Originally released 27 Aug 1987
Written by Eleanor Bergstein
Directed by Emile Ardolino
Starring Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Jerry Orbach, and Cynthia Rhodes
My rating: ★★ 1/2 stars
Crowd-pleasing musical romance is flawed but enjoyable.
As a fan of teen, romance, and nostalgia movies, I should like Dirty Dancing a lot more than I do. When watching it, I can help but think that what I’m watching is ridiculous. Ironically, those parts of the movie that irritate me are the very things that most people enjoy about it.
The film begins when the Houseman family journeys to Kellerman’s Resort in the Catskills to spend several weeks at the end of summer 1963. The year chosen is, significantly, the end of the America’s innocence before the assassination of Kennedy and the upheaval of the later 1960s begins. Indeed, the film’s opening narration by the younger Houseman daughter, Baby (Jennifer Gray), highlights for us the time setting and its significance. Thematically, Dirty Dancing is about the loss of innocence, presenting it as a necessary part of growth.
The loss of innocence is reflected in the final musical number, a great crowd-pleaser in the history of cinema (and one referenced in movies like Heartbreaker (2010) and Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)). The resort’s dance teacher, working class Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), with Baby as his partner brings a new kind of music and a new kind of dancing to Kellerman’s as the resort season ends, bringing an end to the fossilized innocence of the resort and reinvigorating it. The song, “I’ve Had the Time of My Life,” by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, won an Oscar for Best Song, but it’s very much like music from the 1980s, when the movie was made, and not like the music from the 1960s, which would undergo a huge change in the mid-1960s. The music written specifically for the Dirty Dancing soundtrack is pretty good, but it all sounds like 1980s music, undercutting the sense of nostalgia. For the final scene, the filmmakers could have found a song from 1963 that sounded new and different; they could have entirely used music from the time the movie was set instead of the contemporary numbers. Yet, the new songs for the movie were hugely popular. Those songs and the movie’s MTV aesthetic, the blending of the contemporary into a period piece, were a large component of the movie’s success with the public. Yet, I found them distracting and detracting from my immersion in the movie’s setting.
The other part of the final scene that I found irritating is the way it turns into a choreographed number for the whole cast. In this way, the scene is reminiscent of musicals from classic Hollywood, but, again, I’m pulled out of the movie and reminded that what I’m watching is fake. The choreography of the “dirty” dancing moments seems over the top, as well. I can’t be certain that people didn’t dance that way in 1963, but the amount of pelvic thrusting and grinding seems overdone.
The best parts of the movie hearken back to the main theme of loss of innocence, particularly in regards to Baby and her father (Jerry Orbach). Baby learns that her father is not perfect, that he can’t solve every problem. He, in turn, learns that the world is more complex than he imagined. In doing so, the two come to a new understanding and develop a more mature relationship. Grey and Orbach give strong, moving performances, and their scenes together are some of the best in the film. I’m glad that director Emile Ardolino (who spent most of his career as a choreographer) didn’t give short shrift to these character-driven scenes in favor of increasing the amount of dance in the film.
One common trope in loss of innocence narratives is the loss of virginity, and certainly that plays a big role here. Sexual awakening acts as a metaphor for awakening to the world, particularly if the (usually protected female) protagonist’s partner is a member of a different (usually lower) social class. Some of the best moments of the film come when Johnny explains his experience of the world to Baby.
However, here, the film runs into another problem. Thirty-five-year-old Patrick Swayze is too old for the role. He seems too old to be a romantic partner for Baby and too old to have the anxieties about his place in the world that Johnny does. But criticizing Swayze’s casting is practically blasphemy. His presence remains one of the reasons for the movie’s enduring popularity. Likewise, 31-year-old Cynthia Rhodes seems too old to play Johnny’s dancing partner, Penny. A younger actress could better capture the underlying naivety and vulnerability behind Penny’s tough exterior. I had hoped that the upcoming TV remake would rectify the age problem with Johnny and Penny. Those hopes were dashed when I read that Penny would be played by 37-year-old Nicole Scherzinger. The age of Colt Prattes, who will play Johnny, is unavailable on the Internet, but he looks to be in his early to mid-30s. Performers who are ten years younger would be better suited to the roles.
One hope I have for the remake is that it will retain the abortion subplot, which was less controversial 30 years ago. Considering that the original screenwriter, Eleanor Bergstein is producing the remake, I have reason to believe that element of the film won’t be changed. The grittiness of that narrative grounds the film in a sense of realism—which makes the more light-hearted moments of fantasy seem all the more out of place.
But who am I to argue with success? Dirty Dancing is not the movie I want it to be. It’s not the movie I imagine it could have been. It hints at a depth that is sacrificed for the sake of pleasing the audience, and the audiences reacted positively to that, making the film into a phenomenon that spawned two soundtrack albums, a short-lived TV series, a stage musical, and a remake. I doubt the more serious movie I want it to be would have been nearly as successful.