Gene Kelly wants to talk about now. He is tired of hearing about the days when he was a star. Dancing was a chore anyway, he says. It was the choreography he loved, the ideas part.
As he walks through the hotel lobby to the bar, he doesn't even seem to notice that heads are turning, covertly.
"I get more letters today than when I was a star," he says. "My pictures are on TV from Dahomey to Denver and I get these fan letters from kids 10, 12, 14, and they write to me as if I was still 26. Even my grandchildren."
His grandchildren are 9, 8 and 3. They had to be reminded that the guy on the screen is Grandpop, who will turn 70 this August.
At that, you could do a doubletake. The hair is gray, the forelock store-bought, and the face is a little thicker around the jowls. But the eyes still light up behind the glasses when he smiles the famous smile, the radiant Irish smile that made "Pal Joey" a hit (because without it Joey was an unlovable rat), Kelly's first huge Broadway success in 1941; the same flashing, brilliant smile that blew away Judy Garland and everybody else a year later in his first movie, "For Me and My Gal."
It was the song too, that time. He calls his voice a whiskey tenor, but it is nothing like that, it is a smoky voice, soft-edged and pliant and controlled, and something happened in that movie when he sang the title number, a slightly sappy old vaudeville standard, "The bells are ring-ing . . ." in close harmony with Judy--something magical in the perfect blending of those two voices, the tone quality maybe, the matching vibratos. Something. It made the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
Oh yes. Now. Kelly was at the White House last weekend to tape a dance program for PBS. It featured a new work by Michael Smuin, at Kelly's invitation. A staunch Democrat, Kelly is nevertheless an old friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan (who was at MGM when he was) and has done a lot to reassure Reagan's crowd that ballet is All Right for a Man.
For the last two years he has been thick with Francis Ford Coppola, setting up schools for actors, dancers, choreographers, writers and young directors, with all the benefits of the old studio system but no contracts. At the moment this is going slowly because "Francis has a bit of a cash flow problem."
"I don't perform anymore," he says, "but I'm more active than I ever was before. I help out young dancers and choreographers and I have clinics and speak at colleges. Right now I'm preparing a pilot for Freddie Silverman, a TV variety show with acts from all over the world beamed in by satellite. But I don't dance."
People refuse to believe it. People keep talking about the dazzling 12-minute finale of "An American in Paris" and the great waking-up scene that turned his yawns and stretchings and coffee-making into a ballet. People want to see him swinging from a lamppost again in "Singin' in the Rain," soaking wet in a summer downpour with his collar up and his hatbrim sluicing water and his triumphant grin beaming right out of the screen at you. People can't forget the tight-muscled tiger grace, the buttersmooth movements, the boyish, rather charming mugging that was his trademark. "The Pirate," a bomb when he made it in '48 with Judy Garland ("you couldn't give it away with dishes"), is a cult film today on campuses.
"There's dancing you can do till you're 150, but it's not exciting. I can't be satisfied with dancing at my age, when you can't jump over a table but you have to take a run at it. There's a time when you have to quit being a shortstop and start managing."
Well, lots of people never could jump over a table in their whole life. He looks terrific. He plays tennis and volleyball, swims, exercises, plays touch football with his 20-year-old son, goes roller-skating "for a couple miles" with his 17-year-old daughter when she comes home from school. "I'm a sports nut," he says. "I always was."
When he was a kid in Pittsburgh he and his brother were such good gymnasts they built up an acrobatic hoofing act and played in speakeasies and American Legion halls. He started at Penn State, majored in economics, but after the '29 crash his father, a Graphophone sales executive, lost his job, so Kelly transferred to the University of Pittsburgh and lived at home, pumping gas and teaching dancing on the side.
"I taught seven years. Started law school. Then I realized I had this love of movement and dance. I didn't think I'd be a performer. I wanted to teach. I went to New York thinking they'd hire me as a choreographer."
But his destiny followed him like a stray cat. Ever since his days at St. Raphael's grammar school, when he had to fight his way home from dancing lessons, people reacted when he moved to music. After three years of New York, Billy Rose gave him a choreographing job at the Diamond Horseshoe. His friend William Saroyan put him into "The Time of Your Life" in 1940 and made him a name. Then "Joey" made him a star. And Hollywood made him a great star.
But Gene Kelly only wanted to be a director.
"I never thought I'd stay in movies, never thought I'd be a, quote, movie star. It meant creating a style for myself. It was an amalgam of dance, like the American melting pot. It wasn't a thing I could pass on to people."
So he directed "On the Town" in 1949. With music by Leonard Bernstein and words by Comden and Green--"New York, New York! It's a helluva town! The Bronx is up and the Battery's down!"--and the three sailors dancing off an actual ship in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and down the actual streets of New York, it changed movie musicals forever.
"Even my own studio said, 'You can't do that. People don't go singing in the streets.' I said, 'Here they do.' It's dated now, but at the time it was something of a revolution. Not for the dance so much as the excitement of using the city itself as a background. Also costumes: You always danced in white tie and tails and the girls in feathers. I wanted to dance in jeans and T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Ten years before 'West Side Story.' Now it's the costume of young America."
The French New Wave filmmakers took notice. To this day, Kelly says, he is bigger in France than in America ("I worked with Jacques Demy on 'The Young Girls of Rochefort,' and last fall Jean-Louis Barrault had a gala for me at his theater") and would be even if he hadn't discovered Leslie Caron.
"I saw her in Paris playing a sphinx in the Roland Petit company, and I asked Eddie Constantine to take me backstage to meet her after the show, but she had gone home to bed. She was 15. Two years later I was back making 'American in Paris' and we gave her a test. We thought the studio would take another older girl, but they picked her. It was like an old Ruby Keeler story."
Here we are back in the '40s again. He struggles against the undertow of memory.
"I'll have a musical off the ground this year. I'm not gonna talk about it. Found some talented people, got the money. I'll produce it. The signs are good." He grins so you can see the little scar on his left cheek that he got when he fell on a bicycle at 6. "Kids are rediscovering melody. There's a resurgence of interest in Gershwin. My kids play less rock 'n' roll and more melodic things."
He doesn't say whether he'll direct. Directing three-dimensional dance on two-dimensional film is tough, but on the other hand you're liberated from the stage. Once he directed a pure dance film, "Invitation to the Dance." In 1953 it was ahead of its time, maybe, or just handled badly by the studio. It would be another 20 years before ballet caught on with the big audience. He had better luck producing and directing "Flower Drum Song" in 1958 and directing "Hello Dolly!" in 1970.
"Film is the 20th-century art form, but it's a business too. You need a lot of money."
He is getting restless. A photographer has been moving him around, and now she turns a floodlight on him. People gawk. A woman shrills, "Isn't that Gene Barry?"
The photographer wants to know if he has to wear the glasses. He does. Then she ponders how to make a good portrait. "I coulda made a short subject in this time," he mutters, close to flashpoint.
He gives her two more shots. "Put your arm there," she says, "and would you sort of lean into the table."
" . . . And bark like a dog," he says.
She takes the two shots. "That's it," he says. "Gotta run." He shakes hands and flees.
Somebody should've told him: You don't stop being a star till they stop coming at you.