Stars Come Out To Honor Gene Kelly At Academy Tribute

It’s hard to decide which song title from Gene Kelly’s movies would better capture the spirit of our centennial tribute to the late icon: “Make ‘Em Laugh” or “Almost Like Being in Love.”

Last night's event - held in a sold-out Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills - chronicled the legacy of Gene Kelly, the innovative dancer, actor, singer, director, and choreographer. Throughout the evening, celebrities appeared on stage to share their insights. These special guests included superstar Justin Timberlake, actress Nastassja Kinski, director/choreographer Kenny Ortega, actress Penelope Ann Miller, and “Glee” actor/dancer Harry Shum Jr. The tribute was hosted by writer, film historian, and Gene Kelly’s widow, Patricia Ward Kelly.

Unlike a certain trio from “Singin’ in the Rain,” we didn’t talk the whole night through—but we could have.

The evening began with a video tribute from Hugh Jackman—himself an accomplished actor and song-and-dance man—filmed on the set of the upcoming “Les Miserables.”  “He was, to me, everything I would have ever dreamed to have been, and then some....  He made me dream of being in a movie musical,” Jackman reflected. “He was about joy. He was about celebrating life.”




Next, host Patricia Ward Kelly appeared. After sharing how she met and fell for Kelly without even knowing who he was, the curtain rose on a highlight reel representing nearly a dozen films. The reel captured how masterfully Kelly could dance, sing, and act—sometimes doing all three at once—while still seeming like an ordinary guy.

Afterward, Ms. Kelly reappeared to introduce Justin Timberlake, who described Kelly’s lasting influence. “This remarkable presence remains so vivid in the world of film and dance, especially for someone like me,“ said Timberlake, “And he doesn’t need a hologram to do it.” The star later confessed to being “one of the millions who probably, blatantly and slightly unapologetically have stolen a move—or two or three or four—from Gene Kelly. But I’m cool with that.”

The next 90 minutes were a dance of their own, as film clips alternated with Ms. Kelly’s commentary. The first clip was the first number Kelly ever choreographed for film, from “Thousands Cheer” (1943). After the clip, Ms. Kelly revealed that the dance legend used to get motion sickness, and could not stand to ride a trolley or in the back of a car.

The clips also spotlighted “An American in Paris” (1951, for which Kelly wore specially made moccasins as well as the same clothes he wore around the house), “Inherit the Wind” (1960), and the psychologically charged “Alter Ego” sequence from “Cover Girl” (1944), in which Kelly dances side-by-side with—against?—himself. As Ms. Kelly explained, this number was the most technically challenging and the most pivotal of his career.

After the clips, Ms. Kelly opened boxes to reveal mementos of the late star.  These included his iconic tight T-shirts, which he cut himself to give his body a lean line for the camera. She also shared a singed piece of sheet music. It had survived the fire that burned down Kelly’s house in 1983. It was the song “Singin’ in the Rain” on paper—with Kelly’s handwritten choreography notes.

Soon after, the spotlight turned to our other celebrity guests. Nastassja Kinski and Kenny Ortega took the stage together, as both had worked with Kelly on Francis Ford Coppola’s “One From the Heart” (1982). Ortega, whose choreography credits would ultimately include the popular “High School Musical” trilogy, Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” tour and, of course, this, reminisced about watching Kelly’s films with his working-class family on their black-and-white television set. “It wasn’t until much later that I discovered they were in color… but it didn’t take color for you to understand the greatness and the genius and the brilliance of Gene Kelly.”

It was “Xanadu” (1980) that offered Ortega his first chance to choreograph for film and also to meet his idol. Toward the end of production, an aging Kelly finally agreed to film a dance sequence. “Gene showed up, and put this around my neck,” said Ortega. “It’s a viewfinder. With Gene Kelly’s name on it. That he used for ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’” Ortega then recounted what Kelly taught him about designing dance numbers for the camera as they collaborated on what would be the last dance of Kelly’s film career.

Next appeared Penelope Ann Miller. “That voice,” Miller said. “Yes, the dancing, of course, but I loved his voice.” Miller, seen in last year’s Best Picture-winner, “The Artist,” also shared that during joint interviews, co-star Jean Dujardin always said that his performance had been inspired by Gene Kelly—and that he had even stolen the icon’s smile.

“There’s nothing old-fashioned about him. He’s timeless,” Miller reflected. “He really would be a movie star today.”

The evening’s final guest was Harry Shum, Jr., who tried to channel Kelly when appearing on “So You Think You Can Dance:” “Just as Gene Kelly wanted to showcase that ballet could be masculine, we wanted to showcase that hip-hop could be beautiful.” Kelly has influenced the young performer’s work on “Glee.” “Anytime I needed the extra push, I would ask myself, what would Gene Kelly do?”

The program ended on an emotional note as Patricia Ward Kelly shared a final remembrance. As the lights dimmed, she introduced a recording of a tune that Kelly had sung in clubs during the 1930s, and to her toward the end of his life: “If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight.”

It was a night full of laughter, movement, magic, and stardom (both on screen and live on stage).

Who could ask for anything more?