My Thoughts: Ginger and Fred (1986)

September 01, 2018

This past Thursday, August 30, TCM aired the Italian film Ginger and Fred (1986) directed by Federico Fellini as part of TCM's Summer Under The Stars event honoring actor Marcello Mastroianni. Personally, this was my first time viewing the film and I'm glad that I waited because now I have a public forum to express my thoughts about it with a brand new and fresh mindset.

from Ginger and Fred (1986)


Backstory + my thoughts


In March of 1986, shortly after the Paris premiere of Fellini's Ginger and Fred, Ginger Rogers slammed producer Alberto Grimaldi and MGM-United Artists with an $8 million lawsuit for the use of her name without permission. The film, which opened to positive reviews in Europe, was not as popular with the actress whose life it is alluding to being based off of. Ginger's intention with the suit was to block the release of the insulting picture which she felt was an attempt to exploit she and Fred's names and fame. Ginger was humiliated by the seedy story line and vulgar characters, claiming that she was depicted in a false light.

All allusions aside, it is important to stress the fact that this work is purely fictional. Fellini's goal was, as quoted in 1984, "to tell the story of a couple of old dancers and make a parody of the modern world," and he accomplished just that. When dismissing the fact that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are the inspiration for the main subject of the story, the film isn't so horrible. It is certainly satirical regarding some of the ridiculous programming on modern television. Odd? Yes. Overly sexualized? Often. But throw in real names of people who come from an era of clean, respectable musicals and you've got a recipe for disaster. Ginger and Fred was intended to be a "compliment," as Fellini put it himself, to the real life team of Rogers-Astaire, but that is not how Ginger herself interpreted it. If you are familiar with Ginger's personality, you may know that she was outspoken against vulgarity in films and television as the decades progressed. In her 1991 autobiography, she stated, "I didn't know at the time that Harlow [1965] would be my last motion picture. I had been turning down scripts that were, in my opinion, too permissive in their dialogue and scenes. Hollywood was going in a whole different direction, one I didn't want to follow."

Additionally, Ginger was no stranger to lawsuits. In 1934, she sued fitness authority Sylvia Ulbeck (known as Madame Sylvia) for slander by using an impersonator on a radio broadcast portraying Ginger when Ginger herself was not present, and giving false diet advice not true to Ginger's lifestyle. Even much later on in 1992, Ginger sued a publications company for using her likeness on a birthday card without her approval.

Some might say "Fellini only used her name in the title, what's the big deal?" Initially, my thought process was quite similar to that. I did not exactly know what to expect, but at first I thought Fellini simply took inspiration from the dancing team's name, only using his own characters of Amelia and Pippo. I was fully aware that Amelia and Pippo had found fame in imitating the real Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, but I did not realize until I watched the film that the two characters literally used the stage names "Ginger and Fred," not "Amelia and Pippo." For this reason, everything gradually fell into place throughout as far as my understanding of why Ginger Rogers would be so offended by this film in real life. 

Truthfully, I was indifferent to it, or if anything, disappointed. I understand producer Alberto Grimaldi's point that the film was a form of artistic expression, as art can take on any shape and interpretation, however what I fail to understand is how portraying Ginger and Fred as they were depicted in this production can be deemed an honorable tribute to one of America's most beloved screen couples. The Fred character (Pippo) is presented as a lonely old man with an outwardly enthusiastic obsession with sex who spiraled after the devastating breakup of he and his partner Ginger (Amelia) several years prior to their reunion. Although the Ginger character firmly denies any past romantic rendezvous with Fred to the public, the couple spends a scene privately reminiscing about their once highly active sex life, using lines such as "I lasted 15 years with the sexual nomad, as you defined yourself."

The film is littered with sexual references, not unlike many films today, but in my mind, I couldn't help but constantly imagine 74 year old Ginger in her seat watching this movie for the first time and how embarrassed she must have been to have her name attached to, without her permission, something so teeming with such unnecessary and inaccurate speculation about her personal life. Based off what we know of Ginger's personality, she must have been uncomfortable viewing the various indecent elements of the setting. At one point, a man even demonstrates his invention of "edible panties" on a lady. It looks exactly as it sounds.

Throughout their lives, Ginger Rogers and former dance partner Fred Astaire denied any implication of some ridiculous affair simply because it wasn't true. A good chunk of the public wanted (and believe it or not, still want) some storybook, behind the scenes forbidden love. These days, a juicy rumor like that is far more intriguing to fantasize about than the truth. The scene in which Amelia and Pippo reflect on their intimacy together was the nail in the coffin for me. In that moment, it was as if I could feel Ginger's disappointment and embarrassment. I truly had a connection to how she must have felt and it was a little heart wrenching. These are rumors that are still active in the minds of some obsessive fans whose lines between actors and character fantasy are blurred. It does a great disservice to Fred and Ginger's memory to continue to spread fabrications about their emotional life. They were partners on screen, nothing more. It was that specific scene that triggered my thinking about how unfortunate it is that, while the Astaire-Rogers musicals are all incredible and provide much needed escapism for audiences today as they did during the Great Depression, most fans of classic film have reduced Ginger's 40 year screen career to only a handful of films, rarely being able to be recognized solely by her name without being attached to the name Fred Astaire as well.

It wasn't until August of 1988 that Ginger's suit would be thrown out by a federal judge who ruled that Fellini's work was an example of artistic expression protected by the First Amendment. She would appeal this decision only to be rejected again in 1989. Fred Astaire never joined in the suit. He would pass away in June of 1987.

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Shall We Dance (1937)

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