Fred Astaire Fights Back!

By James Kenney

Films in Review, a venerable not-for-profit publication founded in 1909 that physically published until 1997, still has a web presence due to contributor Roy Frumkes’ efforts (Frumkes is best known as the director of the Diary of the Dead, the documentary recording George Romero’s making of Dawn of the Dead, and for writing the Tom Berenger hit action film The Substitute). It offered capsule reviews of recent films, coverage of films on television and soundtracks, and generally anywhere from two to four more in-depth articles an issue where a writer would discuss Michael Curtiz’s filmography, say, or someone of note would be interviewed, such as Walter Hill or Charles Durning (to pick two examples from early 1980s issues I came across recently).

The journal also would annually review that year’s Academy Awards, not just the films but the broadcast itself; for a period, N.C. Chambers (who I can’t find anything about outside of his annual coverage of the awards for Films in Review, leading me to think it might be a pseudonym) was in charge of this coverage, and while his analysis was not without insight, he did have a catty, grandiloquent attitude towards the ceremony.

At the end of the 1971 Awards coverage, as a sample, he wrote “it’s a parade of ever less appetizing meat, for the women’s facial makeup is each year more dehumanizing, and the hispidity of the males less functional and esthetic.”

But, back in 1970, a half-century before instant trolling commentary of all live events became all the rage, Chambers wrote a snarky review of Fred Astaire’s appearance on the 1970 awards ceremony that was so disagreeable that Mr. Astaire personally wrote a letter to Films in Review to complain, in polite and reasonable language, in the August-September 1970 issue, costing 90 cents.

Here is the indelible (and yes, obviously aging) Astaire charmingly hoofing it up a bit at the 1970s Oscar ceremony:

A perfectly amiable performance by the 71-year old legend in the spirit of “once more” that pulls a genuine smile even from a hispid Jack Nicholson in the audience.

Yet Mr. Chambers found fault in it; in Astaire’s dancing, in his appearance, in his efforts to stay relevant. To which, Mr. Astaire, clearly perturbed but with great dignity, responded with the following:

“Your publication has been somewhat familiar to me for a number of years. Now one of your reviewers has overstepped his status with a grossly insulting commentary on me. The man’s opinion of me as an artist matters little. It his deliberate attack, and effort to describe me as a decrepit old ham trying to hang on by a thread or something, that I protest vehemently. I will not tolerate this presumptuous, patronizing attitude.

Those of us who are asked to appear on the Academy show volunteer because we feel it is a duty to try and help make it as entertaining as possible during the moments other than the more important reasons for the show — the Awards themselves. I was amazed and confused to read the scathing personal attack on me written by this man Chambers for what was designed merely as a moment of amusement, which it certainly proved itself to be. I think all professionals know what a difficult project the Oscarcast is.

Chambers attacked my appearance, my work, everything, to a shocking extent.

It is quite obvious of course, that the man missed the whole point of my idea, which was to have Bob Hope ‘put me on,’ so to speak, after I said I had never danced on an Oscar show in any of my numerous appearances in the past. Bob then said, “So you’re not going to dance tonight,” and I replied “No, I’m not.” To which Hope said “That’s what you think,” and cued the orchestra to play and I was ‘on.’ It was a most successful gag and caused a lot of talk.

Mr. Chambers’ reference to a “dyed wig” that disfigured me was most mystifying since I wore just exactly what I have always worn in all my recent tv specials and pictures. I saw it on the monitors and it was completely ok. Absolutely nobody, reviewers or audience, has expressed anything but enjoyment at my bit except Chambers, and I’m wondering if perhaps he viewed the show through a green shade, a faulty tv set, or something. It is simply incredible.

Anyway, I had a great deal of fun, and that is what I expect out of anything I chose to appear in.

Beverly Hills, Fred Astaire”

Discretion being the better part of valor, one would think Films in Review, having published the disparaging critique, would let a man of Astaire’s dignity and stature have his response and let it go, but no, Chambers is allowed to continue with what I agree is a rather “patronizing” attitude in a most unwelcome response that adds nothing but more insults at Mr. Astaire’ s expense, thinly veiled in backhanded compliments:

Astaire’s films gave me more happiness than I obtained from those of any other dancer. This made the fact that age has come upon him, as it does upon us all, the more poignant. In the case of the dancer no aspect of the human condition contains more pathos. This is what I tried to indicate, and this is what Astaire, naturally and humanly, resists. As for the wig, if it was the one he always uses, then its disfigurement of him was due to tv distortion.”

There were certain publications that would not have authors respond to letters to the editor except for most unusual circumstances: the authors had their say in their piece, now would be the reader’s turn. Allowing the (perhaps non-existent) N.H. Chambers to respond to Astaire’s letter so he can explain to the reader Astaire’s motivations and take one more dig at his toupee is beyond the pale.

Films in Review, August-September 1970 issue

Films In Review was an important part of film journalism history and is well worth seeking out (they still have an active twitter account, publish reviews on their site, and the internet archive has issues available). However, this fascinating letter from someone of Astaire’s stature is worthy of note, and from the evidence available, his aggravation at Chambers attack on a minor dance number played for laughs (which is actually quite stylish and memorable, I’m glad stumbling upon this little 52 year old brouhaha led me to seek it out) seems justified. “Chambers” would have done better to stick to complaints about the women’s makeup and the hispidity of the men.

Now start investigating those Films In Review archives while I watch Astaire’s performance again.


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