Fred Astaire

The only thing odder than pairing the lanky Fred Astaire with the chunky Betty Hutton as a dance partner -- see the disastrous result, Let's Dance (1950) -- is asking a wisecracking kibbitzer like Joseph Epstein to describe the essence of Astaire's elegant artistry. But despite lots of overworked prose and jokey asides, Epstein manages the job quite well. His slim volume -- an essay, really -- on the great hoofer captures the full dimension of Astaire's talents, which for Epstein rightly extend beyond the best of his films and include his unforgettable recordings with Oscar Peterson et al. in the early '50s, a session that reprised all of the songs Astaire helped make famous in his films, only this time made to seem tossed off, in a way only a true perfectionist could accomplish. Astaire's own fame, though, rests mainly on his partnership with Ginger Rogers in ten films, especially the early ones, which include The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, and Swing Time. In these Jazz Age–inspired movies, the graceful Astaire fills the screen with movement, and in perfect syncopation with his partner. His polished dress compensates for his peculiar looks -- his big head and ears and hands, and his long face and chin, not to mention his toupee. But Astaire's all about charm, not pretty-boy looks. And his body in motion is elegant from top to bottom. As Epstein points out, Astaire surely benefitted from the great composers who wrote for him, Irving Berlin most of all. Epstein also admires Astaire's offscreen persona -- laconic, modest, always a pro. This supports his main idea, which he hammers home again and again, in an un-Astaire-like manner, that this Nebraska-bred performer was that ultimate democratic ideal -- "an aristocrat of talent."

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Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.

Pastoral

When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).