I was delighted when Biography.com asked me if I would write a short piece about what Gene would want his legacy to be on his centennial. I was happy for two reasons: one, because I am pleased to spread the word about his work, and, two, because I happen to know the answer to her question.
I first met Gene back in December 1985. I had been hired as a writer on a 90-minute television special about the Smithsonian and he was the host/narrator. The remarkable thing is that I did not know then who Gene Kelly was. In fact, when I heard the name, I didn’t even know if Gene Kelly was a man or a woman. As astonishing as that is to me now, I honestly think it was the best way to meet him, as I got to know the man before I knew the star and before I ever saw the characters he played up on the silver screen. I think Gene was amused by it, too. He didn’t often meet a woman who had no idea who he was. Most people usually swooned and many could recite his movie lines word for word. He and I bonded over a mutual love of words and particularly of word origins. Etymology was a pet study for each of us as was a love of poetry. So we spent our first week together playing word games and reciting poetry back and forth. I fell in love with his use of language, with his wonderful blend of erudite gentleman and Pittsburgh street kid. And then someone told me he was famous.
Watch a clip on Gene Kelly’s early experience with dance:
Ultimately, Gene invited me to come to California to write his memoirs. I accepted. I was only supposed to interview him for about two weeks. As it turned out, I never left, and we ended up getting married five years into the project. Initially, Gene was reserved, especially when he was aware of the tape recorder turning. It took time, and in some cases years, to get him to let down his guard. He was so used to crafting his image for the public—choreographing it, really—that it was hard for him to get below the surface. Gradually, as our relationship grew, his willingness to dig deeper grew as well.
Patricia and Gene Kelly, 1994. Photo by: Albane Navizet
One of the things that Gene discussed frequently was how he wished to be remembered. It was vital to him. He realized that he was known for being up on the screen and, particularly, for an iconic moment up on a lamppost. But what he really wanted was to be known for creating that scene and many others. He had worked assiduously to create a particularly American style of dance and to change the look of dance on film. He had opted not to return to Broadway as originally planned and, instead, decided to stay in Hollywood to “lick” the use of the camera in filming dance. For him, the camera was a “one-eyed monster,” that gave the viewer no peripheral vision and reduced a three-dimensional art form—dance—to the two dimensions of cinema. He was determined to find ways to fool the eye—to make the figures appear less flat using color and light (as in the ballet in An American in Paris); with the kinetic energy of large, bold movement toward the camera (the “Singin’ in the Rain” number); and in blending live action and animation (dancing with Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh).
Watch the story behind ‘Singin’ in the Rain’:
Because so much of Gene’s innovative work has been adapted and incorporated by contemporary directors, choreographers, cinematographers, and dancers through the years, the fact that it was so revolutionary and ahead of its time is often lost on younger generations. Gene would be very pleased to know that so much of what he contributed is being picked up and re-worked and re-envisioned by so many young people. That is what he wanted. He didn’t want people to mimic what he did; he wanted them to take the seed and go beyond. What he would appreciate this year in celebration of his centenary would be for people to acknowledge that it was he who made the original mark.
© 2012 Patricia Ward Kelly
Biographer and film historian Patricia Ward Kelly is the widow of Gene Kelly. Currently, she serves as Trustee of The Gene Kelly Image Trust and Creative Director of Gene Kelly: The Legacy, a corporation established to commemorate Kelly’s centenary worldwide. Mrs. Kelly lives in Los Angeles and is completing the memoir about her late husband. Her one-woman show that recently sold out in Los Angeles and at the Lincoln Center in New York, “Celebrating Gene Kelly An American Legend,” is represented by Gary McAvay, President of Creative Artists Management Theatrical in New York. For information about upcoming Gene Kelly events, please go to: www.facebook.com/GeneKellyTheLegacy and “Like” the page. On Gene Kelly’s 100th birthday, August 23, 2012, Mrs. Kelly will launch her blog “Notes on a Napkin” at: http://www.patriciawardkelly.wordpress.com.