The man who wasn’t there
Dec 11th 2008
From The Economist print edition
WHO was Fred Astaire? A dancer and singer, he starred in 32 Hollywood musicals along with other films, beginning during the Depression in the early 1930s and continuing until shortly before his death in 1987. Although the titles of many of those films are now forgotten, there are also a handful of works that can justly be called unforgettable, including “Swing Time”, “Shall We Dance?” and his masterpiece, “Top Hat”. In almost all of his most memorable works Astaire was partnered by Ginger Rogers, a lesser artist who by temperament and adaptive talent somehow managed to be both match and foil. None of the films was burdened with plot, dialogue or characterisation that could be called credible. What they did display was a dizzying record of what the choreographer George Balanchine called “the most interesting, the most inventive, the most elegant dancer of our times.”
So that is who he was. Yet look a little harder and Astaire begins to disappear. Born Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1899, his background was painfully modest: his story reads like the plot of a Broadway musical about a simple provincial boy who makes it in a Broadway musical. There was a serially unsuccessful immigrant father (“a bit of a bust” is how Joseph Epstein describes him in this book), and a doggedly ambitious mother fixated on show business. It was a gruelling childhood and, later in life, Astaire would just say that he didn’t want to talk about it.
Indeed, he never spoke publicly of anything that touched on the personal. He merely worked exceptionally hard until he became an outstandingly successful stage dancer and singer in partnership with his more colourful sister, Adele. When Adele retired into an aristocratic marriage, he moved to Hollywood, worked even harder, became a film star recognised and admired the world over…and that’s all.
None of the turmoil that routinely attends film-star existence ever seemed to visit the Astaire household. In the diaries and memoirs and gossip columns of the period he may be glimpsed about town, at a Hollywood party or a première-but always fleetingly, always impeccably turned out and always going home early. This elusive, almost invisible quality was more than a mere habit. Self-effacement was the essence of his technique. He was an actor who needed to disappear into his art.
His jaw line was wide without being strong. Although he was prematurely bald he could never shake off a look of invincible innocence. He was also on the short side. Yet all of these disqualifications evaporated when Astaire danced. And that dancing was the result of what must have been the hardest, most relentless work schedule of any Hollywood film actor before or perhaps since.
This book from Yale University Press is not a biography but an account of Astaire’s place in the firmament of great American popular artists. Mr Epstein understands his subject pretty well, knows the background and has plenty to say that is of interest-but it could all have been better said in a quarter of the space. The padding and repetition is a reminder that academic publishing meets popular culture at its peril.
Meanwhile Astaire the man continues to elude everyone. In imagination he seems perpetually to be dancing up one of those great curving ballroom staircases that feature so frequently in Hollywood musicals, the audience always hoping that he will stay a little longer. But as his very name suggests, he is the star who does not stay-like that other man upon the stair, the man who wasn’t there.
译者：jerrywhitt 编辑：zhs2046 http://www.ecocn.org/bbs/viewthread.php?tid=16070&extra=page%3D1