Ginger Rogers at 100: Even with Astaire, always taking the lead

FILM FEST: The Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movies are being shown as an AFI retrospective in Silver Spring through April 7.
FILM FEST: The Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movies are being shown as an AFI retrospective in Silver Spring through April 7. (Afi)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2011

"I've got enough nerve to do anything!"

- Ginger Rogers in "Swing Time"

"Swing Time," the sixth film that Ginger Rogers made with Fred Astaire, spins the workaday world of a gambler and a dance teacher into gilded heaven, with duets unlike any the two had whipped up before. But nothing tops this 1936 film's final nightclub scene - the one in which Astaire serenades a heartbroken Rogers with that aching vow of celibacy "Never Gonna Dance," then coaxes her into an increasingly explosive waltz that sends them whirling up twin flights of stairs.

Paradise, right? Not yet. On the set's upper level, with its polished floor like black ice, Rogers flies around in tight turns, and this cyclone force carries her right to the edge of the platform - where there's no rail, nothing but her wits to keep her from plummeting. Your heart hops. Part of the wonderment and pain of the moment is that Rogers is completely in character, disconsolate and remote. (Having fallen in love with Astaire's cardsharp, she had hoped to marry him, until the fiancee from his past showed up.) But there's a revitalizing purity in her turns, and with her white gown whipping like wind, she finally spins out the door in celestial glory. All Astaire can do, slumping slack-jawed onto a bench, is watch her go.

That dance went from pas de deux to pas de don't. And Rogers had the last word.

She usually did. In her life, as in her films, Rogers was a distinctly independent woman. She was so modern in her directness, her self-possession, her firm command of her expressive powers - let alone her career - that the arrival of her centennial year, twinned with Ronald Reagan's, comes as a shock. Unbelievably, the actress who died in 1995 would have turned 100 this July.

In a better world, this milestone would be marked with a reissuance of gowns by Irene (run, mink!), with big bands, swinging jazz and dancing in the streets. Short of that, dancers and actors alike can honor Rogers by studying her enduring naturalness, the way she underplayed her parts, keeping her cool even if she was losing her heart. There's ample opportunity for this during the American Film Institute's impressively wide-ranging Ginger Rogers retrospective, on view in Silver Spring through April 7.

All 10 of Rogers's films with Astaire are included, and an equal number of her 63 others: comedies and dramas including "Kitty Foyle," which tracks a living-by-her-wits shop clerk's disastrous love life, for which Rogers won a Best Actress Oscar in 1940. And "The Major and the Minor," with Rogers's clear-eyed schemer masquerading as a child to save money. By that point (1942), Rogers was a huge star, and her benediction enabled Billy Wilder to make his American directorial debut with this sharply observed picture.

As we near Oscar season and its inevitable coronation of actors with looks and charisma but comparatively narrow abilities, the time is right to reconsider Rogers and her remarkable - and undervalued - talents. Even for her time, when actors were typically more accomplished than they are today, Rogers was a golden hat trick. Not only was she a singer-dancer-comedienne, but that multifaceted nature extended to the way she played her parts.

The key to her appeal is her duality, her mix of high and low, glamour queen and saucepot. Her best performances draw on that mixed allure. Take "The Major and the Minor," in which she is sugary and bashful one minute, and plotting how to land her man between drags on a cigarette in another.

"Swing Time's" furious dance-drama in the nightclub encapsulates Rogers's yin and yang, the vulnerability and the firewall will. (She recounts in her maddeningly unrevealing autobiography, "Ginger: My Story," that after weeks of rehearsals, 48 takes went into filming that number, and shooting finished at 4 a.m. Hours before, her feet started bleeding, and choreographer Hermes Pan told her to go home. "I wanted to get the thing done," she writes, and she stuck it out.) Rogers was appealingly earthy, a fleshly dream with a knockout body. Yet when she danced, she could make you believe she'd float away if Astaire weren't holding onto her. She was silk in his arms.

Could any other actress move so well yet be so stable, so versatile? Not Cyd Charisse, the better dancer but less convincing performer. Not Eleanor Powell, the tap queen with more power than purr, and a singing voice that, like Charisse's, had to be dubbed. Jean Arthur did the comedy but not the dancing. The heartbreakingly gifted but troubled Judy Garland was a victim of the very fragility that made her so watchable - in fact, she was tapped to star in "The Barkleys of Broadway," the last of the Fred-and-Ginger films, but, in the parlance of the day, dropped out for health reasons.


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