Some stars shine, others flicker, lingering in your consciousness and dreams in flashes, favorite scenes and frozen moments. Cyd Charisse, the long-legged beauty who in the 1950s gave Fred Astaire some midcareer oomph and Gene Kelly his match in pure animal vitality, wasn't a Hollywood immortal. She never transcended the movies in which she appeared — her breakout musical, "Singin' in the Rain," could certainly have been produced without her. But it surely would not have been as magnificent without the erotic jolt she gives Kelly.
Charisse, who was thought to be 86 when she died on Tuesday, liked to say that her favorite musical number was "Dancing in the Dark," from Vincente Minnelli's "Band Wagon." For this ethereally lovely duet set in a back lot Central Park drenched in moonlight, she and Fred Astaire enter the park as colleagues and leave it as lovers. In between they wordlessly, almost wistfully, drift through an outdoor dance pavilion until they arrive in a private little corner of the park and begin their romance in earnest. She's dressed in a white shirtdress with the kind of floaty, wide skirt that costume designers liked to put her in — when she pirouettes, the dress fans out like a spinning plate, baring her legs. She bends in his arms with supple tenderness.
As pretty as that number is, I prefer the film's "Girl Hunt Ballet," a spoof of a Mickey Spillane pulp in which Astaire plays a detective who partners with a willowy blonde and a smokin' brunette, both danced by Charisse. The blonde has her allure, but not the brunette's sex appeal — or her dress, a red-hot number with tassels hanging from each torpedolike breast. "She came at me in sections," the detective says of the brunette, with "more curves than a scenic railway." Choreographed by Michael Kidd, the athletic number makes the most of her legs, which thrust through the front slit of her dress like a boxer's jabs. The number isn't sexy even when she executes a split in Astaire's arms, but she's dynamite.
She reteamed with Astaire for "Silk Stockings," a vulgar musical redo of Ernst Lubitsch's 1939 romantic comedy, "Ninotchka," in which she plays the humorless Soviet bureaucrat — a role originated by Greta Garbo — who succumbs to the West during a trip to Paris. Garbo laughs in the original, but Charisse dances in the remake, filling out the stockings of the musical's title. Its dance highlight is a gorgeous pantomime during which her character, Ninotchka, elegantly trades her party uniform, including black stockings and granny slip, for the gossamer lingerie and froufrou she has hidden around her hotel suite. The number, which opens with her turning a framed photograph of Lenin face down, encapsulates the character's transformation, less from communism to capitalism than from a desirable woman to one who desires.
There were other notable numbers and a handful more fine films, Nicholas Ray's 1958 noir "Party Girl" included. She bowed out of the movies gracefully, leaving the factory before it shuttered for good. It's impossible to imagine the Hollywood musical without her. Like the greatest American movie dancers, she showed how appearing on screen isn't just a matter of mouthing words, but also moving through and holding space. And she was a stunning physical specimen, at once lean and beautifully curved, with a wasp waist that seems to have been naturally designed for a man's hand to rest gently in its slope. She didn't do all that much with her face, though on occasion she let loose a deliciously evocative leer.
Her legs could send viewers into raptures, and after watching "Singin' in the Rain" again, it's easy to see why. She's on screen less than 10 minutes — simply called the Dancer — but she dominates the windup of this American classic.
The number, "Broadway Melody Ballet," occurs in a film within a film that takes flight with Kelly as an eager hoofer looking for his Broadway break, singing "Gotta Dance!" He slides on his knees toward the camera, abruptly stopping before his hat, which has somehow become perched on a foot attached to a long, long leg.
He gapes (as do we) as that leg then rises straight in the air with phallic suggestiveness, a prelude to a carnal encounter that was as close to on-screen sex as was possible in the 1950s and wholly sublime.