Who can define the mystery?

I have to go back decades to describe something that intrigued me.

I was watching a class of very fine dancers rehearse for a performance they were to give a few days later. I was in heaven. They were all technically very fine. So it was especially rewarding to see them go through their paces. It was an experimental company who were to perform off the beaten path kinds of work. And they were remarkable in carrying it all off.

My eyes went to one dancer who was obviously better than the others. During warm up exercises she was exceptional. I couldn’t wait to see her in performance. One or two dancers there did not excite me at all. I ignored them most of the class. What were they doing with this group?

But here is the stunner. When it came time for performance, the one I was impressed with was a bore in performance. And the ones to whom I gave no attention in class, during performance, just enthralled me.

This led me to a great insight. Technique may be great, but performance, when it counts, is what matters. And there is something mystical that takes place once those lights go out in the theater and all eyes are directed to the performers. Some people need that dramatic tension moment and in performance they just steal the show. I couldn’t believe it.

Who can explain it? How did I miss it with those I was not noticing? They were heads and shoulders above the rest once the performance began. The nonentities became the stars.

I never forgot that revelation. Technique is all well and good but performance is what matters.

Recently I watched girls at a barre. One had gorgeous technique, perfectly pointed toes and long gorgeous legs when she stretched them out. I couldn’t wait to see her in the dance part of the class. Again, she was no standout. And someone I did not notice once the dance steps began to the music, stole my attention. I am a slow learner.

How can you explain why someone just takes over the screen and another never does. You may respect Adolphe Menjou. He is a reliable actor. But you are never going to run to see a movie just because he is in it.

What made Clark Gable larger than life? What made James Stewart irresistible? There were many more handsome actors. They didn’t seem to matter. But those two had that certain something that made you want to see all of their movies. Charles Laughton had it. Maureen O’Hara had it.

What makes Giancarlo Esposito hypnotizing no matter what role he plays? You cannot take your eyes off of him.

You can name your own mustn’t miss people.

Rita Hayworth. Mercy, she just took your breath away. She sure was beautiful. And yet, she had such big shoulders, and she could be horsey. But put her on the screen with Astaire and I surrendered at once.

But then everyone is made better dancing with Astaire.

Look at Fred Astaire. His head is big. He isn’t what anyone would call handsome. He is kind of awkward as an actor. But then he moves! And you are forever his slave. He even breathes differently from any other dancer onscreen. That music starts and there is no one else who matters.

With Gene Kelly, it’s easy. He is charming, good looking, compact in build, and everything about him is lovable.

But Astaire is different. That is the star? No way. But then he walks… He even walks differently from anyone else in the world. He stands, says his lines and you are a bit embarrassed for him. Then he walks! Oh, I see. Now THAT is something else. Look at him walk as he sings I’ll Go My Way By Myself in Bandwagon, the movie. Heaven.

And when he dances there is no one else in the world to compare. Whether it is with a woman, or a cane, or a hat stand, whether it is romantic or a tap routine, or some shtick where he uses objects gracefully to delight with his magic, he is always pure gold.

And the big secret is that he can sing, too. Once he was on Dick Cavett and began talking about his composing and his singing. And then that entire interview was only about his singing. The greatest composers always wanted Fred Astaire to introduce their songs to the world. That Cavett show was such a gift to my life. I quickly went out and bought albums of Astaire singing and listened to them for hours on end. Astaire can sure dance, but he can sing, too. He is now one of my favorite singers in the world.

So this is the mystery. Casting directors have to reckon with this all the time. You can listen to singers until you are blue in the face and never find what you want. Then tiny Lea Salonga steps up and sings and that’s it. She’s got it all, vulnerability, a voice, and that certain something. No need for any more auditions.

If you can find the ONE, you have got it made. But if you miss it…

Can you think of unlikely stars who thrill you? Can you explain their mystery?

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