There's a certain quality that distinguishes George Cukor's movies, but it's hard to describe. (Henri Langois came closest when he said that Cukor's films possess "a knowledge of the world ... a world in which everything is in half-tones, suggested and never over-stressed.") The appeal of film critic and novelist Gavin Lambert's indispensable 1972 book of interviews with the director, "On Cukor," is equally elusive. Maybe the thing that, for me, has kept it a sustaining book -- I find myself returning to it a couple of times a year -- is Cukor's voice. The director speaks in a way that's illuminating, discreetly gossipy and, above all, still excited about the discoveries that await you in doing work you love. His enthusiasm for film seems all the more inspiring when you consider that in 1970, when his interviews with Lambert took place, Cukor's assignments had gotten to be few and far between.
Unavailable and sought after for years, "On Cukor" has been returned to print in a coffee-table version that attempts to replicate its subject's "half-tone" taste. The design is elegant but not garish. There are new photographs, the yummiest a color shot of Sophia Loren in costume for Cukor's sole western, "Heller in Pink Tights." There's also an enlarged photo of a New Year's Eve dinner party at producer David Selznick's house that haunts me for two reasons. One is the look of utter adoration on Laurence Olivier's face as he regards Vivien Leigh. The other is that Olivier and Leigh are sitting in evening dress at a table laden with bottles of ketchup, relish and pickles, for God's sake.
The text of "On Cukor" is another matter. In small print that seems rather swallowed up on the white pages, it's hard to read. Worse, this revision is missing some of the original text, little of which was expendable. Why the cuts -- especially when the remaining text leaves so much unused space? Those I particularly mourn are revealing tidbits like Cukor's words of admiration for the "dégagé" comic style of Paul Morrissey's films: "The life they see, the gutter they see, or the world they see is so funny and agonizing, and they see it so vividly, with such humor. I've never seen any documentaries or any 'low life' studies that have a grain of humor. They're usually soggy, or they have the deadly touch of the schoolmaster."
Another glaring omission from the new book is Cukor's impromptu comment on our uncharitable attitude toward the good little tidbits television has to offer: "I never watch a series or anything like that, of course, but I watch it in the morning and while I'm brushing my teeth at night, and all kinds of unexpected goodies happen. The other night I saw a newsreel of Prince Charles performing at Oxford. He came out and did some skits, rather badly but with enormous charm. He pretended to be a Scots bagpipe player, then he became an octopus and rolled around on the floor. Isn't that the greatest thing that ever happened to royalty? And where else could you find out about it?" The essence of Cukor is in that comment. Combining adventurousness, curiosity and discernment, he was a refined gleaner. The new "On Cukor" is parsley. But cleave to your battered copies of the original. That's the entree.