is obliged to get married and become respectable once he has money. And poor Eliza discovers that once she becomes a proper lady, there's no going back.
This is easily my favorite Audrey Hepburn performance, because it gives her a chance to really show off her formidable comedic skills, which too often get short shrift. She's perfectly fine playing the swan when the film calls for it, but it's her gawky ugly duckling moments as Eliza that really won me over. Sadly, her worked was panned at the time of the film's release and she didn't share in the kudos heaped on the film. Rex Harrison is, or course, an utter bastard, but is enjoying it so much that it's impossible not to love him for it. And Harrison and Hepburn together are a joy to watch, as they verbally spar and struggle with each other, and it's with the comedic moments that the movie is at its most surefooted.
Compared to the other big musicals of the time there aren't many big set pieces. Dance sequences are almost entirely absent, and the setting is hardly epic. Edwardian London never looked lovelier, and Eliza Higgins' costume changes provided more than enough eye candy, but you could never call "My Fair Lady" a spectacle in any sense. That's what made it such a good fit for Cukor's sensibilities, which were always centered squarely on the interactions of his characters and the chemistry of his performers. And maybe that's what got him into trouble on the bigger projects like "Gone With the Wind." But when he had the right material, there was no one better.
George Cukor remains one of the classic Hollywood greats. And it wasn't in spite of his work with the genres that have become devalued today, but largely because of them.
What I've Seen - George Cukor
Dinner at Eight (1933)
The Women (1939)
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Adam's Rib (1949)
Born Yesterday (1950)
A Star Is Born (1954)
My Fair Lady (1964)