American actors Patrick Swayze (1952 - 2009) and Jennifer Grey star in the film 'Dirty Dancing', 1987.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
By Stephanie Zacharek
August 24, 2017

Whenever women make lists of the movies they could watch anytime, Dirty Dancing often floats close to the top. This week the 30th anniversary of the release of the 1987 hit-that-almost-wasn’t. There’s little that’s subtle about the plot: Doctor’s daughter and all-around sweetheart Baby Houseman, vacationing with her family in the Catskills circa 1963, falls in love with working-class diamond-in-the-rough dance instructor Johnny Castle. He doesn’t immediately return her affection. But by the end, Baby’s love has transformed Johnny, softening the formidable chip on his shoulder with her mighty blowtorch of feminine wish-fulfillment. Even more important, he now sees all that’s special about her. Johnny—beautiful, desirable, unattainable—recognizes Baby’s generosity and kindness and falls deeply in love with, as our moms used to call it, her inner beauty. Figuratively and even literally, he lifts her high above all others. What woman, in her heart of hearts, doesn’t warm to that idea?

Baby, played by Jennifer Grey, is completely adorable, but she’s young and awkward and unsure about the ways of the world (though she does know she wants to join the Peace Corps). The movie’s truly magnetic presence is Johnny, as played by Patrick Swayze. He’s a little older, he’s principled behind his unpolished exterior, and his dem-dese-and-dose accent disguises a natural courtliness. He’s also sexy as hell.

Dirty Dancing is a fantasy, with music and movement, enjoyable in an almost primal way. It speaks to viewers on levels almost too deep to parse. And although Grey is charming, as well as being a lovely dancer, she’s also saddled with the drippier role: the heroine. Baby’s job is to draw out the best in a flawed man and learn the usual valuable adolescent lessons about her own self-worth. It’s Swayze’s Johnny who is totally free, enviable despite his brooding demeanor and his insecurities about being accepted in the world. Johnny’s job is to take the clumsy, unschooled Baby and give her a whirlwind education in the basics of exhibition dancing. And their lessons become increasingly steamy. Baby is at first tentative, stumbling in her pedal-pushers and sneakers. As she gains more confidence, her sensuality imparts its own grace of movement. (The movie’s choreography is by Kenny Ortega, who’d worked with Madonna on the video for “Material Girl” and who would go on, in the 2000s, to direct the High School Musical series.) But even as we watch the two of them together, engaged in the specifics of giving and taking as attuned dance partners are, it’s hard to keep our eyes off him. If Baby’s dreams and disappointments are the gears of the film’s mechanics, he’s the movie’s dream come true.

Dirty Dancing was the big career breakthrough for both actors, though it was, of course, neither performer’s first movie. Nor was it the first time the two had worked together. They had appeared in John Milius’ 1984 war-fantasy potboiler Red Dawn, about middle-American teenagers defending their town against a Soviet attack. Reportedly, they hadn’t gotten along particularly well during filming. Although the screen test they did for Dirty Dancing had more than adequate sizzle, on-set observers noted that there wasn’t always accord between the two.

But the record they leave behind on-screen is what matters. Directed by Emile Ardolino (it was his debut feature) and written by Eleanor Bergstein (who drew from her own experiences vacationing with her family in the Catskills in the early 1960s), Dirty Dancing was almost dumped by the production company that bankrolled it, Vestron Pictures, at the time a newly formed division of home-video distributor Vestron Inc. After showing the film around and fielding negative responses, Vestron executives planned to release the film for one weekend in theaters and then jettison it to video.

But some positive reviews from critics helped the movie draw a significant audience that first weekend. And because this was 1987, a time when word of mouth could still turn a picture into a surprise success, more and more people bought tickets in the following weeks. (It’s noteworthy that the movie features an abortion subplot that tempers some of its lightness, a feature you wouldn’t be likely to see in a movie aimed at mainstream audiences today.) Many returned for repeat viewings, a foreshadowing of the movie’s continued popularity, first on home video—it was the number one video rental of 1988—and later in the age of DVD and streaming. In the years since, Dirty Dancing has been reinterpreted as a stage musical. It also spawned a short-lived television series and a sort-of prequel (the 2004 Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights). A TV remake, starring Abigail Breslin, aired earlier this year, though its memory has virtually disappeared, like a stone that failed to skip on the water’s surface.

Wherever there’s magic, there’s always somebody yearning to recapture it. But the original Dirty Dancing has a firefly elusiveness. The movie’s pleasures are the shivery kind—they mimic the pre-adolescent ripples of anticipation you might have felt before you even had any idea what sex was. It’s thrilling and just plain fun to watch the barely-clothed Johnny and Baby practicing a dance lift in a placid lake. Or to witness that dazzling moment when Johnny—after being fired from the resort and leaving in shame—storms back into the ballroom and expresses his dismay that Baby, now his baby, is sitting numbly at a table with her family, her back against the wall. Nobody backs Baby into a you-know-what.

Then the family is watching a talent show performed by resort attendees, and Baby isn’t part of it. The routine she and Johnny had worked out disappeared when he did. But in the movie’s vision, simultaneously manageably predictable and expansive, all problems can be solved by dancing. Johnny reaches out to Baby and whirls her onto the stage, interrupting the show with a hurried explanation that’s really a declaration of self-autonomy, then leads her into the routine they’ve polished like a jewel.

To watch Swayze and Grey dance, to see the way Johnny eyes Baby with a kind of cautious affection that seems almost feline, is the most straightforward of pleasures. Swayze—who played football as a teenager but also studied classical ballet, bedfellows that aren’t really strange at all—is all muscle and heart. When Johnny dances, he shakes off all anxiety and fear and feelings of inferiority—they fly away like sparks from his extended fingertips. The power in his muscles is both animal and refined, particularly in the big seduction scene where he sways with Baby to Solomon Burke’s plaintive yet surefooted “Cry to Me.” He happens to be shirtless, because, why not?

This film was, possibly, Swayze at his most beautiful. (He died in 2009 at age 57, after suffering from pancreatic cancer.) But his beauty and vitality take you somewhere beyond the mere pleasure of looking. You want to dance with Johnny, but also, in some way, you want to be him. The ending of Dirty Dancing suggests he’s been tamed and domesticated, but his dancing tells another story. He’ll always be a little bit wild, and more than a little dirty, too.

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