Op-Ed: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘Dirty Dancing’ (#93)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judge whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre, I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
Dirty Dancing (1987) was partly based on the girlhood of screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein. It is most engaging when it is dealing with a youth who is maturing into womanhood and the nostalgia that adults in the 1980s had for the supposedly idyllic 1960s. It wants to be about a specific era in which adults were buttoned up and conservative while their children were being opened up to a sexual revolution which gave women more freedom and the prospect of escaping from their stuffy, middle-class backgrounds. All of this would have been perfectly nice and I could have smiled at a story told by a slightly older, wiser woman who is recognizing the fact that the one summer she spent at a Catskills resort was bittersweet but essential in her progression into adulthood. Unfortunately, it feels the need to weigh itself down with bland love interest and his career struggles, a mishandled abortion subplot that adds a vague air of pretension to the proceedings, and a couple of unbelievable plot contrivances. I can’t deny the fact that certain scenes have a visceral power to thrill and excite but Dirty Dancing doesn’t even approach reaching its full potential.
The film concerns teenager Frances “Baby” Houseman, Jennifer Grey, who travels with her wealthy parents to the Kellerman’s resort in the Catskills for a summer holiday. She meets professional dancer Johnny Castle, Patrick Swayze, and quickly falls for him but their budding attraction is threatened by his prostitution as he regularly sleeps with wealthy married women for money. When Castle’s friend Penny Johnson, Cynthia Rhodes, becomes pregnant and needs an abortion Houseman brings her doctor father Jake, Jerry Orbach, to help save her from dying of her botched abortion and he comes to believe that Castle impregnated Johnson. This makes Houseman’s affair with him illicit as the two both have other responsibilities and do not want their friends and family members to know about their bond. They break up after she reveals her relationship with him to save him from being fired but he ends up getting fired anyway and is so angered by this that he leaves. He later returns and the two dance together in front of all of the guests at the resort.
Houseman herself is a real problem as she feels like an adult’s idea of a teenager and not an insecure, awkward adolescent who is uncomfortable in her own skin. Grey was seen as slightly more kooky and offbeat, even though she was very beautiful than her Hollywood contemporaries because of her famous nose, and in casting her, the producers were seemingly trying to send the message that Houseman is ‘different’ to most girls. She is introduced to us as a sheltered little rich girl who is bewildered by the prospect of having to step away from the influence of her family. It doesn’t communicate either of these details in a very subtle manner and that was a real problem. Grey gives Houseman a whimpering, breathy voice that makes her sound like a baby and the way that she looks away whenever anybody directly stares at her, lets you know that she’s nervous and withdrawn. Her worries about having control over her own life are also handled poorly as we see her practically shaking every time she is asked to do something alone.
Her family members also feel like broad archetypes as her father is a wealthy businessman who talks about the ‘poors’ in a condescending manner and he seems to have little interest in actually listening to his daughter, he just wants her to fall into line. All of these little traits could have been developed further and the screenplay could have made original observations about the difficulties that fathers can have in connecting to their daughters. One way in which the film tries to flesh out his character is by touching on the fact that he is classist even though he faces prejudice himself as a Jew. The owner of the resort is a friend of his and that gives him a privileged position but anti-Semitism was still common in the United States during this period and we begin to wonder whether the Housemans would be ostracized at resorts that primarily cater to WASPs.
If the film dealt with the fear that Jews were still forced to feel, it might have been legitimately radical and it would have been uncomfortable to watch a man who has been built up as an all powerful patriarch being rendered helpless in the face of horrific racism. This would have displayed the fact that this prejudice impacted Jews in all socioeconomic positions and hammered home the message that while the 1960s were a time of increasing freedom for women, they were still an era in which a lot of groups were oppressed. Occasionally we hear discussions of Jewish identity and the importance that Max Kellerman, the owner of the resort, places on having Jewish guests but I kept feeling like this was an issue that the film could have explored in more depth.
I touch on a social issue because it feels like the film does want to target the sweeping changes that were occurring in America at this time. It tries to deal with the mistreatment of women through the abortion subplot but that gets sidelined at so many points and it feels like it is only in there to shock audiences. The film is far more interested in making Houseman look good because she supports Johnson throughout this ordeal and is brave when she goes to her father and gets him to handle her injuries. It also feels like the abortion is used as an excuse to turn Houseman’s romance with Castle into something forbidden. Before this point, their relationship is ‘dirty’ because he’s older than her, presents himself as a bad boy, serves as a gigolo and sees her as an innocent virgin who is too good for him. The abortion plot contrivance means that Houseman’s mean father suddenly wants to keep his daughter away from Castle because of a misunderstanding. We end up missing the ostensible point of this subplot and it becomes difficult to tolerate the creakiness of the plot mechanics.
The central romance itself is also an issue as it ends up feeling like a distraction from the coming of age tale that I had signed up for. Castle is pure fantasy as he is a gigolo with a heart of gold who melts for a meek lass who is curiously lacking in any vitality or ebullience. I must confess to not being attracted to Swayze, something about the shape of his face is off-putting, and that is what stops me from going all gooey when he appears on screen. I suspect that a lot of people who are attracted to him were able to overlook the fact that his performance is subpar and Castle is a collection of clichés. I get that the idea of a ‘dangerous’ older man is appealing to a lot of young girls because they seem so different to the immature, dopey boys who mill about in their high school and they are able to experiment with walking on the wild side by being with somebody who is engrained in a perilous lifestyle. I can understand this basic concept and the formula has worked in everything from classics of gothic literature to Taylor Swift pop songs but it doesn’t quite work here. I think I would have found Castle more interesting if the film itself hadn’t asked us to take Houseman’s perspective on him. She is innocent and you can see why she stares at him in awe and is amazed by his daring dance moves but I felt like we were also viewing this story through the eyes of her older self as she reminisces on the past. Surely her older self would be a woman who could see all of the ways in which Castle was a ne’er do well rather than seeing him as somebody to be idolized. If her affection for him had been mixed in with a bit of pity and shame over how besotted she was with him, it would have been easier to swallow all of the clichés.
