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A Double Life

A Double Life(1948)

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George Cukor entered a new phase in his career - some critics would callit his creative peak - when he joined forces with the husband-and-wife writing team ofRuth Gordon and Garson Kanin for A Double Life (1947), a melodrama set in the world of the theatre. Over the next seven years, he would direct seven films for one or both of theKanins, including such popular hits as Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat andMike (1952). In essence, they created their own mini-studio, assembling aproduction team and even a few recurring cast members who would help themmake some of the most intelligent films in Hollywood history.

The Kanins had written their story of an actor who confuses his off-stagelife with his on-stage performance as Othello years earlier and sold it toColumbia Studios. Then Harry Cohn, head of the studio, decided not to makethe picture and refused to even pay for the script. So the Kanins sold itto Universal-International and arranged to borrow their friend Cukor fromMGM. Originally they had hoped to cast Laurence Olivier in the leadingrole, but when he proved unavailable they went after Ronald Colman. But althoughColman had started his career on the stage, he had never been comfortabledoing Shakespeare and almost turned the script down for fear of making afool of himself. Cukor and the Kanins finally won him over by convincinghim that the role was going to win somebody an Academy Award®, an honorthat had escaped Colman even though he'd been nominated three other times.They also promised to do everything they could to help him win. To assistwith the Shakespeare scenes, Cukor hired Walter Hampden, a noted stage starfrom the earlier part of the 20th century, to coach Colman and stage thescenes from Othello. He then shot those scenes in sequence, asthough they were from a different picture, so that Colman could focussolely on the Shakespearean role.

Knowing that Cukor's talents were primarily in script interpretation andcoaching actors, the Kanins arranged for art director Harry Horner andeditor Robert Parrish to work on the set every day during shooting. WhileCukor worked with the cast, Horner would set up the day's shots and Parrishwould plan out the editing in advance, all of it subject to the director'sapproval. The result was one of Cukor's most visual films ever and thestart of a more cinematic approach to filmmaking for him. For the stagescenes, he suggested to cameraman Milton Krasner that they capture theway stage lights exaggerate an actor's features, creating a blinding display thatperfectly counter pointed Colman's madness. Throughout the film he usedshots of Colman standing near mirrors to capture the growing divisionbetween his sane exterior and his growing insanity.

One key role was the waitress Colman's character confuses with Desdemonaand eventually kills in a fit of jealousy. Shelley Winters was doingmostly chorus work in films when she came in to read for the role andarrived dressed to the nines. Cukor told her to go to the ladies' room andremove her girdle, bra and false eyelashes. Then he left her to read thescript. He was so impressed with the look and her understanding of thematerial that he set up a screen test without even reading her. Then, toput her at ease, he shot one of her rehearsals without telling her. Onceshe was cast, however, she was so nervous that she needed over 100 takes for her first scene with Colman. Finally, the actor took her to lunch to try to get her to calm down. The results were a triumph that establishedher as a major young star.

A Double Life was a hit for all involved. Colman won rave reviews,and, true to their promise, Cukor and the Kanins mounted a major campaignto win him the Oscar®. As soon as the film was assembled, theyarranged a series of screenings for Academy® members. One of themwould personally invite each member to the screening, while another one was there togreet them as they arrived and one of them was there at the end to thankeveryone for attending and to praise Colman's performance. For his part, Colmantook out a series of trade paper ads featuring previous Oscar® winnersendorsing his performance. As a result, he was clearly the front-runner onOscar® night. In his acceptance speech, he credited all involved withthe film, particularly Cukor. Also nominated for the picture was composerMiklos Rozsa, who won for musically mirroring Colman's descent intomadness; the Kanins, who would never win an Oscar® for writing (thoughRuth Gordon would be named Best Supporting Actress for Rosemary'sBaby in 1968); and Cukor, who would have to wait until 1964 to win forMy Fair Lady.

Producer: Michael Kanin
Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Ruth Gordon, Garson Kanin
Art Direction: Harvey T. Gillett, Bernard Herzbrun
Production Design: Harry Horner
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Costume Design: Travis Banton, Yvonne Wood
Film Editing: Robert Parrish
Original Music: Miklos Rozsa
Principal Cast: Ronald Colman (Anthony John), Signe Hasso (Brita), Edmond O'Brien (Bill Friend), Shelley Winters (Pat Kroll), Ray Collins (Victor Donlan), Philip Loeb (Max Lasker), Joe Sawyer (Pete Bonner), Whit Bissell (Dr. Stauffer), Betsy Blair (Girl in Wig Shop).
BW-105m. Closed captioning.

By Frank Miller

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