When an icon dies, as Ginger Rogers died Tuesday in Rancho Mirage at the age of 83,the double question becomes: How will the icon be best remembered, and how might the icon choose to be remembered?
It will be hard not to remember Rogers as the best and most enchanting of Fred Astaire’s several dancing partners. It was partly because she seemed the least like him. It was true that Astaire was born in Omaha, but his image was as transatlantic and cosmopolitan as his real name, Austerlitz, while she could not have been more prototypically mid-American, independent, sassy, the steno with unsuspected talents and depths.
Their unlikeliness made them a perfect, opposites-attract match and gave a kind of suspense to their often silly plots because it never seemed certain that they would realize in time how right they were for each other. The audience could see it a mile away, but would they?
Yet it may well be that Rogers herself, taking nothing away from her pride in the Astaire films, would hope, at very least, to be remembered for the range of her triumphs as an actress: the films that she carried triumphantly minus Fred. There were plenty of those in which she had co-stars who didn’t dance a step. “Kitty Foyle” and “Lady in the Dark” leap to mind first, along with others.
As she made clear in her 1991 autobiography, “Ginger: My Story,” her relations with Astaire outside camera range were civil but distant, and Fred himself had a fierce dislike of looking backward to talk about either himself or any of his partners.
But celluloid (with the help of the preservationists) provides its own immortality and its own truths, and the graceful magic of Ginger Rogers in motion--perfectionist zeal made to look effortless--and the wry humor and the emotional range of Rogers the actress, holding her own with all of her acting partners--Joel McCrea to Ray Milland to David Niven--confirmed always that she really was the free-standing and independent talent she played so often. Her success owed most to her combination of native gifts and hard work, in a career that began early and gave us pleasure for most of a half-century.