There are multiple meanings and implications of the term “woman’s director” as applied to prolific Hollywood director George Cukor. Most superficially, the label acknowledges that, while directing his over 60 films, Cukor worked with many major female performers of their day. He helmed productions starring Norma Shearer, Constance Bennett, Billie Burke, Rosalind Russell, Ingrid Bergman, Judy Holliday, Sophia Loren, and Audrey Hepburn, to name just a few. Yet he is probably most hailed for his ability to draw out compelling performances from “difficult” actresses—women known for their strong personalities, on and off screen. For instance, he is said to have discovered Katharine Hepburn, directing her in ten films over the course of her career, from her first (A Bill of Divorcement, 1932) to nearly her last (The Corn is Green, 1979). He also directed Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Anna Manjani, Judy Garland, Jane Fonda, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe.
Exemplifying the label’s relevance, Cukor’s The Women (1939) features more than 100 actresses and not a single male actor. And he also directed many films in what are often called “women’s genres,” including melodrama (a.k.a. the “woman’s film,” or precursor to the “chick flick”) and romantic comedies. Women and their emotional lives are central to such genres.
Of course, with the exception of The Women, films with women also contain men, and it is limiting to focus solely on his work, however excellent, with actresses. Cukor directed as many major male stars as female, including Gary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Leslie Howard, John Barrymore, James Stewart, Charles Boyer, Ronald Colman, James Mason, Jack Lemon, and Laurence Olivier. Yet Cukor became seen as a director specifically geared toward working with women, and this perception at times limited and obstructed his career. Perhaps most telling in this context was his dismissal from Gone With the Wind (1939). Cukor was the film’s original director, and several scenes remain in the final version that he helmed. But the experience seemed to validate his “woman’s director” label, in that he worked well and shared a long-term friendship with Vivien Leigh, while Clark Gable is said to have pushed him off the picture because he was not appropriate to direct a strong, masculine man like him.
This accusation speaks to a troubling further implication in the label. “Woman’s director” carries homophobic overtones. Cukor was known to be homosexual by most in Hollywood, and this mattered to some but not many whom he directed. Gay men, the label of “woman’s director” implies, are fit only for directing women because they are inadequately masculine for directing straight male characters. Why men whose most intimate relationships are with other men are viewed as less masculine than straight men I will never understand, although a further suggestion of “woman’s director” is clearly that gay men are like women (effeminate) and thus have more in common with women and the feminine roles they generally played in Classic Hollywood cinema.
We know from interviews that Cukor greatly resented the label, feeling his sexual orientation (as well as other aspects of his identity, such as his Hungarian Jewish heritage) was no one’s business but his own and was irrelevant to whether or not he could direct. When he spoke with Boze Hadleigh in 1987, he made clear that he had long tried to shake the detestable epithet, saying “even ‘ladies’ man’ sounds better.”