Since New York City-born (1899-1983) George Cukor’s first love was the theatre—-he was smitten quite young, right from his initial exposure to a Broadway show, and decided he would be a stage director long before he knew exactly what the job entailed—-it isn’t surprising that at least ten of his movies deal with show-business people, specifically actors; pictures like the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born (1954), or the Cole Porter-Gene Kelly musical, Les Girls (1957), or the oddball Sophia Loren western, Heller in Pink Tights (1960). Two of his best in this category are 1953’s The Actress (available on DVD), an utterly charming, poignant period comedy based on Ruth Gordon’s autobiographical play (Years Ago) about her stage aspirations and her father’s disapproval, starring Spencer Tracy, Jean Simmons, Teresa Wright, and introducing Anthony Perkins; and the dark psychological drama of an actor’s obsession, 1948’s A Double Life (available on DVD) starring Ronald Colman, Signe Hasso, Edmond O’Brien, and introducing Shelley Winters.
Ruth Gordon and her husband Garson Kanin received an Oscar nomination for A Double Life, for best original screenplay, and the two went on to an extremely productive and valuable relationship with Cukor, separately and together, writing seven of his pictures, including the two best Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy comedies, Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952). A Double Life is the story of a famous stage star—-Ronald Colman strikingly good in his Academy Award-winning performance—-who is playing the title role in Shakespeare’s Othello on Broadway, and gets so “into” the role that it drives him to madness and, eventually, to murder.
The score by Miklos Rozsa won an Oscar, too, while Cukor was nominated for best director—-the sixth of eight such nominations (finally won for 1964’s My Fair Lady)—-and his work is awfully good, with some of the most effective backstage sequences ever made, exceptionally photographed by Milton Krasner. Both editor Robert Parrish and art director Harry Horner were so good they soon became directors themselves. As usual, Cukor’s handling of actors is flawless—-Signe Hasso is especially fine as Colman’s ex-wife—-and Shelley Winters makes a memorable debut. Cukor told me he read a lot of women for her waitress role, but that Ms. Winters “came in and she had a rather comic walk, an amusing slant. And, I thought, for this part—-which was a tragic part—-this sort of girl might help, would add to the whole quality of the picture: a comic note in the tragic…”
As Cukor also said, he liked “working with young and inexperienced people. I have a knack for it.” That’s an understatement since he guided to glory such unknowns as Katharine Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Angela Lansbury, Jack Lemmon, Aldo Ray, and others. And he proved that again with Anthony Perkins in The Actress, the youngster’s scenes as Ms. Simmons’ beau being especially evocative of the 1900’s small-town New England atmosphere. Indeed, this little gem of a movie also contains really beautiful performances from Ms. Simmons as the dreamy teenager yearning for the footlights and Spencer Tracy as her dubious father who eventually comes around in the most touching way. It’s one of Tracy’s understated best, in fact, with several long scenes done without a cut that are amazing in their simple intensity, aided in no small part by Teresa Wright’s typically excellent job as the mother. Among Cukor’s least known movies, it is also one of his purest.