He danced with a newspaper and a lamppost, a mop and his own alter ego -- a cartoon mouse -- and, when time permitted, the most beautiful women in Hollywood. Through it all, Gene Kelly said, the idea was "to create some kind of magic and joy. That's what you do up there -- you dance love, you dance joy, you dance dreams."
Those dreams came back to delight and enchant a black-tie audience of more than 1,000 in Beverly Hills Thursday night as Kelly received the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. The crowd ran the gamut from such perennial stars as Cary Grant, James Stewart and Fred Astaire to younger types like Sean Penn, who showed up in a leather jacket. Not a bad turnout for a guy who had to be dragged to dancing school "kicking and screaming all the way" and whose main ambition was to play shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates. As AFI director George Stevens Jr. commented, this was someone "sorely in need of career counseling."
The 72-year-old Kelly is the AFI's 13th honoree -- but the first who did most of his work in color -- and the dazzling selection of clips emphasized once again the nature of his achievement. Part little boy, part Pan, dressed in his trademark slacks, sweater, white socks and white open-necked shirt, Kelly in a sense Americanized dance, made it athletic and exciting in a brawny, easygoing kind of way. The titles and plots of his films may have seemed interchangeable at times, but his footsteps were always indelible.
Host for the evening was fellow dancer Shirley MacLaine, who recalled first meeting Kelly in 1957 during the Boston tryout of "The Pajama Game," in which she had a chorus part as Pajama Worker No. 3. "I had a long red ponytail in those days, and as he turned to leave our dressing room he picked it up and whispered in my ear, 'Kid, you've really got something, keep going.' " MacLaine followed him into the hallway just to watch how he walked, and when Kelly reached the other end of the corridor, "he turned and said, 'I meant that,' " gave her a thumbs-up sign, kicked his heels in the air and was gone.
MacLaine finally got to dance with Kelly in the 1964 "What a Way to Go!" ("Golly gee, were we young and thin," she chirped after the clip was shown), and claimed "the only thrill to compare with that was watching him do it with someone else." Kelly's other partners clearly agreed. "Whatever else happens in the rest of my life, I'll be able to say I danced with Gene Kelly," said Olivia Newton-John, who had the pleasure in the best-forgotten "Xanadu." And Leslie Caron, who flew in from Paris for the event, talked about what a friend Kelly had been, first screen-testing her for "An American in Paris" even though the studio had someone else in mind, and then helping her during the shooting. "He'd say, 'Honey, the camera is there,' " Caron said, turning her own chin 180 degrees in imitation. " 'Keep your face to the camera so your mother will recognize you.' "
Male dancers paying tribute to Kelly included Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines, who described what it felt like to think up a step and then realize, upon seeing an old film, that Kelly had thought it up 30 years before.
"Don't worry about stealing Gene Kelly's steps," Harold Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers, who starred with Kelly in "The Pirate," told Hines later in the program. "He stole them from us."
The most warmly received tribute came from the only star other than Kelly to get a standing ovation, previous AFI winner Fred Astaire, who danced with Kelly in "Ziegfeld Follies" in 1946. "That Kelly, he is terrific, that's all there is to it," Astaire said genially. Momentarily overwhelmed during his remarks, he paused and then said, "Have I lost the words? I want to say so many things I can't get out. He's one great guy, he has all my respect."
Serving as the leitmotif for the entire evening was Kelly's famous solo in "Singin' in the Rain," which was even the inspiration for the dessert, complete with solid chocolate umbrella and the unwieldy name of Souffle' Ga teau Fromage Cre me de Menthe a la Singin' in the Rain.
The night's most historic moment came when writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green and costars Cyd Charisse, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor gathered on stage to sing "You Are Our Lucky Star" to Kelly. Though Reynolds got the most notice with a gown slit to the upper thigh, O'Connor got off the best line. "It's not easy working with a genius," he said. "That's why Gene was so patient with me."
The funniest part of the evening was a speech by Steve Martin, who got up and said in perfect deadpan, "Of all the people here, I've been the closest to Gene. I remember in the early 1950s I visited Gene and Stanley Donen on the set, and they were just sitting around. 'It's this damn weather,' they said. 'We can't get this number shot.' 'Why don't you shoot it anyway?' I suggested. They resisted, but finally they said, 'What the heck, let's do what Steve said. Let's just get this lamppost out of the way and we'll be ready to go.' I said, 'Leave the lamppost.' The rest is history."
Kelly took all this in at the head table, surrounded by nothing but family, including his brother Jack, who first taught him to tap-dance, his sister Louise, three of his children and one grandchild. And when he accepted the award, he extended that family to include all the people he had worked with, paying long and sincere tribute to his costars and his writers, producers, arrangers and more, "all those people the public never sees who knock themselves out so we could look good."
Kelly talked about how he first got seriously interested in dancing, when he realized "girls like fellows who like dancing. In my generation, it was our form of courtship -- the only way you could get your arm around a girl was to ask her to dance. Then maybe your cheek got a little closer to hers, all that stuff."
He expressed his pleasure that musical-oriented MGM had purchased his contract in the early '40s ("a lucky break for this indentured servant"), and he summed it all up this way: "If I can make you smile by running through a rainstorm, I won't worry any more that the Pittsburgh Pirates lost a hell of a shortstop."