Born Virginia McMath in Independence, Missouri (a location with a name so symbolically right it sounds invented), she was primed for stardom at age six when her ambitious mother took her on the first of many spelunking expeditions to Los Angeles, then enrolled her in a grueling assortment of singing, dancing, and acting classes.
She made her formal debut in Fort Worth, Texas, 18 years later, but it was literally a formality--she never had any intention of sitting back and living the life of a rich society wife. Instead, she toured on the vaudeville circuit and worked in New York as a band singer and Broadway musical performer before making the jump to motion pictures.
In late 1930, Paramount put her under contract and sold her as a gorgeous, wisecracking blonde--a sweet but tough dame from the wrong side of the tracks. She was so popular with audiences that over the next two-and-a-half years, she made 11 movies, including 42nd St., Follow the Leader, Honor Among Lovers, You Said a Mouthful, and Gold Diggers of 1933.
When her studio deal was up, she made another one with RKO, and two films into it, she met the man with whom her name would always be linked: Fred Astaire. They were cast as second leads in Flying Down to Rio, but their chemistry was so obvious that by the time they were teamed again--four films along in Rogers' career and 12 short months later--their names were above the title. The movie was The Gay Divorcee, and it was such a smash that Rogers and Astaire made eight more together, including Swing Time, Top Hat, and Shall We Dance?.
They careened deliriously around gigantic, elaborate, glittering sets, singing and dancing to tunes by Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and the Gershwins, helping Depression-depressed moviegoers escape into a world of dreamlike plenty. Rogers' favorite was Swing Time--because, she told an interviewer, "It gave me a bigger role than Astaire!"
This was a sore point with Rogers, although she rarely brought it up publicly. Katherine Hepburn believed that Rogers made the dapper but aloof Astaire a star, noting, "He gave her class and she gave him sex." Film historian David Thomson notes, "On the screen, her robustness rubbed off on his remoteness so that he seemed warmed by her, just as she gained cool in his draft." These observations are substantiated by Astaire's subsequent inability to find a female partner who matched him so well; his costars sometimes possessed Rogers' charm (Judy Garland in Easter Parade, Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face) and sometimes her physical skills (Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron), but never both.
And yet, in terms of money and industry clout, their relationship was not reciprocal. At a time when her name was selling millions of movie tickets with or without Fred Astaire's help, she was not pulling down a comparable salary; sometimes she made less money than male fellow cast members who played second and third fiddle to her. And although Astaire was granted room in their pictures together to design magnificently inventive solo routines that often used furniture and items of clothing as partners, winning his physical skills comparison to Charlie Chaplin's, Rogers rarely got equal time to strut her stuff without a partner. Like so many women, she was judged by studio heads and money men not on her own charm, exuberance, and ability, but by how artfully she interacted with a man.
Her predicament became a weary in-joke among women. Decades later, it was the basis of a legendary pop culture observation often repeated by the founders of America's feminist revolution, and broadcast to the nation by former Texas governor Ann Richards at the 1988 Democratic convention: "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in heels."
She was not rewarded accordingly. Between V-E day and Lyndon Johnson's inauguration, Rogers appeared in 17 films, compared with almost twice that number in the preceding decade, and by the end, she was used as either a supporting player or a curiosity item--while Astaire continued toplining major motion pictures clear through 1969's Finian's Rainbow, often paired with love interests young enough to be his grandchildren.
Others, however, have argued that Rogers' getting the short end of the celebrity stick was due to her own measured, professional, resolutely Midwestern personality rather than to institutionalized sexism. Rogers was a devout Christian Scientist who didn't drink or smoke, and who generally preferred the company of friends to partying with potential employers. Her female contemporaries, including Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Claudette Colbert, took more actorly chances, reaped bigger rewards, and had richer and more varied dramatic careers.
Which is a shame, in a way, because on a good day, Rogers could act the corsets off any of them. Her dancing was so justifiably celebrated that it eclipsed her very real thespian talents. Perhaps this stems from the very nature of dance; when bodies are whooshing across the screen in spectacular motion, expressing in action what can't be said with words, it's hard not to be awed. While, to paraphrase Spencer Tracy, the mark of truly fine acting is that you don't let anybody catch you doing it.
Nobody caught Ginger Rogers acting, partly because she disappeared into her roles completely, and partly because she rarely appeared in obscure, arty, or intellectually difficult movies.
Like Astaire, her natural habitat was the Hollywood extravaganza--especially the musical, although she did fine work in glossy, popular dramas, winning an Oscar as best actress in 1942 as the resilient heroine of Kitty Foyle, and in a number of romantic comedies, including Tom, Dick, and Harry, Once Upon a Honeymoon , and I'll Be Seeing You. The strangest was writer-director Billy Wilder's perverse 1943 film The Major and the Minor, in which she played an impoverished woman heading home to Iowa dressed as a 12-year-old (in order to save money on train fare) who falls for an Army officer (Ray Milland) employed at a military academy. Rogers' most enduring gift--her absolutely matter-of-fact delivery, which made the most preposterous scenes and lines believable--has rarely been showcased to better effect.
Ultimately, her ability to find the glamour in the girl next door--the dreamer inside the typing pool employee, the hungry ingenue inside the starstruck teen--forms the core of her appeal, and will guarantee her legacy. Even when she was absorbing quirky and outrageous characters through her pores, she was among the most real, the most seemingly approachable, of any of Hollywood's stars.
Pauline Kael, another great lady who makes bold tasks look easy, said it best: "She made American women marvelous.