Directed by: Emile Ardolino. Written by: Eleanor Bergstein. Starring: Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Jerry Orbach, Cynthia Rhodes. Cinematography: Jeffrey Jur. Editing: Peter C. Frank. Music: John Morris, Erich Bulling, Various. Certificate: 15. Running Time: 100 minutes. Year: 1987. Rating: 4.3
This was my first viewing of Dirty Dancing. Right now you’re probably wondering how anyone can go through life and avoid Dirty Dancing for the best part of thirty years, so without further ado I’ll tell you: it takes a lot of fastidious work, three decades of unbroken concentration, countless minutes spent scouring the TV listings in advance to cut out the possibility of accidentally finding it on Channel 5, plus regular repetition of the fib ‘yes, I promise I’ll watch it one day, just not today’, delivered to anyone who floats the idea of viewing it. For most of my life I’ve considered myself something of an expert in the field of Dirty Dancing avoidance. Sadly that’s no longer the case.
Although all of that effort has now, in the space of two hours, become wasted, on the plus side at least I know what Kellerman’s Catskill Mountains resort looks like and I finally understand what the line ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner!’ actually means. I’ve also discovered that I needn’t have studiously avoided Dirty Dancing at all: while Emile Ardolino’s film may be a complete and utter festival du fromage (as it was described in the April 1987 issue of Cahiers Du Cinéma), brimming with escapist romantic cliché and hopeless at sticking to its early 1960s setting – not a single character bats an eyelid when synthesizers and drum machines are heard during the final scene – it’s hardly the worst film ever made (and hardly the worst starring the late Patrick Swayze, either, whose appearance here catapulted the actor to worldwide fame). The film’s simple charms are obvious and I can see why many enjoy it.
As romances go, and as dance movies go, it is fairly safe and predictable fayre. I’m probably wasting my time writing a synopsis but, in case you’re even better at avoiding the film than me, the story follows young and idealistic teenager Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman (Jennifer Grey), who arrives at Kellerman’s with her wealthy family for a summer holiday. Delving past the old-fashioned organised dance classes and dreary poolside entertainment she discovers that the staff are enjoying a wild old time in their private quarters, holding after-hours parties that are filled with people ‘dirty dancing’ (which turns out to be fairly tame rock n’ roll, as it happens, though obviously it would have been eye-opening to many in 1963).
One of the more popular members of staff is dance teacher Johnny Castle (Swayze), your typical James Dean wannabe from the wrong side of the tracks. He’s the kind of guy who hears people excitedly shout his name when he enters a room (most of us mere mortals get grunts of acknowledgment, at best) and he’s a pretty smooth mover to boot – Swayze was cast partly because of his past experience with the Joffrey Ballet. As a result Baby is attracted to him, although Kellerman’s isn’t exactly overflowing with better options. After a few scenes of the usual nonchalant indifference beloved of rebels without causes, Johnny realizes that the feeling is mutual, and as the holiday fling plays out the pair must negotiate the various obstacles placed in their way, from disapproving daddies to false accusations of theft. There’s also the related sub-plot that supposedly gives Dirty Dancing an ‘edge’: Johnny’s dance partner Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) is pregnant following a fling with waiter Robbie (Max Cantor), and pays a dodgy backstreet doctor to carry out an abortion. While the issue itself is serious enough it’s handled with kid gloves by those involved in the production, as if everyone was scared stiff of the plot development and hoped that it would simply go away (during test screenings over 30% of audience members didn’t even realise an abortion took place in the film). This would have been understandable for a movie being made in 1963, but for one that is merely set in that year it is skirted around far too carefully.
It is at least understandable why Ardolino and writer Eleanor Bergstein – who based the story on her own childhood – chose to keep the focus on the two main characters as much as possible. The success of the film is partly due to the excellent chemistry between Grey and Swayze, who genuinely do look as though they’re falling in love, and Dirty Dancing holds your attention as a result despite all its predictable twists and turns. The actors deserve plenty of praise for keeping this façade up, as in real life relations between the two were frosty at best, a hangover from earlier run-ins on the set of 1984’s Red Dawn. The true feelings of the actors are only visible on screen once, in a montage that shows Mr Swayze’s increasingly frustrated reactions to Ms Grey’s bouts of uncontrolled laughter; Ardolino chose to leave it in, and it is one of Dirty Dancing‘s most famous scenes. The pair were also clearly committed to the dance sequences, which crackle with energy and a very 80’s-heavy kind of sexual tension.
I’m a sucker for 50s- and 60s-set films and this comforting effort, with its reliance on doo-wop, its nostalgic glances backwards to an innocent age and its simple love story, isn’t actually all that bad. That said I’m no late convert: there are way too many stock characters (even the leads, unforgivably), the script is hackneyed and it’s hard to think of another romantic drama that is quite so predictable in the way it pans out. I guess Dirty Dancing must be applauded, though, for successfully striking a chord with those outside its target audience, as it enticed far more adults into the cinema than teenagers. Given the lack of star power attached (Swayze was fairly well known but no A-lister) that’s a fair achievement.