Monday, July 16, 2012

You Dance Divinely

Ginger Rogers: 1911-1995
Granted, I'm a year late to commemorate Ginger Rogers centennial (and curiously, I did the same for Akira Kurasawa), but better late than never I figure.

I find it hard that Ginger Rogers isn't remembered by a good chunk of filmviewers.  I revert to my Brother Gabe.  We were watching J. Edgar when there was a scene with Ginger Rogers and her mother Lela.  Perhaps it is my naivete, but I figured that Gabe MUST have heard of Ginger Rogers.  I wouldn't hold it against him if he had never seen any of her films, but at least the name must have rung a bell.

Nothing doing for my little brother.  He simply had no idea who Ginger Rogers was.  I think he knew of Fred Astaire, but Rogers' name didn't ring a bell.  I had to show him the American Film Institute's 100 Years, 100 Stars (a misnomer given that there were only 50 stars, 25 men, 25 women featured) to show him exactly who Ginger Rogers was.

And who, pray tell, was Ginger Rogers?


Well, let's start with the obvious: she was Fred Astaire's most recognized dance partner.  Astaire & Rogers (or Rogers & Astaire if you like) teamed up for ten films, and one could quibble about the plot (or lack thereof), but even now, all these years later, one still gets great enjoyment out of seeing these two move so elegantly and gracefully and even joyfully.

Take the Pick Yourself Up number from Swing Time.  It looks almost as if Ginger is taking Fred's lead, but in truth they worked hard to make it all look so elegant and spontaneous.  In fact, Astaire was famous for working so hard to get everything right that Rogers on occasion literally bled in her shoes for all the rehearsals they went through. 

Still, who can argue with the results?  It is always said that she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.  One imagines that this is a high compliment because Astaire was a master, so be able to figuratively face off against him and be a reflection shows just how capable she was to go toe to toe (no pun intended) with someone of Astaire's caliber.

Now, while Rogers is rightly remembered for her dancing, she might not, even now, be recognized for the level of her actual acting talent.  One need look at her Oscar-winning turn in Kitty Foyle.  Here is where Rogers not only did her best work but also met one of the most important goals of a real legend.

Audience identification.

Depression-era audiences identified with the poor girl without pretension who makes good.   Kitty may have married up, but we always know that it is for love not self-interest.  Even better, she never changes who she is to fit in.  Kitty (like most Americans) may have been knocked down but never knocked out.

In this film, Rogers doesn't have to rely on her dancing shoes (although there is some dancing).  She instead has to rely on her talent as an actress.  Moreover, she has to rely on audiences seeing themselves in her, to communicate that while she may be beautiful, she is also 'one of us'. 

This I would put down as to why Ginger Rogers is still beloved (for those of us who know who she is).  There never appeared any pretention as to who she was.  She was her own woman, proud, strong, intelligent, and unafraid.

I do hope that people will not forget her.  That's not likely, given that people will always gravitate towards the elegance of her collaboration with Astaire, if nothing else in her career.  However, for those who are just discovering that movies have some level of audience participation, who aren't just into big explosions and mind-numbing bad acting, to quote Madonna,

Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers dance on air...

Ultimately, she was more than a dancer.  She was a lady, a talented actress, and a legend.  The maxim about her pairing with Fred Astaire is that "he brought the class, she brought the sex".  I disagree slightly with that theory.

Ginger Rogers had class enough.

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