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

Ginger Rogers in the movie
Ginger Rogers in the movie "The Gay Divorcee," with Fred Astaire. The AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring is celebrating the centennial of Rogers's birth with a retrospective through April 7.
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In looking at Rogers in her own right, I find myself wondering what a Fredless life would have been like for her. As much as she is identified with Astaire, she had the multiple gifts and the drive to have succeeded without him.

Indeed, most of Rogers's work over the decades - she made movies into the 1960s - did not involve singing and dancing. And during the height of the Astaire years, from 1933 to 1939, she made 21 films without him. Astaire needed her more than the other way around. His films with other dance partners never attained the popularity or high art that the best ones with Rogers did. To the extent that his legacy as one of the world's greatest dancers rests on his film work, it's arguable he would not have made such brilliant movies and become so big without the uniquely seductive matchup with Rogers.

Rogers's name is forever linked with Astaire's, but she is hardly a second banana. Matching her warmth and steeliness to his nervous perfectionism, she elevated the greatest dancer of the day. She had hotshot composers - Gershwin, Kern, Berlin - writing for her films, much as Tchaikovsky wrote for the Russian ballet. She ran with intellectuals, entrepreneurs and celebrities alike; among her many wooers were New Yorker founder Harold Ross, aviation magnate Howard Hughes and actor Cary Grant. She had five husbands and no children, and when she wasn't in front of a camera, she was probably on the tennis courts - a natural athlete, she was said to have had near-professional skill - or at her Oregon ranch.

The AFI retrospective is a rare and welcome chance to see the Rogers roles that have been all but forgotten - the hard-luck career women, survivors in the big city, plucky individualists who won't give up.

She played against the prevailing stereotypes. "Real characters, that's what I was after," she wrote. Occasionally Rogers turned down some plums, such as the female lead in "It's a Wonderful Life" - which she described as "such a bland character."

Ironically, the down-market heroines Rogers championed were all but doomed to slip out of the public consciousness. "The simple fact is they're the traditional women's films that are down at the bottom of everybody's critical ash heap," Basinger says. "They still are. Nobody wants to see a movie about the working girl Kitty Foyle who doesn't murder anybody. These kinds of movies don't gain respect."

Yet Rogers put her most famous persona - the divine firecracker in feathers and furs - behind her and pursued her own path. She didn't want to be limited, either to musical comedies or goody-goodies; she didn't want them to define her. She wanted the last word.

The nerve.

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