Monday, December 4, 2006
My Date With Ginger Rogers: Part II.
When I greeted her, I felt like a middle-aged gigolo escorting an elderly heavily, heavily made-up blonde with not all that great a complexion (heavily rouged, skin damaged probably from many, many lay-ons of cosmetics over the decades) albeit a trim woman, moving easily with the strapping body of the athlete, broad, almost masculine shoulders, tapered waist. She was essentially an athlete who became a self-taught great actress and who rigorously worked out all her life. The evening started slow but when I brought up politics, it bloomed since she was well-equipped to discuss all phases of presidential candidacies including what she regarded as Richard Nixons lamentable inability to warm up to people. What I dont understand, she said, is why a man that ill-at-ease ever chose the political profession. I volunteered that he was regarded as a great foreign policy president. She disagreed, saying that he had few absolutes: using that word absolutes in a philosophical context of certainty which impressed me greatly.
She was a well-schooled conservative and thorough fan of Ronald Reagan who at that time had served two terms as California governor and who was preparing to run for the presidency. When I switched the topic to what I deduced was her strong point: acting and her having won the Academy Award for Kitty Foyle, she agreed to do so but not until she finished making the point that Reagans greatest contribution was as president of the Screen Actors Guild where, she said, he drove the Communists out of the businessat least she added ruefully, for a time.
She acknowledged that she and Fred Astaire were the greatest dancing team in Astaires career and said that while they made ten musicals, Astaire was determined not to allow their partnership to dominate his careeran idea prompted by Astaires sister Adele, who she acknowledged had been Astaires greatest partner.
She made no bones about the fact that she was ditched, somewhat, by Astaire. Heres a guy who started off in fifth billing in Flying Down to Rio in 1933, she said, when I was the second female lead after Dolores Del Rio and who rose overnight. You know the great surprise of that for me was this. Heres a guy who started as a real nice punkno looks, no singing voice but lots of dancing talent--ho was made overnight by the Rogers-Astaire pairing who immediately afterward didnt want it to be continued because he would be typed! Astounding. After RKO insisted we do a flock of others which he seemed to fight until he was convinced to do it [The Gay Divorcee: 1934, Roberta: 1935; Top Hat: 1935; Follow the Fleet: 1936; Swing Time: 1936; Shall We Dance: 1937; and Carefree: 1938] which made us the top show-business team in the world, he acted as though he was doing the studio and me a favor.
If he wanted out, it was okay with mehell, I went on to beat Katherine Hepburn for the Academy Award for best female actress, but I never found out exactly why until his sister, Adele, who one night got too much to drink told me. What was it? He felt I was not a total dancer that Adele had been: that I didnt know how to tap, that I faked but that my good point was that when the music stopped I was a hell of an actress. I told Adele that was a goddam lie that I didnt know how to tap and that I didnt fake anything. Im not sure that was Freds own assessment but Adeles who was supposedly his best partner and who quit to get married. I leave it to you to say whether or not Fred Astaire and his sister dancing with him could have been rated the way Rogers and Astaire were. Do you think so?
I never saw Astaire dance with his sister but I immediately said no. Astaire was a kind of Trappist monk, dated Rogers only once in 1933 before he got married and the date was just that with him talking to her about their dancingno affair. He was a moody, spiritual Episcopalian if you can imagine such a thing, said Rogers. Hed sit in an empty Episcopal church and meditate in Beverly Hills some afternoons. He was not carnal if thats the way you want to put it nor was he gay. He never made a pass at me and I didnt expect him to. He was deeply in love with his wife and was a great father to their two children. He almost died of anguish after she died.
He called up the producer, for whom he was supposed to make the film Daddy Long Legs and told him he would pay Hunt not to be in the film because he couldnt go on. Then the next morning he showed up and said hed try it. He did a great job. But if you ask me, I could never figure him out. We did two more: Carefree and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle and people couldnt get enough of it. He called me one afternoon and said, `Are you ready for one more? I said, yeah but only one: Id rather be remembered as an actress than a dancer. We did The Barkleys of Broadway which made a lot of money.
When we met, Astaire was a successful dramatic actor of 75. Later in his eighties, he married a dashing, beauteous 33-year-old female jockey he met at the race-track where he owned horses. Everyone but Astaire and his new wife Robin believed the marriage was cynical, that she was a gold-digger. That proved to be not so. What the magic between them was is anyones guess but she fiercely guarded his health in his last years and sat by his hospital bed for days as the end neared.
To me, Rogers acknowledged the Academy Award aside, she will always be remembered as half of the greatest dance team on film: Astaire and Rogers. But I can tell you, she said, both of us found that we could do more than dance. Fred became a gifted actor but here she seemed to smile inwardly, he never got an Oscar. That was how she summed up still hurt feelings generated by his sister Adele that Ginger was never the finessed dancer Fred was. Look at the films once again as I have and you see two people melting into one stupendous performer.
With that we arrived at the reception. I made sure she made a swing around the place, took a drink, met people, signed some autographs. The young crowd was intimidated by her presence even though many had never seen or heard of her. Quickly, I escorted her out. She was a very interesting lady, Ill say that. Dropped her off at her hotel where the uniformed doorman tipped his hat and she somewhat coquettishly acknowledged it--and thats my remembrance of Ginger Rogers.