Friday, May 29, 2009

Fred Astaire by Joseph Epstein

If Fred Astaire had stood still, no one would have been impressed, according to Joseph Epstein in his quick-reading book Fred Astaire. Astaire was between 5' 6" and 5' 10" in height (no one seems to know for sure for the studios kept this information secret), and his head was large for his body. His hands were oversized, his torso undersized, and his arms lacked "visible" muscles. But Astaire didn't stand still. He was a dancer, some say the greatest ever.

The dust jacket identifies Epstein's book as a "portrait." As such, it is a quick look at Astaire's dance and movie career, from his early days out of Omaha, Nebraska, to his work in London, New York, and Hollywood. He began dancing with his less polished, more energetic sister Adele, with whom his name was always paired on Broadway and London. Only after she retired and married did he venture to Hollywood where his initial screen tests were panned. Astaire's Broadway reputation helped get him a secondary role in Joan Crawford's Dancing Lady, in which he impressed the movie producers enough to give him another chance.

Much of the book discusses Astraire's on screen and professional relationships with his dancing partners and contemporaries, with Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly getting the most attention. According to Epstein, Astaire and Rogers were not really happy dancing together and never saw themselves as a team. Both tried (but not very hard) to end the act, but the producers foresaw large profits in keeping them together for a series of movies. To her credit, Rogers complained less than most of the other dance partners about the excessive rehearsals on which Astaire insisted. Epstein says Aistaire was at his best with Rogers, but ironically Rogers shone more after she escaped. Astaire and Kelly were never friends and rarely appeared together, but Epstein portrays them as respectfully different in style and philosophy.

While there is some personal, behind-the-scenes information about Astaire, this book avoids gossip. Epstein indicates that there really wasn't much about which to gossip, for Astaire was a conservative man who was faithful to his wife. The book is as much a work of criticism as a biography, and despite Epstein's knocks on the lameness of movie plots, I now want to see some old Astaire musicals. Fred Astaire should be popular with dance and movie fans.

Epstein, Joseph. Fred Astaire. Yale University Press, 2008. ISBN 9780300116953

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