Fred Astaire would’ve celebrated his 121st birthday on May 10, 2020. The Oscar-nominated song and dance man is best remembered for a series of musicals he made alongside Ginger Rogers (who, as she famously said, did everything he did, only backwards and in heels). Yet his filmography extends well past those titles. In honor of his birthday, let’s take a look back at 20 of his greatest films, ranked worst to best.
As a dancer, Astaire was known for his perfectionism, doing multiple takes to get the most precise movements correct. His immaculate steps were matched only by his outfits, which often consisted of top hats and coats.
After making a name for himself on the stage in London and on Broadway, Astaire came to Hollywood. He first appeared with fellow dancer Rogers in “Flying Down to Rio” (1933), where they played second fiddle to Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond. Their first starring vehicle came just one year later: “The Gay Divorcee” (1934).
Their subsequent films, including “Top Hat” (1935), “Follow the Fleet” (1936), “Swing Time” (1936), and “Shall We Dance” (1937), all more or less followed the same formula: Fred meets Ginger and convinces her to love him through dance. Then there’s a series of misunderstandings, mistaken identities, and plot contrivances that keep them apart, before a final musical number brings them back together. Marked by their endless wit, glamour, and catchy tunes by the likes of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, the films delighted Depression-era audiences in their heyday and inspired future generations of hoofers.
As Astaire grew older, he focused more on dramatic acting, earning a Golden Globe nomination for his supporting turn in Stanley Kramer‘s nuclear war drama “On the Beach” (1959). He reaped his sole Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for the disaster flick “The Towering Inferno” (1974), which brought him victories at the Globes and BAFTA.
Astaire won an additional Globe as Best Comedy/Musical Actor for “Three Little Words” (1950), competing again for “The Pleasure of His Company” (1961) and “Finian’s Rainbow” (1968). He received an Honorary Oscar in 1950, the Cecil B. DeMille prize in 1961 and the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978.
On the TV side, Astaire won Emmys for the specials “An Evening with Fred Astaire” in 1959 and “Astaire Time” in 1961, and the television movie “A Family Upside Down” in 1978.
Tour our photo gallery of Astaire’s 20 greatest films, including the titles mentions above as well as “Holiday Inn” (1942), “The Band Wagon” (1953), “Funny Face” (1957) and more.