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Fred Astaire (Icons of America) Hardcover – October 21, 2008

3.2 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The life of legendary dancer, singer and actor Fred Astaire has been chronicled before, but here, author Epstein (Snobbery:The American Version) brings a winning populist awe to his biographic probe of the movie star's time-tested magic. Epstein's honest intentions do little to mask his admiration and fascination with the icon, but it proves contagious as he gallops through Astaire's early life in turn-of-the-century Nebraska and first career steps as a sidekick to sister Adele in New York vaudeville. Despite apocryphal tales of a less-than-favorable RKO screen test ("Balding. Can't sing. Dances a little."), studio head David O. Selznick thought Astaire "a really sensational bet," and gave the performer his first Hollywood break. Epstein explores Astaire's star-making but personally disagreeable pairing with Ginger Rogers, and the better-liked partners who followed (Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn and others); defensively recounts Astaire's tight-lipped relationship with the media (which led many to suggest he was just dull); and celebrates the performer's earnest and dedicated spirit. Though Epstein's witty asides can great, his conversational tone keeps the life story moving, making this a good, quick read for even casual fans.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Essayist and fiction writer Epstein (Snobbery: The American Version; Fabulous Small Jews: Stories) turns his discerning gaze to the legendary dancer and star Fred Astaire. Although he presents general biographical details, Epstein's chief concern is with Astaire the artist, and he thoroughly scrutinizes all aspects of his talent. Epstein devotes attention to every facet of the Astaire image, discussing at length his physical characteristics and unique sense of style. He also spends a good portion of the book addressing Astaire's dancing partners and the varying success of each. Most biographies tend to focus on the sensational details of the life lived; Epstein, however, places the magic of Astaire's art front and center, which results in an astute and ardent examination. The author's passion for his subject makes this an engaging read, even for those with only cursory knowledge of Astaire. Essential for all dance collections and recommended for all performing arts collections in universities and large public libraries.—Katherine Litwin, Chicago
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Series: Icons of America
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 1St Edition edition (October 21, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300116950
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300116953
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.9 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,070,805 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By H. Axelrod on November 16, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The apparent premise and presumption of Joseph Epstein's book "Fred Astaire" is that the magic of Fred Astaire will be analyzed, described and explained to the reader. In the words of Mr. Epstein: "Whence derived Fred Astaire's sublimity, his magic? That is the great, happy question at the center of this little book." While Mr. Epstein is a witty and sometimes pleasantly irreverent writer, this slim volume of mostly recycled information falls far short of answering this question.

The initial attempt to define Mr. Astaire's magic is directed at the physical appearance of this "most attractive of men". Epstein begins this exercise by spending an inordinate number of pages describing and belittling Astaire's physical features, while admiring his clothes. However, he describes at the outset that Astaire was like a male version of "belle laide" : homely feature-by-feature yet stunning in totality. By his own words he therefore admits that this exercise is pointless. It is doubly pointless since nothing is said that has not appeared elsewhere or is not obvious from watching the films.

Recognizing after two chapters, that perhaps the force of Mr. Astaire's personality may be important to explaining his attractiveness, Epstein spends more fruitless pages trying to define his great charm; to pin down the indefinable. Charm is a characteristic that needs to be experienced and words are simply not adequate, as Mr. Epstein himself handily proves. During this discussion he says time and time again, that by his definition, Astaire is "not at all sexy". Of course, Epstein's definition of sexy includes features such as brutality, manly reticence, handsome features, and ample height and muscle.
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This is a generally light weight survey, mostly of the much more insightful writings of others on the creative life of Fred Astaire. As such, it retains a certain appeal, except that the author's vision is occasionally flawed or incomplete, or both.

Take for example the oft repeated untruth the Astaire and Rogers didn't like each other very much. Of course, they were two very different individuals, with different visions of their own careers. But to repeat the lie that they didn't like each other is flatly false. It's a lie which they both strongly disputed and which Hermes Pan, who was right there, emphatically debunked.

In a related case, Epstein accepts as gospel, the story concocted by RKO's front office to explain the end of the series, on the basis of a decline of popularity. In fact, their popularity never declined but, due to higher production costs, it was RKO's profits which declined. For public consumption, management didn't want to explain it this way, so they conceived their new story. Epstein, without exploration, takes the position of RKO.

Finally, in his conclusions, he strongly implies, through the words others, that Astaire was more purely a technician; short on the creativity end, crediting, without analysis, Gene Kelly for the seamless continuity of dance and plot. The truth is that Kelly just carried further, what Astaire had innovated. And, in fact, some have convincingly demonstrated, the result of super continuity, makes for a more boring, less dramatically successful result, as it thwarts anticipation of the dance, inherent in any Astaire Rogers film. It was Astaire, not Kelly who was prior to, and led the revolution in how dance was to be filmed. In fact, he created most the cinemagraphic techniques which Kelly employed.
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Format: Hardcover
I bought this for my husband who is a huge Fred Astaire fan. He has read every book about him, so I thought this would be great. A new book he's never read! He hated it from the beginning. I thought it couldn't be that bad, but it was. He spends half the time just quoting from other sources. The other half unfairly criticizing Mr. Astaire. I thought this was a book written by someone who LIKED him. In the end, he comes around to it, but I doubt many people would read long enough to get there. A complete waste, and a terrible gift.
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Format: Hardcover
If one is looking for a brief biography of Fred Astaire, this book by Joseph Epstein is definitely not the place to start. While Epstein does include some biographical material, he purports that he will try to answer the question of what made Fred Astaire so magical and beguiling. Yet he fails in even answering that.

"Fred Astaire" begins promisingly enough with some early biographical information about the dancer, but it is quickly derailed by Epstein's focus on the qualities that supposedly made Astaire so magical. He concentrates on Astaire's eccentric features and frame, his style and choice of clothing, his aristocratic airs, and his unique singing voice and ability. The best information that Epstein manages to squeeze into his critique of Astaire is the information regarding his various dancing partners and a comparison with Gene Kelly, but even that information seems all too scant.

Epstein's writing style can best be described as flogging a dead horse. In order to make sure the readers understand his comparisons he must carry them to the nth degree (and for no purpose whatsoever). The material is redundant as Epstein seems to cover the exact same material in several different chapters. Each chapter is taken up with a lot of quotes rather than narrative or new information, and some of his choices of comparison seem rather odd for a volume about Fred Astaire and his movies and talent. For someone who is supposedly a fan of the dancer, Joseph Epstein seems awful disparaging, which makes "Fred Astaire" a rather depressing read rather than a joyful or magic one.
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