Sunday, January 11, 2009

Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire
by Joseph Epstein

If I had to list the one video clip I watch most on YouTube there would be many contenders. But the winner would not be the amazing ending of Lost in Translation or the awesome confrontation between Gandalf and the Witch-King of Angmar which was deleted from the theatrical version of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Nor would it be clips of the comic genius of Alec Baldwin or the comic genius of Sam Kinison. It wouldn’t even be clips of large-breasted Japanese girls cavorting in bikinis. Oh, no. The winner would this (from Swing Time):

This book on Fred Astaire is so bad I loved it. I couldn’t put it down. Joe Epstein is an exceptionally good bad writer. In the future I will purchase any book he writes for the pure joy of watching the amazing – and unintentionally hilarious – things he can do with (to?) our language. He is a linguistic car-wreck, and yet a delight to read for that very reason. This is a rare talent. Most bad writers are boring or repetitive or simply lack any feel for words. Not so with Joe. He is fresh and original. He writes flowingly, is opinionated and moves things along briskly. He has a feel for our language. And that feel is wrong. Words, grammar, metaphors, syntax – scarcely a single part of the English language doesn’t get tripped up, run over and mangled in these 191 pages.

Epstein writes in a jaunty, conversational tone which at times degenerates into showbiz clichés: “This was it, Broadway, the big time.” “Whatever the magical ingredients that made for movie charm, [Astaire] possessed them. He lit up the joint – any joint he may have been in – turning the silver screen quite golden.” In comparison to the refined and elegant Myrna Loy, Ginger Rogers “was more in the mode of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of girl. But what you were likely to get wasn’t bad at all; it was pretty damn fine, in fact.” He even does sound effects: bang! poof!

Some of his metaphors are laughable. After returning from their triumphal dancing tour of England, Fred and his older sister Adele “were leading the good life, the high life, a fine breeze stirring them gently on their way in the fast lane.” Later he tells us: “The young [film producer] Pandro S. Berman saw that the Astaire-Rogers coupling was the white donkey upon which he and RKO could ride into Jerusalem. Like Astaire, Berman soon acquired a ten percent share in the gross of those movies, and so perhaps rode into Jerusalem instead in a Rolls-Royce.”

Beginning a sentence about how Astaire looks better on screen in black and white than in color, Epstein adopts a distinctly unusual syntax: “Something there is inherently glamorous about the combination of black and white…” Yes, there is, Master Yoda, yes, there is.

Here he seems to think that parts of speech are interchangeable. “No one has ever been able to explain the clustering of talent that shows up at certain points in history: [for instance] the genius composers who arrived in Austria and Germany…”

Most assessments of the Astaire-Rogers duo have treated the latter as a lesser talent. Epstein tries to praise her and the results are hilarious:

Despite all the talk of Fred Astaire bringing “class” to the partnership, it might be closer to the truth to say that it was Ginger Rogers who brought class – specifically something of the lower middle or maybe even the working class. In pursuing Ginger Rogers in the movies they did together, Astaire may have been going a bit down-market, in the way that Charles Swann goes after Odette de Crecy, the cocotte of Marcel Proust’s great novel.
And also:

In a great many stills of the two dancing, one notes Astaire’s large hands around Rogers’s waist, rather like a short but firm leash, always in place lest she wander too far.
And then there’s this one:

[Rogers’s] kittenish sexiness, with a strong aroma of the witty behind it [WTF!], is what Fred Astaire needed to play against to show himself to greatest advantage…Ginger, as the name suggests, provided the perfect seasoning.
So, if I’ve got this right, Epstein’s idea of praising Ginger Rogers is to compare her to, by turns, a whore, a dog and a condiment.

This book is light and fluffy, and Epstein often struggles to come up with something profound to say about his subject. If, like me, you don’t know much about Fred Astaire, you’ll pick up some interesting information about him. I learned, for instance, that Astaire wore a toupé, that his shoe size was 8½, and that he was no shorter than 5’ 7” but no taller than 5’ 10” (it turns our that his exact height is in dispute (and I didn’t know that either!)). I learned that when George Gershwin died the last word he uttered was: “Astaire.” (Are they sure it wasn’t: “Despair”?)

I also learned about Astaire’s early years when he and Adele were a famous dance team. She’s quite a character: coarse, foul-mouthed, beautiful and sexually precocious. At seventeen she admitted “I’ve already got quite used to people grabbing my fanny backstage – that is, when they weren’t all homos.” When she caught someone looking up her dress she asked him whether he saw “the ace of spades.” “Why the fuck shouldn’t I say what I feel?” she once replied when the prim Fred apologized for her behavior. In her mid-thirties she left the stage and married into the English aristocracy. But her spirit was undimmed: she once made a needlepoint cushion for Fred and his wife: one side depicted flowers, the other read simply “Fuck Off.”

This book, like most encomiums of movie stars, contains insight and idiocy in pretty equal measure (and I’ve given examples of the later) – but it does, nonetheless, contain insight. For example, Epstein makes some perceptive comments about the difference between Astaire’s charm and that of William Powell:
Contrast Fred Astaire with William Powell, whose suavity helped make the Thin Man movies so delightful. Powell in his movie persona is sophisticated in a way Astaire in his movie persona is distinctly not. Powell’s character is world-weary, properly cynical, looking forward only to another of his perfectly confected cocktails. Astaire breaks out the champagne from time to time, and in one of his movies (The Sky’s the Limit) he actually gets drunk, but his drunkenness turn out to be no more than an excuse to do a dance atop the bar. Like Astaire, Powell is always handsomely tailored, lives in starkly white plush apartments, drives flashy cars. But the good life, one might say, is all that is left to him, since he has previously seen the rest of life for what it really is. Powell’s lack of enthusiasm, his witty cynicism, are among the chief marks of his sophistication; Astaire, urbane yet not entirely sophisticated, retains his enthusiasm, for the girl, for the song, above all for the dance.
This pleasant little wisp of a book (published as part of the Icon series by Yale University Press) will make for a few hours of very entertaining reading. I only wish that it had been more lavishly illustrated, we only get two rather measly photographs. As for the text, I wouldn’t have them change one crazy word.