by Patrick Preziosi
Both William Gaddis and George Cukor were enamored, obsessed, even, with the protean capabilities of the human voice: the author and filmmaker, respectively, find their otherwise disparate art forms united by their gleeful trips down slipstreams of dialogue. Such predilections, however, have also been utilized to furnish caveats and backpedaling when discussing these two relatively polarizing artists. Gaddis’ prose, whose density can be misconstrued for turgidity, is occasionally passed over in favor of his polyphonic capabilities; and Cukor, who has had the unreasonable reputation of unevenness foisted upon him time and time again, still holds the distinction of being a “director of actors”, i.e., how they move, how they speak. Of course, there were innumerable creative decisions made beyond just dialogue and performance, but the voice firmly occupies the center because of its adaptability and reliability in narrative worlds that are turbulent, sometimes humorous, other times despairingly so. Alcohol is an omnipresent force, suicide an unnerving commonality.
Gaddis’ first novel, the totemic The Recognitions, was published in 1955, a good few decades after Cukor’s first film, but both are exemplary mid-century artists, ensnaring their characters within ever-growing industries that prioritize income, productivity and output over human life. Money and liquor lubricate much of what transpires, and such ubiquity means that they penetrate both sides of the work/life divide. There’s a constant thrum of impersonal activity, an inescapable buzzing that is embodied by a deluge of drain-circling dialogue (Gaddis), and incessant deep-focus bustle (Cukor)—it’s understandable that most would find themselves going a little mad, and both director and author play with these volatile emotional states, and the various façades characters try to employ, pitching themselves somewhere between suffocating guardedness and a total crack-up. Gaddis of course writes with more freedom than was ever granted Cukor—profanity, sex, violence, etc.—but that doesn’t cordon the two off from one another as if they were exclusive iterations of the same principle. Both have hit upon the overbearing parasitism of modern living, as well as the ever dwindling—though still nonetheless present—escape routes.
It’s not surprising that two of Cukor’s most successful and popular films occur on the eve of a wedding: Holiday, where salt of the earth Johnny Case (Cary Grant) is betrothed to the middle child of the rich and cloistered Seiton clan, but later falls for the free-spirited and put upon older sister, Linda (Katherine Hepburn); and The Philadelphia Story, which flips its thematic predecessor’s scenario so that Hepburn is still the privileged heiress, yet finds herself under scrutiny for trying to adhere to a certain puritanism that her self-made and drab buzzkill of a fiancé desires of her. It’s the sort of looming, life-altering commitment that engenders the outbursts and breakdowns that bring Cukor and Gaddis together, who both populate the surrounding families with deadbeats, absentees and ghosts. The ostensible protagonist of The Recognitions is the painter-cum-forger Wyatt Gwyon, the son of a taciturn, widowed Calvinist preacher, whose alienating obsessiveness is wrapped up in the imposed austerity of his father and the rare image of his deceased mother. Wyatt’s dialogue is clipped and often backpedals, yet he is strikingly similar to Hepburn’s roles nevertheless, a man of religious American stock who can’t seem to actualize what’s expected of him, no matter how painful the alternative is. When they tiptoe, they’re made to feel small, disingenuous; when they’re outgoing, they’re considered brash, ill-mannered.
The Recognitions hinges on its prevailing iterations of fakery, spiraling downwards from the high-stakes forgery to personal presentations, like the aspiring playwright Otto, who sports an absolutely unnecessary sling to give an air of injured artistry. Others accuse friends and acquaintances alike of similar, front-facing deceit, though there’s always the risk of such claims being unfounded, and at the very least, unwarrantedly rude: Gaddis often pits two diametrically opposed members of a loose bohemian phalanx against one another, the religious and demure musician Stanley, and the half-religious/mostly-blasphemous, quite garrulous Anselm. Religiosity is conflated with self-righteous virtue, or so says Anselm; Anselm is a conflicted Christian masquerading as a heathen, says Stanley. These repeated exchanges, shared not just between Anselm and Stanley, but Otto and Wyatt’s wife Esther, as well as between Wyatt and his unsavory benefactor, are not unlike the stinging insult paid to Hepburn’s Tracy Lord by her fitfully absent father in The Philadelphia Story, who accuses her of “being made of bronze.” In a film that coasts along repartees and head-spinning conversations, to be called essentially inhuman is a gutting admonishment, one’s individuality suppressed. The commitment to both the fake and the real across these works is ultimately an affirmation of one’s singularity, how to stand out without ostracizing oneself.
