Book review: Biography of George Cukor is re-issued

“A Bill of Divorcement,” “Dinner at Eight,” “Little Women,” “David Copperfield,” “Sylvia Scarlett,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Camille,” “The Women,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “A Double Life,” “Edward, My Son,”

“Adam’s Rib,” “Born Yesterday,” “Pat and Mike,” “The Actress, “ “A Star is Born,” “My Fair Lady,” “Love Among the Ruins,” “The Corn is Green.”

All these movies have two things in common.

They’re all topnotch. And they were all directed by George Cukor, who plied his considerable craft from 1930 to 1980.

It’s all in “George Cukor: A Double Life,” by Patrick McGilligan, originally published in 1997, it has just been reissued in a photo loaded paperback by the University of Minnesota Press ($24.95 paper).

The “Double Life” subtitled refers to Cukor’s private life as a gay person and his public life as one of the most honored directors in the history of cinema.

The University of Minnesota Press for years has shown interest in gay life and literature and with Cukor they’ve hit a motherlode.

Cukor never took pains to hide his gayness and often he paid a price.

His penalty for being relieved of role directing “Gone with the Wind” has been told before, but never in such detail.

It seems that Clark Gable, who played Rhett Butler, was something of a homophobe and he worried that Cukor would make it into a woman’s movie emphasizing Scarlett O’Hara’s role.  Gable also didn’t like Cukor’s habit of referring to the everyone in the cast as “sweetie.”

Further Gable’s wife Carole Lombard and her coterie were notorious homophobes and anti-Semites  (Cukor was a Hungarian Jew).

But the rubber hit the road when producer David O. Selznick and the money behind the movie discovered that when Gable was a young wannabe actor he had consorted with Billy Gaines a notorious silent screen homosexual.

After that the deal was off.

There’s also a fascinating chapter which recounts how directors like Cukor recruited extras in exchange for their favors in the bedroom.

All this said, Cukor’s directorial skills in leading stars like Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo and Judy Garland to stardom should not be missed by any student of the filmography.

“Ambition,” by William Casey King (Yale University Press, $30) explores one of the ironies in the cultural history of our civilization.

And its author got his start as a Salamon Brothers bond trader.

These days he’s executive director of the Yale Center for Analytical Sciences and executive director of the W.E.B. DuBois institute of African and African American Research at Harvard University. Quite a transition, eh?

So what’s the big irony? Ambition means something very different today than it did in antiquity and during the Renaissance.

In the old days, Cawey King says, it was a term to be scorned, describing an attitude that was considered a vice, “a canker of the soul,” possibly even the impetus for original sin.

(“C’mon, Adam!  Don’t you want to get anywhere? Come eat this apple with me.”)

Thomas Heywood the Elizabethan dramatist, wrote this about ambition:

Oh blind Ambition and desire of Raigne

How canst thou by this rule in mortall breasts?

Who gave thee this dominionore the braine?

Thou murdrest more, then plagues or fatall pests;

Thy drinke Mans bloud, th food dead bodies slaine,

Treason and murder are they nightly buests:

Ambition nowoes no lawe, he that aspires,

Climbes by the lives of brothers, sonnes and Syres.

Then along came America, the New World and for it to work, Casey King says, ambition had to take on a new meaning, at least according to founding fathers, like John Adams:.

“Ambition in a Republic, is a great Virtue, for it is nothing more than a Desire, to Serve the Public, to promote the Happines of the People, to increase the Wealth, the Grandeur, and prosperity of the Community,” Adams wrote.

“This, Ambition is but another name  for pblic Virtue, and public Spirit.”

The author claims that when he worked at Salamon Brothers, he didn’t work his butt off in the interests of greed, but to become, in the words of Tom Wolfe in “Wall Street” one of “the masters of the universe.”

Guess where that got us.

Editor’s note: Dave Wood is apast vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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