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For some odd reason writers have a hard time writing about Kelly and doing it well. Perhaps it is because Kelly's life is devoid of serious scandel; there is nothing scurrilous on which to hang juicy rumors. Let's hope, then, that Kelly's widow, Pat Ward, will soon release the biography that Kelly, himself, was working on the last few years of his life. Then we'll REALLY know what Kelly was thinking, and not have to rely upon second-hand Kelly-think.
And because he was and is our idol, the head of the class, we surely paid attention. What he had to say really sunk in. Accordingly, self-appointed scholars of Gene Kelly's life and times, we tend to grade ourselves as the only Phi Beta Kappas around. We are the smartass know-alls who own the guy.
But familiarity breeds conceit; the danger for us overheated Kelly fans is we begin to think we are the sole keepers of the flame. When somebody comes along with a fresh perspective, as does Alvin Yudkoff in the new biography "Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams," all too often we go ballistic. We feel angry, almost violated and immediately join the "gotcha!" gang, almost lusting to ferret out inaccuracies of fact or attitude. We resist any imaginative approach to the telling of the life of a remarkable, and very complicated, man.
A perfect example of such behavior is offered up by Lisa from Bloomington who, perhaps because Gene was a magnificent tap dancer, obsessively looks for footnotes, footnotes and more footnotes. (Sorry, I can't resist this not-so-wisecrack but I am always irritated by someone who primly expects a readable, riveting biography like this one to be a heavy PhD thesis with droning sidebars identifying sources - - such as a 1947 article in Cahiers du Cinema or snatches from a long-ago conversation on the Hillcrest golf course - - that only interrupt the overall narration flow.)
So Lisa buys the book and is "disappointed" with the author's technique which she finds "irritating."
She is referring, of course, to the author's choice of the American Film Institute's honoring of Gene Kelly in a 1985 CBS telecast, a very real event, as the launching pad, the imaginative matrix for the biography, allowing us to go back and forth in time, taking in the flow of Gene's feelings and thoughts, so we can begin to understand his life as he saw it. A cinematic technique, if you will, but what better way to render a film icon?
And the point that this particular "gotcha!" groupie still hasn't got is that Kelly's thoughts, like his voice-over in a film, are not flights of fancy, cobbled together by the author. They are based (surely we, the avid Kellyites, know this) on the above cited, wide-ranging interviews Gene gave out for over fifty years. So when Kelly "thinks" badly of Cary Grant... or dwells on his creative differences with Stanley Donen and Barbra Streisand... or worries about his aging mother and the upbringing of his own family (and where oh where does Lisa get the idea that this book implies Kelly was a lousy father?)... or, like Fred Astaire incidentally, suffers from a phobia of being at a social event only to be asked by a well-meaning woman to dance with her - - like Vivian Leigh in the encounter cited by Lisa - - expecting an unrehearsed Nirvana on the dance floor with Kelly, as gallant as ever, hating to disappoint - - all these truly biographical nuggets of interest obviously come out of the author's extensive archival research. It's what he does with the research that makes his book worth reading.
As it happens, just to show I'm not a consummate grouch, let me say I am much more in accord with your second reviewer, the Gene Kelly Home Page host from Philadelphia. She points out an error involving Vera-Ellen but doesn't make a fuss about it. In a calm and measured way she praises the research and writing. Most importantly she appears to be in tune with the way the book is organized but feels there should have been much more attention to the post-stardom years, 1952-1996 when rock and roll came in and Kelly was literally out of the picture. I agree with her when she says "the second half of Gene's life deserves at least as much time as the first half."
One thing is almost certain, to come back to Lisa who ends her tirade with: "Anyway, it makes me hope Gene Kelly's autobiography will still be published. There is definitely a place for it."
So do I - - but let's do a reality check, please; the odds are that it does not exist. It is four years since his passing. As the book under discussion goes into very sympathetically Gene had a lot of trouble completing his own literary, playwriting and screenwriting endeavors. He set standards for himself that were difficult to meet. Evidence points toward the certainty that his notes were incinerated when his Beverly Hills home burned down in the Christmas fire of 1983. So until something comes along that does it better, I'll continue to recommend "Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams."