Volume 80, Number 13 | August 26 - September 1, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Film Festival

Tuesdays through September 14
At Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.)
Call 212-727-8110 or visit www.filmforum.org

Film Forum celebrates Astaire’s smooth moves


Joseph Papp, the best friend William Shakespeare ever had in New York City, left us in October 1991. Shortly before his departure, he asked me to come to his office in the Public Theater, just to talk of this and that. So I did, and we — mostly he — talked of the very earliest 1950s Lower East Side days of what was then called the Shakespearean Workshop Theater, and of its first beloved new young actors (Colleen Dewhurst, Roscoe Lee Brown, Jack Cannon), and of the very early Obie Award that Joe, three decades later, still had on the wall behind his desk.

 He took it down and started reading the citation, out loud, to me. Then, he suddenly stopped and sheepishly said (Joe Papp was not a sheepish individual): “You wrote this, right?”

 After a moment or two of silence, Joe Papp — the man who had invigorated the whole New York theater scene with brilliant, believable high-quality Shakespeare, free to one and all in Central Park, burst out with:

 “Do you know who I think was the greatest all-around performer in this country’s history? Do you? Do you? Fred Astaire!”

 You could see that Joe Papp, who had a bit of performer in himself (he once did a lovely gig of sentimental Yiddish songs at Greg Dawson’s Ballroom on West Broadway) wouldn’t have minded exchanging biographies with Fred Astaire.

 Then there’s Jules Feiffer. His very earliest semi-autobiographical “Sick Sick Sick” cartoon strip character — poor fumbling bumbling introspective girl-hungry Bernard Mergendeiler — in his daydreams and gyrations clearly saw himself as Fred Astaire.

 Then there’s my own son. When Matthew, then 16 or so, heard that I was heading off to some hotel, maybe the Plaza, to interview senior citizen Astaire on the occasion of I forget what honor, the kid said to me: “Tell him your son thinks he’s a great man.”

 At the hotel I decided to lead with it: “My 16-year-old son wants me to tell you he thinks you’re a great man.” Mr. Astaire looked at me sourly, with end-of-publicity-bullshit-day exhaustion (plus maybe four or five other forms of sheer hardworking-lifetime old-pro post-career exhaustion). When he finally spoke, he said — or snapped — “I don’t know why he would think that.”

Well, sir, there are a million reasons, 50 percent of them thanks to a young woman named Ginger Rogers and all of them lifting our hearts and pulses once again in the glorious Astaire & Rogers series at Film Forum on Houston Street.

 Several of the 11 classics (notably “Swing Time”) have gone by since the series opened, but you can still, on August 31, catch the seminal “The Gay Divorcee” (1934) paired against “Roberta” (1935); on September 7, “Top Hat” (1935) coupled to “Follow the Fleet” (1936); and, on September 14, “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle” (1939) along with “The Barkleys of Broadway” (1949).

Among the songs, and what more powerful magnet do you need: ‘”Night and Day,” “The Continental,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Lovely to Look At,” “I Won’t Dance,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Let Yourself Go,” “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”

 Among the songwriters: Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin.

Which leads to the following observation. “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” So reads a legendary and maybe apocryphal early 1930s RKO memorandum on a screen test of then unknown-to-Hollywood (but not to London or Broadway) Frederick Austerlitz of Omaha, Nebraska.

 Can’t sing!

 From the day Old Baldy first opened his mouth on film and applied his light sure intelligent touch to words and music, virtually every single lyricist and/or composer in or out of Hollywood wanted his or her newest oeuvre to be introduced by Fred Astaire. Even today, every time Frank Sinatra, let us say, takes us into “A Foggy Day in London Town,” I hear behind the Sinatra clarity the yet finer tensile strength of the Astaire original.

 Fred Astaire danced with, made film love to, a number of other remarkable women — Cyd Charisse and Judy Garland, for two — but the one ideal Astaire partner, as everybody knows, the one deliciously desirable wisecracking tough-shelled soft cored fancy-free fleet-footed peachfuzz-blonde ideal shiksa, as every Jewish boy knows, was and is Ginger Rogers, who matched Fred step-by-step through the most delicate, delicious, sexually loaded dances — except that, as the old line goes, she had to do it backwards.

 The double entendre there is the giveaway, as if one were needed. Another old (and truth-laden) line about these two people is “She gave him sex, he gave her class.” I remember once reading, years ago, that during the singing of “Just the Way You Look Tonight” you could, watching the movie, actually detect Ginger’s nipples hardening beneath the fabric. Believe me, as a young man I kept going back to concentrate on that moment, but, alas, I don’t think it’s true.

 Yet in Fred and Ginger’s elegant, intricate hands — and feet, toes, knees, legs, flanks, breasts, buttocks, lips, cheek-to-cheeks — there is always, at the minimum, a seduction, often a shadow carnal copulation, sometimes even a rape (but who rapes whom, he or she? Isn’t it a lovely day to be caught in the rain?).

 Fellini once made a lovely movie with Mastroianni and Masina called “Ginger and Fred.” Artistry paralleling art, or vice versa. I’m ready for Film Forum to bring it back, one of these days. Meanwhile….

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