July 26, 2016

Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly

The difference between stereotypes and clichés is that stereotypes are mostly accurate, and clichés mostly aren”€™t.

Oscar Wilde turned platitudes inside out”€””€œIt’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you place the blame”€; “€œWork is the curse of the drinking classes”€”€”and made them newly true. Since he returned often to the themes of Effort and Appearances, I”€™m surprised he never got around to smashing that rottenest of old chestnuts:

“€œThe great ones make it look easy.”€

Now, that compliment can be justifiably paid to a host of legendary performers. Frank Sinatra, obviously. Google reveals that almost every recently deceased athlete of any renown, including Muhammad Ali, reportedly “€œmade it look easy.”€ One tribute to Gordie Howe at least bothered to dig up Mordecai Richler’s artisanal variation:

During his vintage years, you seldom noticed the flash of elbows, only the debris they left behind. He never seemed that fast, but somehow he got there first. He didn”€™t wind up to shoot, like so many of today’s golfers, but next time the goalie dared to peek, the puck was behind him.

But surely the name most synonymous with this particular plaudit is Fred Astaire’s.

“€œI often prefer the making-of bonus feature to the movie itself.”€

Don”€™t panic”€”I”€™m not going to argue that Ginger Rogers was her partner’s superior, trotting out that adage of more recent vintage that goes: “€œShe did everything Fred did, but backwards and in high heels.”€ An ingenious line”€”until you think about it for more than a few seconds. While she was abundantly talented, and a workhorse to boot, it wasn”€™t Ginger who methodically worked out the pair’s routines. Nor did she ever even attempt anything approaching Astaire’s “€œYou”€™re All the World to Me“€ (literal) turn in Royal Wedding.

Yet rewatching That’s Entertainment last week reinforced my choice of Astaire’s nearest rival for the title of Hollywood’s greatest hoofer: Gene Kelly. It’s not just that the stockier, handsomer Kelly looks more capable of handling a fight, a football, and a flat. Sure, viewers allergic to ham and corn will sneer at his occasional feints in the direction of Chaplinesque bathos. But seeing the climax of Kelly’s “€œLa Cumparsita“€ routine in Anchors Aweigh once more, followed immediately by that of “€œPirate Ballet,”€ I heard myself say to my husband:

“€œAll Fred Astaire does is go around and around. At least Gene Kelly goes somewhere.”€

Puerile? Pedestrian? Guilty. I”€™m just not a romantic. “€œLove and work…”€ wrote Freud, “€œthat’s all there is.”€ I simply find the former less engaging than the latter and, well, love that Kelly’s labors aren”€™t cloaked.

“€œA lot of work went into that,”€ I”€™ll say approvingly when a particularly intricate piece of folk art or furniture shows up on Antiques Roadshow. It may not be especially beautiful, even. What’s supremely satisfying is witnessing an outward, visible sign of inward, physical industry.

I often prefer the making-of bonus feature to the movie itself. (Surely Hearts of Darkness is a superior film to Apocalypse Now, and Burden of Dreams to Fitzcarraldo.) Frankly, I rather enjoy seeing how sausage gets made. And why isn”€™t there a Pit Crew Channel by now?

So I”€™m drawn to those “€œgreat ones”€ who make it look hard. Iggy Pop. Keith Moon”€”hell, every member of the Who, yet another reason they were better than that stupid band you like. Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, plus their mostly forgotten peers, the Treniers. (Show this and this to the next person who mouths the words “€œThe “€™50s were so boring and uptight…”€ in your presence.) And since I just linked to Nick Tosches, then, yeah: Nick Tosches, too.


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