Fred Astaire

The only thing odder than pairing the lanky Fred Astaire with the chunky Betty Hutton as a dance partner — see the disastrous result, Let’s Dance (1950) — is asking a wisecracking kibbitzer like Joseph Epstein to describe the essence of Astaire’s elegant artistry. But despite lots of overworked prose and jokey asides, Epstein manages the job quite well. His slim volume — an essay, really — on the great hoofer captures the full dimension of Astaire’s talents, which for Epstein rightly extend beyond the best of his films and include his unforgettable recordings with Oscar Peterson et al. in the early ’50s, a session that reprised all of the songs Astaire helped make famous in his films, only this time made to seem tossed off, in a way only a true perfectionist could accomplish. Astaire’s own fame, though, rests mainly on his partnership with Ginger Rogers in ten films, especially the early ones, which include The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, and Swing Time. In these Jazz Age–inspired movies, the graceful Astaire fills the screen with movement, and in perfect syncopation with his partner. His polished dress compensates for his peculiar looks — his big head and ears and hands, and his long face and chin, not to mention his toupee. But Astaire’s all about charm, not pretty-boy looks. And his body in motion is elegant from top to bottom. As Epstein points out, Astaire surely benefitted from the great composers who wrote for him, Irving Berlin most of all. Epstein also admires Astaire’s offscreen persona — laconic, modest, always a pro. This supports his main idea, which he hammers home again and again, in an un-Astaire-like manner, that this Nebraska-bred performer was that ultimate democratic ideal — “an aristocrat of talent.”