The first time I met Fred Astaire, I hated him. Except I didn’t know him as Fred Astaire, I knew him as Ted Hanover, the conceited hoofer in Holiday Inn who kept stealing the girlfriends of the man who was supposedly his best friend, Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby). My poor, six-year-old heart felt so sad for Jim every time trouble-making Ted appeared — and yet I still found the man compelling. After all, while Jim could do beautiful things with his voice, he didn’t do anything like what Ted did with his feet.
As I grew up and revisited the classics that I had watched as a kid, like Holiday Inn, I finally separated Fred from his character and it was like meeting him all over again. To say I was enchanted would be an understatement.
I can’t remember much else about my reintroduction to Fred. I don’t know what my next films of his were, or even what my first Astaire and Rogers collaboration was. That initial rush of classic film discovery is a haze to me now because I just devoured everything I could. But I do know that my newfound love for Fred never wavered, and because it felt like I was alone in my classic Hollywood dreamland, Fred was all mine. He was my touchstone, the man who had been with me ever since I could remember. It says a lot about Fred that I met him as his most unlikable character and I still felt drawn to him. He is a magnetic force, a magical being whose stunning creativity and cultural influence is still felt and emulated.
And somehow, with every new piece I learn about him, he manages to become even more lovable. For example, he had an amazingly dapper fashion sense that impeccably-dressed stars like Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra envied and that inspires designers like Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren to this day. (My personal favorite Astaire look is how he wore a scarf as a belt for his trousers.) He would publicly say that Gene Kelly was his favorite dance partner so as not to hurt any of his leading ladies’ feelings. He comforted Debbie Reynolds when he found her crying, overwhelmed by the dancing she had to learn for Singin’ in the Rain. He never developed an egotistical attitude and was immensely modest about his work. His sister and former dance partner Adele nicknamed him “Moaning Minnie” because he was such a perfectionist. Ann Miller and others said that when he walked through the MGM lot, everyone stopped and stared because he was so stylish and captivating. People who idolized him growing up, such as Stanley Donen, Charles Walters, and Audrey Hepburn, couldn’t believe it when they were able to collaborate with him and become his friend.
Fred Astaire was not only one of Hollywood’s biggest sweethearts, he was one of its most talented stars. He also wasn’t a conventional leading man. “What do they want that face for in Hollywood?” he repeatedly said to friends as he left the Broadway stage for the silver screen. He didn’t look like a Ronald Colman or a Gary Cooper, and he didn’t project the kind of virile masculinity that Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart did. But Fred had a brashness and a wit that, when combined with his obvious gracefulness and nobility, proved irresistible. His perfect comedic timing and genuine playfulness made him even more spellbinding.
And then there’s his voice, that gloriously offbeat singing voice with its unexpected vibrato. Songwriters like Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and the Gershwins were delighted to have him interpret their work, praising the way he transformed their music with his phrasing and lyricism. In the end, no one introduced more songs from the Great American Songbook than Fred.
But nothing, nothing, is as heartstoppingly gorgeous as Fred’s movement. Every motion is electric, even just a simple hand wave. From tremendous joy to crushing sorrow to cheeky insolence, Fred could convey anything with only a few taps, sweeping you away to a universe that is both addictively romantic and impossibly elegant.
What is frustrating is that none of what I have written comes close to describing how much I adore this man. Nothing sounds monumental enough for someone who has brought so much to my life. All I have to do is hear his name and my whole day is brightened. He mesmerizes me and comforts me and encourages me to be kinder and braver. I could never imagine a world without Fred Astaire in it. And thankfully I’ve never had to.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, she is pursuing an MA in Cinema and Media Studies and has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.