Career, Cukor, and Me

How do I feel about my career? Well, it’s important to my sense of self and well-being. I feel needed, wanted, useful, productive, smart, and important enough to avoid debilitating moments of self-doubt. I place value in education and I enjoy teaching and learning. I write well and I like writing. Not sure about cause and effect in all of this. Do I enjoy writing because I do it well or have I developed the ability to do it well because I enjoy it. Probably, the answer is “yes” (or “all of the above,” as my friend Rick would say).

I also love acting. Would I love it as a career? I’m not sure. Certainly, there is the theatrical within teaching: the students as audience to teacher as performer. The best teachers, so I am told, let the students perform. But I also believe that there are times when you just have to lecture, to bring new ideas rather than just asking questions to let students discover things on their own. There are some thoughts that some people just won’t come to without someone pointing out a path to them. In any case, teach is not acting. Students are a far less grateful audience most of the time, nor are they in the classroom to applaud their teachers. Nor should they be. So I also like acting for its own sake. I like performing someone else’s words when well or entertainingly written. I like singing good songs. And I love applause.

I have no desire to be a director. Never a behind-the-scenes type though I admire those who are content or thrive there. I enjoy taking photos, but I’d rather be in them (if well taken and make me look good). I love contemplating bringing something to the stage, but I’d rather bring it there bodily (and enjoy the applause).

All these not-new thoughts have been swirling around my head today as I read Gavin Lambert’s interview book On Cukor. Cukor loved the theater from age 12. Wasn’t great at school. Never wanted to act. Guessed he’d love directing without really understanding it. Saw every show he could in NY whenever he could as a young adult. Did assisting, stage managing, coaching, then directing. Then went to Hollywood and became a dialogue coach in the early days of “talkies.” Eventually went on to direct 80+ films. Privileged child of Hungarian Jewish immigrant parents who wanted him to be a lawyer but let him forge his own path with privileged-class indulgence.

I bring all this up because, for one, I’m trying to figure out why I am writing a book on gender in the films of George Cukor. Well, I love analyzing, I love gender studies, I enjoy film and am getting very good at critical analysis and teaching thereof. Then, Cukor and I are the children (or children’s children in my case) of European Jews who aren’t religious—though he had more class privilege than my folks or my folks’ folks on either side. And he was a closeted gay man who chose the discreet, conservative route most of the time and maybe I have in some ways but mostly not so much. I know I’m getting a great deal of pleasure writing this book. Some ideas come easier than others, some chapters come together easier than others, some films are more enjoyable and fit my schema easier than others. And I love reading all the gender theory and queer studies analyses and film criticism and film history. Maybe there’s no more to say than that it is a happy coincidence that I’m finding a blend of films I like to study, an approach I enjoy that will likely get published, my son is old enough to enable me the mental space I need to write a book, and few people have written on Cukor’s films. He’s kind of this odd combination of highly successful team player and underdog and I can’t always relate to him or his films, but I enjoy him and his films and anyhow it’s just working so there you go.

Though I’ve rambled on for several paragraphs, the specific purpose in beginning this was to cite a few quotations from Lambert’s book about Cukor that I find intriguing. They speak of a way of being and feeling that sometimes really speaks to me and reflects my worldview and other times really does not. Here we go:

“There are artists whose work is basically a release from personal tension, and there are others for whom their work is an extension rather than a tension, a mode of pleasure and a way of expressing curiosity about their world.”

This really makes me think of my mom. As for me, I think work for me is a combination of tension and extension, but in any case I love the words: extension vs. tension. I am very curious but also sometimes very threatened, so work for me is a way of sorting this out, seeking the new while protecting myself from the threatening. This assumes we mean teaching and research as art. If we’re talking acting, then we’re talking release from tension while engaging in pleasure, but in my life that also means not talking about career. Hence, my choice of doing more comedy and musicals than serious drama, which is compelling but not escapist for me usually.

Quoted within Lambert’s book is also this, from a letter by Lesley Blanch (don’t yet know who that is): “I think he has not, or has passed, ambition, in the destructive sense. This makes him utterly free. And being perfectly sure who he is, what he is, he does not envy—is not eaten up by competition.”

Oh, to reach this before I am, as Cukor was when Lambert interviewed him, 70. I think of myself as someone who is not destructive because of my ambition and envy, but I know there are times—at work, at home, with friends—where I am more competitive than I should/need be, more jealous or envious than I wish I were, more “eaten up” than I would like to be. I don’t envision being “utterly free,” nor do I think Cukor ever was. No one is. Cukor was semi-closeted his whole life, never truly loved his looks, lots of things. But as for career, he made his peace with it. I think I have too, for the most part. No desire to be an academic superstar, though not complacent and still with desire to do more, like this book, my first attempt to write a complete scholarly tome—to make the time and mental space for it despite a heavy workload.

If I can get to a space truly beyond destructive ambition, I sometimes feel, I will achieve the humility Cukor does seem to exude. Whether from a self-doubt related to his sexual orientation and ethnic looks amid the thin, white Hollywood ideal or a true inner peace, I love that Cukor could look back on his career and say he had “an almost mystic respect for other people’s talent.” I have moments of this, as when I admired the actor’s portrayal of the Jester in Once Upon a Mattress in the recent production I was in or this same actors work and the skill of the director in the production of The Bald Soprano I saw when I was doing The Hot L Baltimore. It’s not that I’m cocky and think I’m the best actress ever; it’s that I sometimes am too much in my own head (often in my own insecurities) to pause to really and truly respect other people’s talent. Again, not slamming myself here and not idolizing others; indeed, I think I can be more generous and giving than most people I know. Am just expressing a desire to be a little more generous, a little more patient with self and others, a little more listener than speaker. I’m better than I was and not as good as I hope someday to be. And that’ll do for now.

1 comment:

Kate said...

I have re-read this particular blog entry quite a few times before daring to comment upon it. I have mentioned to others before that I think more often about myself than I do of myself.
For all the gifts the gifties give us, to see ourselves as others see us.
having known you for more than twenty-five years, I am amazed and amused at your self-doubt. You have more of those qualities you aspire to than you give yourself credit for. having said that, I believe as you do, that there is always room for improvement in all of us. I would just have you realize that you are a good deal further along than you seem to think.