This overwhelming desire to stand out, to elevate oneself beyond their quotidian being extends itself in Gaddis’ JR, a deluge of dialogue and fascinating dearth of anything prosaic, the proliferating schemes of various businessmen, middle school teachers, composers all orbiting the fledgling paper empire of the eponymous sixth grader, who conducts his trade with a handkerchief pressed against the mouthpiece of his school’s payphone, masking the immaturity of his voice (though it just muffles more than anything else). A class field trip to Wall Street, where the adolescent students are given a few stocks to “invest”, is where J R’s endeavors take root, as he continuously parlays those play-bills into a haphazard paper business, that gouges more from its members than it gives. America’s capitalist model is a blackhole of dumb luck, a nominal ascendency that’s really a plummet.
In 1954’s It Should Happen to You, Cukor similarly zeros in on the empty spectacle that all-American “success” necessitates, when one Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday), tired of being beat down by New York City when she initially came to be a star, rents out a billboard overlooking Columbus Circle, emblazoning it with nothing more than her name. The snowballing effect, which soon yields more public advertisements for Gladys Glover, devolves into a hoisting of the former girdle saleswoman as the “average American girl”, appearing in soap commercials and on sociological primetime panels alike. It’s not that Gladys—like JR—is a vapid individual, but is instead surrounded by a feedback loop of innocuousness that proffers innumerable illusory advantages. The hole gets deeper as the visibility heightens, so seem to posit Cukor and Gaddis.
The most pronounced unifying thread, however, is a prevalence of crosstalk, varying characters elbowing their way through to be heard. Gaddis eschews the formalism of quotation marks, instead denoting dialogue with a blunt em-dash, which imparts the sensation of multiple strands of speech cutting into one another, the author checking them off one by one lest they be lost in the commotion. The twin centerpieces of The Recognitions are extended party scenes where Gaddis’ writing evolves into a whirling dervish of self-sustaining dialogue. Cukor achieves a similar cataloging of voices and personalities, although his own methods are contrastingly streamlined, an elegant utilization of self-effacing long takes, like the beginning of A Life of Her Own, where the camera snakes through a modeling agency, willfully de-centering Lana Turner to absorb the chatter and New York City fashion industry vernacular. Or, take any scene from The Women, which has garnered a somewhat backhanded prestige for how it handles all forms of gossip, without accounting for just how impressive a feat it is to simultaneously disorient with dueling voices while still developing character within said racket.
This isn’t merely superfluous noise, however. In films and novels inhabited by characters who have wildly differing proclivities, skills, desires, speech is the one shared constant. Words cut deep and bond, and the thrill of polyphony on the part of an audience is the faith placed in deducing just what the end goal of even the most tossed off phrase is. In JR, the onetime appearance of a teacher’s fought-over and loquacious son, Francis, states: “—you know what I used to think Mama? if I didn’t talk now, if I kind of saved it up and didn’t talk, that then I’d be able to talk after I’m dead.” This multifaceted phrase, chilling in its childish proximity to death, and endearing in its harmless obliviousness, hits upon what could be ponderous in less virtuosic hands: in our own world—which terrifyingly resembles the merciless atmospheres as conjured by Gaddis and Cukor—sometimes a good run-on sentence, a genuine outburst, a breathless exclamation is the only way we can assert our flesh-and-blood humanity. ♦
Patrick Preziosi is a Brooklyn, NY based writer whose work has appeared in photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Mubi Notebook, Screen Slate, The Quietus and more.