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Forward and in tap shoes

  • Feb 20, 2009
As my DVR filled up the other day with a cable classic-movie channel's Fred Astaire film festival, I was reminded yet again why there hasn't been, and probably won't ever be, a performer quite like Astaire. Far more than "just a dancer," he was a dancer whom dancers from Nureyev to Baryshnikov to Gene Kelly acknowledged had achieved the highest possible standard in his art (Nureyev called Astaire "the greatest dancer in American history"). Far more than "just a singer," he was a singer whom songwriters from Gershwin to Berlin to Porter to Fields wanted to perform their songs (Joseph Epstein tells us something I never knew: that the last word Gershwin uttered on his deathbed was "Astaire"). Anyone who believes that stupid line -- or still more, puts it on a bumper sticker on his or her car -- that Ginger did everything Fred did, only backward and in heels, clearly doesn't know the first thing about Fred Astaire.

Joseph Epstein, on the other hand, knows the first thing, the second thing and things *plus ultra.* He has thought deeply about Astaire the dancer, the singer, the actor, the dance-partner, the clotheshorse, the style icon, the working man, the show-biz aristo from Omaha ... and shares these thoughts in this very well-written and well-voiced essay. While very, very little of this book is about Epstein himself, it still feels remarkably personal because of that distinctive authorial voice. In an odd sort of way, the personal tone of this meditation reinforced the validity of the portrait it created. Even though this is a relatively short book, I came away thinking I understood why Astaire matters more completely than I have some other figures I've encountered in longer, more academic, or more "authoritative" biographies. As much as I enjoy watching Astaire's elegance (a concept Epstein devotes some time to exploring) on screen, Epstein's elegant discussion of it on the page was just as enjoyable. I recommend this to any fan of Astaire, of classic films, of dance, or of fine writing.

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Andrew S. Rogers ()
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About this book


The life of legendary dancer, singer and actor Fred Astaire has been chronicled before, but here, author Epstein (Snobbery:The American Version) brings a winning populist awe to his biographic probe of the movie star's time-tested magic. Epstein's honest intentions do little to mask his admiration and fascination with the icon, but it proves contagious as he gallops through Astaire's early life in turn-of-the-century Nebraska and first career steps as a sidekick to sister Adele in New York vaudeville. Despite apocryphal tales of a less-than-favorable RKO screen test ("Balding. Can't sing. Dances a little."), studio head David O. Selznick thought Astaire "a really sensational bet," and gave the performer his first Hollywood break. Epstein explores Astaire's star-making but personally disagreeable pairing with Ginger Rogers, and the better-liked partners who followed (Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn and others); defensively recounts Astaire's tight-lipped relationship with the media (which led many to suggest he was just dull); and celebrates the performer's earnest and dedicated spirit. Though Epstein's witty asides can great, his conversational tone keeps the life story moving, making this a good, quick read for even casual fans.
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ISBN-10: 0300116950
ISBN-13: 978-0300116953
Author: Joseph Epstein
Genre: Biographies & Memoirs
Publisher: Yale University Press
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