Let’s be real: Navigating the list of Oscar nominees represents a challenge this year, so I was intrigued by one filmmaker’s winning formula. “The key is to mix and match,” he advised. “I watch the characters trudge across Nomadland, then turn to Fred Astaire dancing in Top Hat. I move from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to Easter Parade.” The objective: “It’s the real vs. the unreal; I need them back-to-back to appreciate them. Or survive them.”
His explanation may seem glib, but it reflects the escape mechanism adopted by some film devotees in coping with the isolation of the lockdown year – a re-excavation of Hollywood glitz. The current slate of nominees vividly reflects the themes of the moment — race, caste, sexual politics, immigration. It also embodies the angst-ridden mood of Hollywood.
All of which would have puzzled Fred Astaire. In his movie Funny Face, when Astaire hears a friend describe a girl as “very smart,” he quips, “You’re as interested in her intellect as I am.” In reality, Astaire was an astute and cultured man who respected women but also knew how to capitalize on his limber arms and flashing feet.
Rigorously apolitical, Astaire was dedicated to the cause of entertainment. I’d always looked forward to my occasional dinners with him years ago when he would regale me with stories of his fights with David O. Selznick and Hollywood’s other power players. His battles were about issues like camera positions – he wanted the camera to track his precise moves rather than imitate the aerial shots of a Busby Berkeley extravaganza. “If the camera dances, I don’t,” he would say.
Stars of the Astaire generation would be perplexed by the edgy mood of today’s Hollywood, where every passing phrase or past tweet is subjected to severe scrutiny. The director who mixed-and-matched movies told me that he could not recall a moment when filmmakers, or executives, were as fretful. “When I hear myself yell ‘Action’ to start a scene, I instinctively add, “that’s off the record,” he confides.
While he’s joking, the mandates of diversity and political nuance nonetheless tend to dominate professional conversation, with “human resources” casting its long shadow. In a sense, the movement to “contextualize” films of an earlier era reflects these attitudes.
HBO Max pulled Gone With the Wind for a month until it could insert a four-minute introduction to establish perspective – a narrator explaining to viewers that the film “denies the horror of slavery.” The AMC series Mad Men was similarly pulled because of a blackface scene, then restored with a host explaining that the scene “shows how commonplace racism was in American in 1963.” In both cases, the official corporate position was that they were “committed to exposing the injustices within our society.” TCM’s series, Reframed: Classic Films in the Rearview Mirror, started March 4.
Admirers of the movies of a generation ago might argue that their obliviousness to social issues was part of their charm. Again, Astaire’s work reflects this defiance: Amid the worst of the ‘30s depression, Astaire played an affluent shrink who falls for glamorous Ginger Rogers (Carefree, 1938). While World War II raged, Astaire appeared as a highflying gambler in Buenos Aires who plays the horses and falls for Rita Hayworth (You Were Never Lovelier, 1942). During the Cold War, Astaire was cast as a highflying American producer who gets enmeshed with a Russian femme fatale played by Cyd Charisse (Silk Stockings, 1957).
Astaire passed in 1987.
Of course, these films all profess a Hollywood gloss that combines Astaire’s dancing with lush scores from Cole Porter, Irving Berlin or Jerome Kern. And no one seems to think about caste or even notice race. Even angst seems passé. Little wonder they still provide comfort for weary Academy voters.