Friday, November 13, 2009

Kelly beats Astaire? You decide!

Yesterday Philadelphia Inquirer film reviewer Carrie Rickey mentioned BMFI's own Director of Education, Andrew J. Douglas, Ph.D., in her blog, Flickgrrl.

On November 18, Andrew will debate Drexel professor Paula Marantz Cohen about the merits of Gene Kelly over Fred Astaire. But why wait? Enjoy Andrew and Carrie's cases for Kelly and Astaire below.
Here's an excerpt of Carrie's argument for Astaire:
Fred Astaire defies gravity; Gene Kelly is earthbound. Astaire is spirit; Kelly flesh. Astaire is the embodiment of grace, Kelly of athleticism. For Astaire, dance is the vertical expression of horizontal feelings for another; for Kelly, it is the expression of self. Astaire made dancing look easy; Kelly made it look like a workout. Astaire begot Michael Jackson; Kelly begot Patrick Swayze.
Flickgrrl stands firmly in the Astaire camp, while noting the paradox that though Astaire is the best screen dancer ever, Kelly's Singin' in the Rain is the best dance musical. Though she admires Kelly -- especially in An American in Paris, Singin', The Pirate and On the Town -- she cannot say that she likes him. Because however superb Kelly's choreography and artistry, his aggressive muscularity suggests that he thought there was something sissy about a man dancing.
And here's Andrew's rejoinder:
As usual, Carrie’s description of the two performers and her case for Astaire were eloquent and accurate, but I must take issue with two facets of her assessment, the first being the notion that Kelly gets docked because his physique implied he thought dancing was for sissies. If his physique was any kind of message at all, I think it's far more likely that Kelly thought that many American men of the mid-twentieth century thought dancing was less than masculine, and to give them pause long enough to take in one of his numbers (or better yet a whole musical), he emphasized his--and the art form's--athleticism. Think of him as a "big-tent" dancer.
I also object to the comparison to Patrick Swayze. While Swayze was a beloved actor and had far more dance talent than he displayed in Dirty Dancing (let alone in Ghost or Roadhouse), his skills, influence, and cinematic impact paled in comparison to Kelly's. I think a more appropriate heir to Kelly's place in the cinematic firmament is Jackie Chan. While he's an action star rather than a dancer, there is often impressive choreography, grace, and athleticism to his "numbers", he directs many (if not all) of his "performances", he (like Kelly) is involved in various aspects of the production of his films, and he's had a tremendous impact on the practitioners and audiences of his chosen form.

And I know what you're thinking: "Andrew, have you ever seen The Tuxedo?" That's a fair point, but over the course of a decades-long career, everyone is bound to have a few missteps. After all, Gene Kelly had Xanadu and Fred Astaire had The Amazing Dobermans. In any case, I suspect we won't be able to definitively settle this, but it sure is fun to debate.
The live debate takes place at International House (3701 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia) next Thursday, November 18 at 7:00pm as part of an evening celebrating the vanguard dancers sponsored by the Institute of Contemporary Art. Following the debate, screenings of Top Hat and An American in Paris will prove that no matter who's side you favor, both stars are winners.
Whose side do you favor?

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