2/27/09 - astaire

Today's encore selection -- from Fred Astaire by Joseph Epstein. The legendary duo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and the art of acting. Do great actors feel more emotion than the rest of us? Or less?:

"However much American moviegoers loved them together, however earnestly each tried to put the best face on things, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, without despising each other, probably did not all that much like each other, either. Although their social class origins were not so very different, he had climbed higher in the world than she, and she may have felt that he, with his socialite wife, his Anglophiliac manner and style, looked down on her. She was over-, he under-stated. She was pure show biz, which is to say gaudy, in a way that he, though in show business all his life somehow avoided being.

"Neither much liked the notion of being subsumed as part of a team: Astaire had already done that with his sister [Adele]; Rogers thought of herself as much more than a mere dancer (she did after all go on to win an Oscar for her role in Kitty Foyle) and doubtless sensed that, good as the two of them were together, Fred Astaire somehow outshone her. Astaire even wrote to Leland Hayward his agent after the success of The Gay Divorcee that he wished never again to be part of a fixed team in his movie career and especially not with Ginger Rogers. ...

"Astaire even had a contract drawn up with a clause that Ginger Rogers could not appear in more than three of the five movies he had signed on to do for RKO. In fact, they eventually did ten movies together. ...

"The relative longevity of their partnership is explained by their popularity as a team which translated into heavy profits. The success of the early Astaire-Rogers movies -- The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Top Hat, Swing Time -- was said to have been the single reason behind the financial rescue of RKO Studios. As a team they were long at or near the top of various popularity polls for movie stars. Astaire drew a salary of $100,000 for the earlier of his movies with Ginger Rogers and had a share in the gross which made him a rich man. Money and fame are not bad reasons to bury tensions, or even hide complicated feelings. Still can actors completely fake charm of the kind that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers combined to exude in the marvelous movies they made together?

"My guess is that they can fake it, and that Astaire and Rogers did so supremely well. It's called being a pro. Many are the theories of acting -- Stanislavsky's the Actors Studio's to name only the more modern -- but an older theory of acting one devised by Denis Diderot, the Enlightenment writer and editor of the great French Encyclopedie, holds that the truly superior actor, far from feeling more than the rest of us, far from being able to delve into the well of his deep feeling when it is required by his art, the truly superior actor actually feels nothing. In his Paradox of the Actor Diderot writes: 'It is extreme sensibility which makes a mediocre actor; mediocre sensibility which makes the multitude of bad actors; and a total lack of sensibility which produces sublime actors.' The feeling man or woman in other words is likely to be the less successful artist. Feeling gets in the way; it isn't finally what the art of acting is primarily about."


Joseph Epstein


Fred Astaire


Yale University Press


Copyright 2008 by Joseph Epstein


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