To have walked on the moon, that would be nice, but to be able to dance like Fred Astaire, that would be heaven.
Everyone knew that, being mortal, Fred Astaire would die some day, and yesterday in Los Angeles, at the age of 88, he did. But so often on the movie screen, Fred Astaire had seemed better than mortal; he improved on perfection. One hoped that maybe he would defy the laws of nature in real life as he had bent and evaded them so often in the movies.
Fred Astaire danced up the walls and across the ceiling in "Royal Wedding"; he danced on rooftops and ledges in "The Belle of New York"; he danced on roller skates in "Shall We Dance?"; and he danced with firecrackers popping at his feet in "Holiday Inn."
He danced where angels feared to tread.
Nobody danced as well as Fred Astaire, of course, but nobody looked as comfortable dancing, either. The man was at home on his feet. He relaxed in motion. There was a lot more to it than agility and finesse; Astaire was as born to the dance as some men are born to the priesthood.
Most memorably for many moviegoers, Fred Astaire danced with Ginger Rogers, in a series of '30s romantic musical comedies perhaps best represented by "Top Hat." That was the film in which Ginger complained about Fred's tap-dancing in the hotel suite above hers and, as an apology, he spilled sand on the floor and soft-shoed her to sleep. Later they twirled each other around a gazebo in the park after Fred had popped the musical question, "Isn't this a lovely day to get caught in the rain?"
In private, associates have said, Fred disliked Ginger and detested her overbearing mother. But together on the screen they were, as Arlene Croce wrote (quoting a lyric from "Swing Time"), "La belle, la perfectly swell romance." A fine romance, with no kisses -- or hardly any. They didn't have to kiss when they could dance like that. This was the most rarefied form of communication ever invented. Who could watch without wanting to be one of them?
They did the Continental, they did the Carioca, and in "The Gay Divorcee," he crooned "Night and Day" into her ear. Astaire sang quite well, and composers loved him because he didn't mess around with the lyrics. He introduced songs by the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, and in time came to epitomize the age in which such men wrote such songs. Fred Astaire represented effortless elegance, never studied, and he wore top hat and tails as few men could.
On his Emmy-winning TV specials in the 1960s, Astaire donned the formal outfit again, telling the audience on one occasion that he used to hate to wear tails "but now that I've got them on again ... I loathe them." One associates him with a time of grace and glamor and manners, but Astaire also personified a classy, uncomplaining professionalism rare now in stars.
To make it look easy and natural, Astaire spent weeks in rehearsal on his dance numbers, and he insisted that directors shoot him so his whole body could be seen in the frame. There wasn't to be any cheating. They didn't have to fix it in the editing because it was already fixed in rehearsal.
When it all fell into place, it felt just right, and everyone probably has a personal favorite Astaire moment. For many it's the piquant "Never Gonna Dance" number from "Swing Time," for others the brooding "Let's Face the Music and Dance" from "Follow the Fleet." In the otherwise undistinguished "The Sky's the Limit," Astaire danced the dramatic monologue "One for My Baby," which ends with his smashing the glassware and mirrors behind a bar in angry desperation. "You'd never know it," he sang to the bartender, "but buddy, I'm a kind of poet, and I've got a lot of things to say."
But you would know it. He was a kind of poet. His range went far beyond suave sophistication, to such priceless encounters as the "Couple of Swells" number with Judy Garland in "Easter Parade" and the comic romp in an amusement park, "Stiff Upper Lip," with George Burns and Gracie Allen in "A Damsel in Distress."
There were many partners besides Rogers: Rita Hayworth, Cyd Charisse, Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron, Jane Powell, Joan Fontaine, and, on television, Barrie Chase. In "The Band Wagon," he danced a duet with British music hall star Jack Buchanan, "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan," which always quietly manages to bring the house down. In "Royal Wedding," he danced with a hat rack and in "Easter Parade" with a fleet of shoes and ballet slippers.
In "Blue Skies," he danced with multiple images of himself, but even a platoon of special-effects Fred Astaires couldn't outclass Fred Astaire. There was still, always would be, always will be, only one. Some people have style. He was style.
Dramatic roles, in later years, kept him busy. His was a career of nearly unstoppable longevity. He appeared in a TV movie with Helen Hayes and played such other straight dramatic roles as that of the doomed race car driver in "On the Beach." Even if he didn't dance, the way he walked or jingled the change in his pocket or even turned his head still seemed dancer's movements. You wondered if he was capable of tripping over a rumpled rug, or hitting his thumb with a hammer. He seemed in complete harmony with the elements. The elements could consider themselves flattered.
In the compilation film "That's Entertainment," as preface to a clip from "Broadway Melody of 1940" in which Astaire danced with Eleanor Powell, narrator Frank Sinatra said, "You know, you can wait around and hope, but you'll never see the likes of this again." Together, Fred and Eleanor snapped and crackled across a shiny dance floor while the band played "Begin the Beguine." Maybe, indeed, it never got better than this. Maybe, indeed, it's been all downhill from there.
A reporter, promised a chance to meet Astaire at a New York party to celebrate the premiere of "That's Entertainment, Part Two," was put off all night by publicists until it appeared Astaire was ready to leave. The reporter was allowed to ride with Astaire in an elevator as it dropped the 65 stories down from the Rainbow Room in the RCA Building. Confronted with the legend, the reporter was unable to muster a single intelligible question except, had Fred Astaire enjoyed being Fred Astaire? He smiled and said he had. That seemed reassuring. Millions and millions of frustrated would-be Fred Astaires would like to think he had as wonderful a time as he gave.
In "Top Hat," he had cooed to Ginger, "Oh I'd love to climb a mountain, and to reach the highest peak, but it wouldn't thrill me half as much as dancing cheek to cheek." In the movies since, one has seen armies march, nations fall and worlds collide. Monsters have arrived from other planets and risen up from the deep. Passions have flared and seas parted and kingdoms crumbled.
But it hasn't thrilled us half as much as watching Fred Astaire.