In general, I wished that I had felt more of a sense of nostalgia and reflection throughout this film. Adult Houseman should have been more of a presence in the room and the contrast between the perspective of her adult self and her youthful self could have been juxtaposed in order to comment on the way that your adolescence will always loom large in your mind. I didn’t want wall to wall voice-over narration in which Jessica Tandy took on the role of the older Houseman but if the screenplay could have subtly conveyed the fact that this story was told through older Houseman’s eyes it would have added whole new dimensions to a tale that has been told many times.
Where I felt that the story did work was in the brief snatches in which Houseman and Castle train for their final dance together and in the performance itself. We get a fairly lengthy training montage, a quintessential element of any 1980s hit, in which we see the two leads trying their hardest to pull of the big move. That infamous lift has been parodied many times and we all like imagining how horrible it would be if our partner dropped us on the floor and we landed headfirst. Dirty Dancing is smart enough not to treat the dance with grave seriousness and Houseman can laugh and blush as she tiptoes along the top of a log. There is real energy in these scenes as Swayze, a highly skilled dancer seems far more comfortable showing off his hoofing skills than delivering dialogue, and Grey displays a freshness that is absent in other scenes. Their excitement is infectious and when they dip into the water the film even becomes rather erotic. Suddenly you are immersed in the location as you can feel the buzz that people experience at the end of a long day in which they feel that they have accomplished something and have all the energy in the world as they push ahead in achieving their ultimate goal. When they are waist-deep in the water of the river and appear to be all alone, you can’t help but crave the intimacy that they are experiencing in this moment. They are surrounded by wooded hills and grass lawns but there isn’t the fear of being caught by your parents or being judged for getting too close. They could do whatever they want and that is a tantalizing prospect. As I describe this, it all sounds terribly cheesy and unexceptional but the film does work its magic on you in these few minutes.
The final dance is so much better than anything else in the film and I suspect that it is what turned this into a global phenomenon. There is a similar crackling energy in this scene as there are no longer any boundaries when it comes to what they can do and they are also acting like exhibitionists at this point as Houseman is deliberately throwing her naughtiness in her parents’ face. The song “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” was a huge hit and you can see why it received so much radio airplay in 1987, it’s catchy and it reflects the general tone of the film. It actually manages to communicate more than the script and the first two acts of the film as it adopts a wistful tone and is all about somebody who knows they have experienced something wonderful but is already regretting the fact that they have moved beyond that point in time. On one level, it is about sex and the desire that the characters feel but it is also about the way that euphoric bliss can fade and nostalgia can take its place. There is something painful about the fact that none of us can just live in the moment as we all know that happiness can’t last and you don’t know how you will remember these fleeting moments of joy in the future. This dance is one of those experiences that adult Houseman would treasure as it was a time when she proved that she was independent and didn’t need to follow her father’s orders.
The use of locations is another virtue that Dirty Dancing has on its side as you do come to feel at home in the resort and regret the fact that establishments like this disappeared. There is a hominess to the wood-paneled walls and the small rooms that force families to stay in close quarters. This resort straddles the line between being luxurious and having a ramshackle charm and you start to realize that it has degraded in quality over the years. Houseman becomes more familiar with the little nooks and crannies in the location as time goes on and we start to feel affection for the little meadows that she dances in or the room in which the waiters are instructed on how to treat their clients. This is a sprawling establishment and there are also opportunities for the randy, carefree teens to make a getaway and head out to the woods where their parents can’t track them down. A vague feeling of rebellion is in the air but there is also a warmth to the resort that insists that everybody has to reconcile with their family members at the end of the summer and have a conversation with their mother that will leave them in tears. I kind of wanted to visit Kellerman’s and I don’t often say that about locations in movies.
This relationship has to end with the two of them breaking up as they can’t possibly stay together. She will end up going to a fancy university and will probably become a respected author or a Greenpeace activist. I suspect that Castle will continue to be a ne’er do well and when his looks fade he will find it more difficult to endear himself to rich women. He might end up settling down as a janitor at the resort and he’ll live out his days happily but I think Houseman has more potential than he does. She will fondly recall him as her first love but then move on to a rich older man who vaguely resembles her father and they will have a marriage that resembles a business arrangement more than a loving relationship. You can predict their futures as you watch this film and maybe that is a sign that the characters are better written than I thought they were.
So, should Dirty Dancing have made the list? I can’t say that it should have. As explained, it has its virtues but those are not enough to overcome the major shortcomings. There is a pretty good movie buried in here but the director was more concerned with getting gratuitous shots of a half-naked Swayze than capturing the protagonist pondering the options that have been laid out in front of her. I preferred it as a coming of age tale and when it tried to become an erotic drama, I became a little bit bored. Swayze doesn’t do nearly enough to support the idea that he is a real romantic lead and his weaknesses as an actor are on full show here. I am surprised that it was ranked so low because it enjoys a reputation as one of the unimpeachable classics of the 1980s. Sure, it’s campy, and serious film aficionados turn their noses up at it but AFI voters were into the dross that was Love Story (1970) so they aren’t above rewarding trashy but popular entertainment. Maybe it ranked so low because it was too recent to fully enter into the echelon of the greats but I feel like it would have cracked the top 50 if this list had been compiled more recently.