It takes two to tango: Rival biopics explore Fred and Ginger’s explosive chemistry | Celebrity News | Showbiz & TV

Fred and Ginger at a lm luncheon in 1982

Fred and Ginger at a lm luncheon in 1982 (Image: Getty)

That sound you hear, to the accompaniment of a symphony of violins and a crescendo of soaring harps, is Fred Astaire spinning – elegantly no doubt – in his grave. The legendary entertainer added a clause to his will demanding that his life story not be exploited on film.

“It is there,” he said of the codicil, “because I have no particular desire to have my life misinterpreted, which it would be.”

Yet looking down from that great soundstage in the sky, the much-adored singer and dancer is poised to see his private life exposed in not one, but two rival movies, portrayed by duelling British stars.

Jamie Bell, 36, is set to star opposite Margaret Qualley, 28, in Fred & Ginger, a musical about the passionate and explosive relationship between Astaire and his famed dancing partner Ginger Rogers.

Racing to beat them to cinema screens is Spider-Man star Tom Holland, 26, portraying Fred in an as yet untitled biopic, with Paul King, director of the Paddington movies, at the helm.

Both British actors have dancing experience: Holland starred in Billy Elliot on the West End stage, and Bell played the same role in the 2000 Billy Elliot movie. And both hope to shoot this year, and hit cinemas early next year.

Jamie Bell and Margaret Qualley

Jamie Bell and Margaret Qualley star in lm musical Fred & Ginger (Image: Getty)

Yet Fred loathed the thought of his life story becoming fodder for Hollywood, saying: “However much they offer me – and offers come in all the time – I shall not sell.”

The two films are expected to explore the intimate relationship that Fred and Ginger shared in ten films together, from Flying Down to Rio in 1933 to The Barkleys of Broadway in 1949.

“It will be interesting to see what they make of their lives,” says Joseph Epstein, author of the 2009 biography Fred Astaire. “He didn’t think it was a good idea to expose his life to scrutiny and criticism.”

Fred and Ginger revolutionised movie musicals with their elegant, seemingly effortless routines that resulted from months of punishing rehearsals.

Their sizzling on-screen chemistry, replete with sexual tension, in films including Top Hat, Swing Time, and The Gay Divorcee captivated audiences.

Their sizzling on-screen chemistry, replete with sexual tension, in films including Top Hat, Swing Time, and The Gay Divorcee captivated audiences.

Even Fred confessed: “She is the most effective partner I’ve danced with, so that everyone else who danced with me looked wrong.”

Hollywood insiders always whispered that the duo dancing cheek to cheek must have secretly been lovers, but Epstein says: “If there was any passion between them, it was unrequited.

Both were married to other people, and though that wouldn’t have been
an impediment in an age of booze and drugs and sexual liberty, both Astaire and Rogers were very clean-cut, clean-living.

“Ginger was a Christian Scientist, and didn’t smoke or drink, while Fred was a monomaniac perfectionist who dedicated hours to relentless rehearsals. If there was any affection between them, I’m not aware that they acted on it.”

But one or both coming movies, as Fred may have feared, could explore the possibility that the two of them tripped the light fantastic between the bedsheets as well as on the dance floor.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

Fred and Ginger had chemistry on screen (Image: Getty)

Only after her death in 1995, aged 83, did some of Ginger’s private letters reveal her deep-seated love for Fred. Before dying, she confessed her secret passion for him, according to a family member.

The pair had secretly dated before teaming together on screen. They first met in 1930 while rehearsing Girl Crazy, the Broadway show that launched Ginger as a star, with Fred as her assistant choreographer.

Later that year they went out on a date: Fred elegant as ever in a dark blue suit and silk tie, Ginger in a flowing
blue chiffon dress.

After dinner and dancing they shared a passionate kiss, lasting a tongue-lashing five minutes, Ginger later confessed.

“If I had stayed in New York, I think Fred Astaire and I might have become a more serious item,” she admitted in her 1991 memoir. “We were different in some ways but alike in others. Both of us were troupers from an early age, both of us loved a good time, and, for sure, both of us loved to dance.”

But Fred’s wife, New York socialite Phyllis Potter, made sure Ginger didn’t get her claws into her husband, by hanging out on their film sets and overseeing Fred during his romantic scenes.

Fred Astaire and wife Phyllis Potter

Astaire’s wife Phyllis Potter kept a close eye on the pair (Image: Getty)

“I think you can credit Phyllis with ensuring that in ten movies together, Astaire and Rogers only ever kissed once on screen,” says Epstein.

Ginger later recalled: “She was somewhat insecure in her new role as a famous dancer’s wife.”

Today, Fred and Ginger are considered one of Hollywood’s greatest on-screen couplings. Yet the partnership almost didn’t happen.

Fred was a rising Broadway star when he auditioned for RKO films, only to be met with the casting director’s blunt assessment: “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances.”

Fred had recently split from his long-time dance partner, his sister Adele, who retired after marrying the Duke of Devonshire’s son Lord Charles Cavendish. When the studio suggested he partner with Ginger, Fred was reluctant.

“What’s all this talk about me being teamed with Ginger Rogers?” he wrote in a telegram to his agent, Leland Hayward. “I will not have it, Leland… I’ve just managed to live down one partnership and I don’t want to be bothered with anymore.”

If Fred was a loyal husband, Ginger was a hopeless romantic, dating Jimmy Stewart, engaged to millionaire Howard Hughes, and married five times.

Yet when she divorced fourth husband Jacques Bergerac after Fred’s wife died of cancer at the age of 46, Ginger thought the time had come when she and Fred might finally wed. It was not to be, though.

Grieving, Fred was not interested in getting married again so soon after his wife’s death, and an impatient Ginger gave up
waiting, marrying her fifth husband, William Marshall.

Perhaps to disguise their true feelings, Fred and Ginger were entirely professional on film sets, and many observers felt there was little love between them.

Fred had been known to rage at Ginger, complaining to the film crew: “That woman’s impossible! She’s clumsy, lazy and never learns her steps properly …”

But at a 1979 tribute to Ginger, Fred said: “There are all kinds of rumours that we used to fight. And we didn’t.” Ginger believed the studio planted the rumours to gain publicity.

Their passion may have gone unrequited, but the two partners brought out the best in each other: he made her a better dancer, and she made him a better actor. Ginger went on to win an Oscar for Kitty Foyle in 1940.

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire Dancing

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing together (Image: Getty)

It has often been said that Ginger did everything that Fred did, but backwards in high heels.

She also stayed at the studio until 2am doing costume fittings, danced without stopping while her feet bled in satin high heels, and leaped lightly in beaded gowns weighing 25 pounds, or covered in flying ostrich feathers that ended up in her nose and mouth.

Katharine Hepburn famously said: “He gives her class and she gives him sex appeal.”

After decades as a widower, Fred married again at the age of 81. His wife Robyn, 45 years his junior, fiercely protected his legacy in legal battles, upholding his desire not to have his image exploited.

But when Robyn finally agreed to let Fred’s image be used in a 1997 TV commercial for a vacuum cleaner, the entertainer’s daughter accused her of selling his career “to the devil.”

The coming two movies about this greatest of dance partnerships may transgress on something far more precious: the passion Fred and Ginger hoped would forever remain their secret.

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