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Locarno Pays Tribute to George Cukor With a Retrospective

Locarno Pays Tribute to George Cukor With a Retrospective

The Cukor clock is ticking in Switzerland as the 66th Festival del Film Locarno presents — in collaboration with the Cinematheque Suisse, Turin’s National Cinema Museum, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York — a retrospective on George Cukor. 

This retrospective is certainly not the first dedicated to the Hollywood master George Cukor (1899-1983) and hopefully not the last one. The first was held fifty years ago at the Cinematheque Francaise in the framework established by the auteur theory, along with one dedicated to Howard Hawks, another prominent Hollywood name. According to Bernard Eisenschitz, the Cukor retrospective was a tremendous disappointment in relation to its theme and the author in question. There have been other retrospectives, the last one dating back to 2008, that have assuredly completed the first one, without, however, bearing the magnitude of the most recent one.  In addition, the 2013 retrospective will be repeated in autumn at Turin’s National Cinema Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. 

This retrospective is an important one because, according to its curator, Roberto Turigliato, no crucial critical work on George Cukor has been done in recent years.  Although he is a filmmaker who has always raised critical issues, according to Variety film critic Jay Weissberg “He was dismissed as a women’s director because he was homosexual.”

This homage can be perceived as an important one in the sense that it is also a tribute to classic Hollywood. It illustrates at the same time the importance of the history of cinema and the absolutely essential need to turn to it and remind us of old yet great films and filmmakers. Nevertheless and unfortunately, it is rather a superficial one. 

As no new critical thought on George Cukor has been brought to light during the retrospective, the importance thereof can only be measured by its previously mentioned magnitude. Indeed, the Festival is presenting the director’s entire body of work, encompassing around fifty titles that are screened in the best prints available during the eleven days of the event. These screenings are accompanied by discussions on George Cukor’s films, led by filmmakers, actors and critics invited to Locarno. Moreover, three additional films screened in the Histoire(s) du cinema section, complete this tremendous tribute to George Cukor. In Cineastes de notre temps: Conversation avec George Cukor by Andre S. Labarthe and Hubert Knapp (1969) Cukor is interviewed in his own villa, and concentrates on the making of Camille and The Philadelphia Story. Patty Ivins Specht’s Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days (2001) focuses on the final months of Marilyn Monroe’s life, when she was shooting Cukor’s Something’s Got To Give. The Festival presents as well the international preview of Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) in a remastered 3D version, a film on which Cukor did some early work, although Victor Fleming took over. The Wizard of Oz has been restored by Warner Bros for its 75th anniversary.

The retrospective serves as a living proof that Cukor has not been forgotten and that he still is a fascination to some. Indeed, the screenings are attended by many a spectator who engage in debates during roundtables and discussions about the director and his opus and art as well as memories of his persona. Issues of Cukor’s treatment of the narrative, his work with actors and mainly how problematic and difficult a filmmaker he was were explored. Film historians, critics and film history connoisseurs are more than familiar with these facts. 

For Anna Karina, who introduced Cukor’s Justine (one of the most attended screenings), George Cukor represented a grandfather figure. Whenever he would come to Paris, he would call her and they would go out to eat hamburgers because he found French food too rich. Jacqueline Bisset, on the other hand, found him “tough” and “old school.” 

The George Cukor enthusiasts who held the previously mentioned round table and discussions also shared their opinions on the great director. According to Roberto Turgliato, the curator of the retrospective, Cukor incarnates more than the golden age of American classicism; his way is almost an experimental movement towards modernism. Miguel Marias, who has a complex relationship with the director, esteems that the written word is not the right instrument to talk about Cukor, that a film about him is the only way to show how his films work. For him, Cukor is a “deviant personality” and a “strange filmmaker.” To his mind, he is problematic, because, on the one hand he seems to be the typical American filmmaker, but on the other hand, a figure somewhat different from most of the filmmakers of his period. Bernard Eisenschitz has a rather French perspective of Cukor, whom he describes as someone who broke the American framework while at the same remaining in it.

French veteran film critic Pierre Rissient, once assistant to Jean-Luc Godard, considers that George Cukor’s unique talent was “his sense of nurturing the acting, of creating characters which audiences could identify with, especially in comedy, but also in drama.” His top five Cukor films are Bhowani Junction, The Marrying Kind, A Star is Born, It Should Happen to You and Holiday

For Jay Weissberg, he is one of the key figures of the golden age of Hollywood. Yet, “the things people say about Cukor are what they always say, meaning they’re not looking beyond perceived wisdom. He has to be examined not simply as an auteur but as a director working within a very specific historical context; without a broad knowledge of the period, you can’t understand a director’s career. No one works in a vacuum.” He also suggests that we should take a closer look at Cukor’s early films that tend to be overlooked, quoting as his favorites A Star is Born, Camille, The Philadelphia Story, What Price Hollywood, The Marrying Kind, Dinner at Eight and The Women, the latter two being Cukor’s most popular films although for critics they do not represent his best work. 

We cannot forget to mention that a volume edited by film critic Fernando Ganzo, both in French and English, and in collaboration with the Locarno Festival called George Cukor On/Off Hollywood was also published by Capricci. This volume contains film analyses as well as biographical material. For Fernando Ganzo, Cukor was someone with an acid look on society and its ways and customs, a filmmaker with no definite style and rarely cited in top 5 favorite directors on lists of cinephiles but ultimately someone that represents Hollywood’s grandeur. 

Albeit the general consensus on Cukor’s greatness (the only characteristic that seems to define the director here in Locarno), this retrospective is certainly not to be missed. It will perhaps enrich someone’s knowledge on the great director both as a person and a filmmaker but for others, it may be a lovely trip down memory lane and into one of the greatest periods of the history of cinema. It does not, however, reevaluate and put into perspective our understanding of Cukor and his opus thirty years after his death and therefore begs for a greater exploration and more critical research. His work is not getting any newer: the Cukor clock is still ticking…

Click here for more on Tara Karajica and this year’s Critics Academy.

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