Film Studies: What made Moira a star? Poise and charm? Suspicion and fear, actually

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When Moira Shearer died a couple of weeks ago, every newspaper ran a picture of the lady in The Red Shoes, the 1948 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, that wilful fable on facing the choice between death and art, and the obituary tag that Ms Shearer must have realised was waiting for her. And it is still possible to paint a pretty picture of the ardent, flame-haired ballerina who got the lead in the most famous ballet movie of all time, the hysterical romance that has driven so many young girls (apparently) to the dream of having their feet and their blood-red shoes cut off so that they can die in peace. But there is a funnier and more human story, too.

In Million Dollar Movie, the second volume of his autobiography, published in 1992, Michael Powell wrote, "Moira and I have had the most perfect relationship that can be imagined between two creative artists: it is based not upon love, but upon suspicion and fear." The facts suggest that this was a modest verdict.

When Powell and Pressburger first thought of The Red Shoes, Moira King was a 20-year-old from Dunfermline who had joined Sadler's Wells Ballet at the age of 16 and had just had a hit in the ballet, Miracle in the Gorbals, choreographed by Robert Helpmann (who was already intended for a role in The Red Shoes). Powell was warned by Helpmann that Shearer was totally obedient to Ninette de Valois and entirely set on being a ballerina.

Motion pictures might seem alien to her. Nevertheless, Powell asked to see Shearer: "She was tall, about Frankie's height [Frankie was Powell's wife], with the most glorious hair of Titian red that I had ever seen on a woman.

"And I've seen some. She had a cheeky face, well-bred and full of spirit. She had a magnificent body. She wasn't slim, she just didn't have one ounce of superfluous flesh. Her eyes were blue. Her hands - what's the use of describing her, you all know her." There and then you have a lot of the reasons for reading, as well as watching, Michael Powell: the eye for detail, the easy surrender to love (redheads were a steady dream and reality in Michael's life), as well as the lordly impatience with which a visionary is resigned to sharing his vision with proles. Anyway, he offered her the part of Victoria Page in The Red Shoes. He offered her £1,000, a retainer and expenses. "I see," she said. "I would have to get Miss de Valois's permission, of course." Thus began what you'd have to call a dance, more intricate and longer than the one in The Red Shoes. In fact, there were no contracts at Sadler's Wells and Shearer needed to talk to de Valois only to stress the fact that she had been offered the film. Moira wanted to be the prima ballerina, a position held by Margot Fonteyn. De Valois acted surprised that Powell had not offered the role to Fonteyn. And so there was careful talk about Margot being a little older, a little less vivid, and not red-haired. The negotiations were prolonged, for Shearer did not want to lose status at Sadler's - and she was not deeply impressed by £1,000. In the end she got the part and £5,000. History still says Fonteyn was the great English dancer of the age. Perhaps she was the greater gift to ballet.

The Red Shoes was made - with Anton Walbrook, Jack Cardiff, Leonid Massine, Sir Thomas Beecham and so on. When it was finished, the stuffed executives of J Arthur Rank stalked away from the screening in silence. They believed it was awful and way over-budget. In time, it was the immense success of the picture in America that changed everything. And Moira Shearer was suddenly an international celebrity. Why not? She had been on fire in the film, and everything Powell could have hoped for, save one thing: she never surrendered to his charms. Indeed, she kept a dry suspicion for him and his giddy notion of the brief bliss for which artists were made. Perhaps she had always had an instinct that The Red Shoes was a pact with the devil: it made her famous, yet it probably marked her down for vulgarity in the chilly world that controlled ballet. So she danced, and she acted - and there was no doubt but that among first-rank dancers she was a very fine actress - but in a strange way her career never moved farther ahead.

She had many movie offers in the late Forties, but more or less they were to make another version of The Red Shoes. She declined them all, because she was hoping for promotion at Sadler's. Whereas in the eyes of de Valois, she was now both star and outsider, not to mention a bad example to other girls coming along. That was the final irony, for Moira Shearer probably drove more young women to attempt ballet than any other dancer. A few years later, in America, Gene Kelly, Vincente Minnelli and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer were inspired to do their version of The Red Shoes. They would call it An American in Paris, and they cast the French ballerina Leslie Caron. A couple of years later, in Hollywood, a strange, three-part film called The Story of Three Loves was made, in which Moira and James Mason did a thinly disguised rehash of The Red Shoes.

Moira returned to Powell and Pressburger for The Tales of Hoffman (1951), in which she dances several parts, and she made a British film, written by Terence Rattigan, The Man Who Loved Redheads (1955). It was said, when Alexander Korda died in 1956, that one of his plans was to make a ballet film - Moira Shearer in Sleeping Beauty. She did play a small part in Powell's Peeping Tom, but that was not a career-builder.

Having retired as a dancer, she acted on stage sometimes - I recall seeing her as Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera - but she married the broadcaster and writer (and fellow Scot) Ludovic Kennedy, and that marriage lasted. I have a notion that even when one of Powell's volumes of autobiography came out, she reviewed it for a newspaper and recommended that a pinch of salt be taken with the book. That seemed fair. I happened to be in the vicinity when Michael began that book. He telephoned me one day to check a name from the past. And I offered my library for research (he was a visitor in America). "Oh no," he said. "I shall write the book not as fact but as I remember it."