Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Cyd Charisse, R.I.P.








That Cyd! When you dance with her, you stay danced with.
--Fred Astaire


In all of American cinema, is there a more understatedly erotic dance than The Band Wagon's "Dancing In The Dark"? Astaire and Charisse have been warily circling each other for half the film, full of jealousy, suspicion and insecurity, until it all erupts in a hotel room argument. They get out their feelings, laugh and reach a kind of detente, but they know that they'll never fully trust each other until they dance together. They take a horse-drawn carriage out to MGM's wonderfully stylized mock-up of Central Park, the blatant rear-projection during their carriage ride adding to the hallucinatory effect: we know we're entering a fantastical, dream-like space.

They move through sparse crowds of people walking and dancing, walk through a path dotted with trees. They remain silent, look at the ground, seem like two nervous lovers on a first date-- and then Charisse suddenly lifts her leg and pulls it rightward, her torso lifting and moving and then twirling with it, a series of moves Astaire matches with a twirl that feels almost conversational. They've had the "first kiss," but pull back a bit, returning to a walk, until they reach an empty circle of pavement, marked off with street lamps and a park bench. Then they give in to their urges: Astaire scratches his nose, as if working up the courage, then spins again, as if to say: do you want to?

He pauses, arms behind his back and legs waiting outstretched, and Charisse faces him in a similar position. They engage in dance for 2 minutes and 30 seconds, not touching at first, just following each others movements in graceful sway, matching each other's twirls, finding each other's rhythms, until their arms outstrech, and they finally hold each other as a single charged unit. Twirls, lifts, dips, spins: they look at each other and they look away, but now they always know where the other is, what the other is thinking and feeling: they can slow down and speed up at will, a perefect partnership. No words are spoken-- the whole song is instrumental-- but none need to be: the body language says everything, captured in three spectacular long takes by director Vincente Minnelli.

It ends as conversationally as it begins: They spin and dance up the steps, back to the carriage, where Astaire spins her into her seat, then gets in with one last, elegant tug-and-pull. They lean back in the carriage and sigh, a perfect moment of post-coital, cinephiliac bliss.

R.I.P., Cyd Charisse.

(h/t to Bully's site, where I first read the sad news).

UPDATE (6/18): Unsurprisingly, The Self-Styled Siren has a gorgeous reminiscence about Charisse that sums up so much of her allure. Glenn Kenny, Bob at Forward To Yesterday and Dennis also have nice remembrances, and Jonathan has changed his banner in tribute.

4 comments:

dave said...

How sad--the "Baby You Knock Me Out" scene from It's Always Fair Weather is one of my all-time favorite musical moments. What a great body of work she left behind--and a very nice tribute here from you.

Brian Doan said...

Yes, It's Always Fair Weather is incredibly underrated, and she's wonderful in it-- she's a brilliant, brilliant dancer, obviously, but i also like her comedic skills, which you can see in The Band Wagon and in Weather. It really makes me want to break out all of her DVDs and watch them again...

Jonathan Lapper said...

She was incredible, really. Of all the woman dancers in movies she was by far the sexiest. She knew how to make things sizzle.

And thanks for acknowledging the banner. It wasn't easy making that thing at work on my lunch break but being the techno-graphics geek I am I made it work for Cyd.

Bob Westal said...

And now it's my turn....Come back, Shane, come back! (Or, more likely, enjoy your summer vacation!)