Friday 14 August 2015

George Cukor, Hasse Ekman, Jean Renoir and a subject for further research

Initially I had planned to write about George Cukor in my thesis on Hasse Ekman, as the two have several things in common (and knew each other); for example their view of actors/acting and life as a theatre stage. But in the end that darling had to be killed, a thesis cannot cover everything, although I do invoke Ernst Lubitsch and Jean Renoir in my analysis of Ekman. But Cukor was and remains a favourite, one of the very best of directors, with an exceptionally fine sense of staging and framing, which I wrote about a few years ago in La Furia Umana (#2). Cukor's style is like that of someone who is slightly amazed and intrigued by what is going on in front of the camera. He does not want to disturb, so the camera stays at a distance, he does not want to interfere, so there are few cuts, and he does not want to impose, so there are not so many close-ups. Sometimes a shot lasts for over five minutes, sometimes without the camera even moving. Here too there are parallels with Ekman's style of filmmaking.

Once when I sat and studied a Cukor film, a fellow scholar came by and I mentioned that I thought that Cukor was perhaps the master of framing. He replied that Renoir was his favourite. The other day I was reminded of this because Joe McElhaney, an uncommonly sharp scholar, said that he thought that Cukor was among the best when it came to framing, and likened him to Renoir. It seems that we have come full circle... Of course, for Jean Renoir acting, actors and the theatre were also of great importance, and the connections and similarities between Cukor/Ekman/Renoir are definitely a subject for further research, or for future essays.

It is important to remember that framing is something dynamic, it is not a question of one perfect shot, or formal beauty, but the balancing of space and emotions, set design and actor, and of creating nuance and meaning out of the combination of these aspects of the shot. Even a slight camera movement might completely alter the emotional tone of a scene, so still images do not necessarily do justice to the framing in a particular film.

In Cukor's Little Women (1933) there is a scene when a girl sneaks away at a party and talks to a boy among some flowers. It is nothing special about the scene in itself, but the framing of it, the distance of the camera from the actors, the leafs of the flowers getting between us and the actors, makes it something extra. Here are images from some of his best films.

A Star Is Born (1954)

Adam's Rib (1949)

Holiday (1938)

Born Yesterday (1950)

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

It Should Happen to You (1954)

Les Girls (1957)

Here is a whole scene from A Star Is Born, when Vicki Lester (Judy Garland) is talking about her alcoholic husband, in the dressing room between takes. It is remarkably good.

In his book about Ingmar Bergman, Robin Wood compares Bergman to Cukor and says that "Bergman's handling of actresses in his more relaxed films is strikingly like Cukor's."

I should add that on both A Star Is Born and Les Girls, and a few more films in colour, Cukor worked closely with George Hoyningen-Huene, a fashion photographer who became Cukor's visual, and colour, consultant.