Fred Astaire

By Joseph Epstein (Yale University Press, 2008)

One doesn’t read Joseph Epstein’s most recent book, Fred Astaire, to learn new things about Fred Astaire. One reads it to see what the former editor of The American Scholar and author of Snobbery: The American Version, the wittiest essayist alive according to William F. Buckley, might do with a self-described “slender disquisition” on this question: “Whence derived Fred Astaire’s sublimity, his magic?”

One reads for sport, in other words, and at one’s leisure. Published almost a year ago with no apparent occasion other than the luxury of intellectual indulgence, Fred Astaire today remains as fresh as a book that puts on such airs possibly can be. It is timelessly unhip.

That’s not to say the book lacks charm. In fact, it has an entire excellent chapter on charm. And it has eleven other chapters, or “acts,” as Epstein calls them, all of which just breeze right along. With mature appreciation and lucid verve, Epstein stays mostly on the surface, studying the face, the clothes, the moves, and the cultural context in which the dancer became iconic.

He makes short work of establishing Astaire and Gene Kelly as the Apollo (“classic and understatedly calm”) and Dionysus (“romantic with high-banked fires”) of movie dancers, although Kelly’s own comparison—he called them the Cary Grant and Marlon Brando—made even shorter work of it. Epstein also supplies a nimble cross-referencing of Astaire’s and Ginger Rogers’ respective autobiographies, and a rather reproving survey of the other literature on his subject. “The amount of penetrating writing about Fred Astaire is less than overwhelming,” he writes. Too bad that line might also be used against him, to describe the contents of his own book.

The emerging answer to Epstein’s operating question has a lot to do with discipline, and one starts to wonder if removing all instances of the word “perfectionist” would render Fred Astaire only a few paragraphs long. But the point is well taken: Astaire, in Epstein’s estimation, was not a genius, necessarily, but rather a hardworking “unconscious artist” of exacting high standards, who brought transcendent joy to popular entertainment.

To prove it, one could do worse than spend an afternoon with a comfy chair, a stack of DVDs and a couple hundred pages of slender disquisition.