Friday, June 22, 2012

Quote of the Day (Toni Bentley, on Astaire’s Erotic Charm)

“In the Cole Porter number ‘Night and Day,’ [Fred] Astaire pursues her [Ginger Rogers] about the dance floor with the wit of changing rhythms, sometimes syncopated, sometimes right on the beat, sometimes pausing to breathe the moment. He chases her, coaxes her, mirrors her, challenges her and goes hip to hip with her. He even spoons her, vertically. She isn’t sure, she turns away, she reconsiders, gives a little, gives a little more, then, overcome, bends backward and surrenders completely to the rhythm, the moment and the man. He flips her around, catches her, sends her off spinning alone only to meet her, unexpectedly, when she slows, pulls her in tight and takes her into a thrilling crescendo, then to a fantastically casual ending, as if to say, ‘That? Oh, that was nothing,’ his modesty after brilliance his most disarming charm.”—Toni Bentley, “Two-Step” (Review of The Astaires, by Kathleen Riley), The New York Times Book Review, June 3, 2012

When it comes to male musical stars, I’m more of a Gene Kelly than a Fred Astaire fan. It’s not so much a matter of who was, technically, a better dancer, and even less about who was easier to get along with (that honor belonged to Astaire, who didn’t push his co-stars and other film professionals on the set to match his own strenuous exertions, the way that director-star Kelly, a real taskmaster, often did).

No, it’s simply a matter of the background of their characters. Nobody who’s ever known me to the slightest degree would ever mistake me for a top-hat kind of guy, whereas Kelly’s characters—often low-to-middle-class—are like myself and those I grew up with.

With all of that said, it might be time for me to catch up on films by Astaire—who died on this date in Los Angeles in 1987 at age 88. Toni Bentley’s recent review of the new biography about the great film star and his first professional partner, his sister Adele, has convinced me that it’s high time that I did so.

Astaire, she observes, was "our American Casanova camouflaged in tux and tails or sailor suit as a clean-cut gentleman." Maybe that "clean-cut gentleman" part made Hollywood's ever-present censorship arm of the time, the Hays Office, overlook how his dance in The Gay Divorcee provinced a kind of cinematic Kama Sutra for "every move any aspiring lover might do well to adopt."

Just as Bentley fell hard for Astaire on the basis of amazing scenes such as the one described here, I think I may have fallen for Bentley’s prose based on her book review. A onetime dancer herself with George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet company, she knows how to make the rhythms of dance intoxicating without being too technical. Several of her books have landed on those “best of the year” lists published by the likes of The New York Times Book Review and Publishers Weekly, and she has also dabbled in memoirs, fiction and drama. 

Don’t be surprised, then, if you see another excerpt from one of her works in a future “Quote of the Day” in this space in the blogosphere.

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