BOSTON -- Looking at the photos, those endlessly elegant portraits of top hat and tails, that ran beside his obituaries, I couldn't help wondering how the man would have fared in films today. There was no angst in Astaire. Nor any violence. Nor any heavy breathing.
If Fred Astaire was in a bedroom, he was dressed in silk pajamas. If Fred Astaire took a woman in his arms, it was to face the music and dance. If Fred Astaire and his co-stars made it together, it was cheek to cheek.
Every one of the stories about his death at 88 included the terse notes from his first screen test: ''Can't act, balding, can't sing, dances a little.'' Every one of them included the telling remark of his old colleague, Ronald Reagan: ''He was the ultimate dancer -- the dancer who made it all look so easy.''
Easily, Fred Astaire danced down staircases, on balconies and rooftops, in a living room, a ballroom, a garden. Easily, he danced on a wedding cake, on roller skates and on the ceiling. He kept his sweat offscreen.
It isn't like that any more. Our Hollywood fantasies are pressed into ''realism,'' even feigned realism. They do close-ups of the sweat these days. They add the sweat in.
What seemed so effortless in the Astaire movies was not just his own movement, but the way he danced in tandem. Fred Astaire almost always had partners, but not the way we think of partners now. In those days, they merged, they had the same rhythms.
When Astaire danced with Ginger Rogers or Cyd Charisse or Leslie Caron, the man and the woman flowed together. Astaire coupled in a way that seemed visually idyllic. Dancing with Rogers was indistinguishable from dancing with his own shadow. Two could move as easily -- that word again -- as one.
It was this idyll that attracted so many, the apparently seamless coupling of a man and a woman. The ability to choreograph a perfect love merger. Even with a hat-rack.
Of course, we know at some level what Astaire himself said in an interview: ''Dancing is a sweat job. . . . You may go days getting nothing but exhaustion. This search for what you want is like tracking something that doesn't want to be tracked.'' A man who, all his life, was addicted to soap operas knew something about the struggles of mating as well.
But we see only the finished product, the flawless pas de deux. In his musical unions, the image of two people moving in perfect synch is powerful.
It's no surprise that the Astaire genre didn't make it into the '60s. There were fewer leading men in the '60s. Fewer following women. The fantasy that if only one could lead and the other follow all would be well began to break apart.
Gradually, ''Top Hat'' became ''Hair.'' Ballroom dancing turned to rock. Couples were now individuals lightly connected to each other. By the '70s, the struggle to keep their steps in any sort of sequence began to show.
And now? In the romantic movies of the late '80s, if there is a theme, it is of the desire and difficulty of finding your way back to connection, taking a single, sure step together.
In the ''bratpack'' films such as ''St. Elmo's Fire'' or ''About Last Night,'' the men and women leap into bed quickly but sidestep commitment. They don't glide, but lurch warily toward each other.
In films like ''Nothing in Common,'' solos are what come naturally to the yuppie set. They have to take lessons, work hard to learn the basics of togetherness. The desire for coupling contends unrhythmically with the desire for independence.
Our current movie models, our selves perhaps, portray some barrier between man and woman -- something as obvious as the Cyrano de Bergerac nose that Steve Martin wears in ''Roxanne.''
As for Astaire? ''The thing I hate most is nostalgia,'' said this dancer. Three generations now pay him the compliment of their late-night attention. Maybe it is nostalgia alone that draws us to this graceful, flawless star, and that makes his passing page-one news. But I don't think so.
Fred Astaire did something that seems truly remarkable in our modern eyes. He made dancing -- together -- look so easy.