“One of a handful of crowd-pleasing flicks that are seemingly impervious to criticism…and while those just stumbling upon the film today without being wrapped up in the warm glow of nostalgia may end up wondering what all the fuss was about, taken on its own terms, 'Dirty Dancing' is still an immensely likable (if terribly clichéd) tale of first love.”
- Peter Bracke
Can it really be 30 years since the late Patrick Swayze and now virtually unrecognizable, Jennifer Grey took to the mambo in Emile Ardolino’s Dirty Dancing (1987)? Okay, now I feel old, having been a part of the original theatrical experience that absolutely mesmerized and dazzled an opening night audience; Swayze’s breakout role as the tight-fitted greaser with the proverbial heart of gold, Johnny Castle bringing Grey’s wall-flowered ingénue, Baby Houseman to her sexual prime with the now, iconic line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” still ringing in my ears. A minor programmer from then fledgling – and now defunct – Vestron Pictures, Dirty Dancing became an iconic part of the puff pastry, eighties pastiche for ‘feel good’ fluff Hollywood today has completely forgotten how to make. More shocking, at least then, the picture made dancing permissible again for men – the sissifying of the art ever since Gene Kelly hung up his taps, brought to a full-throttle, pulsating sexual throb by the sight of a shirtless Swayze, up to his rippling waistline in decidedly frigid lake water, hoisting Grey overhead to teach Baby the proper balance during a dance lift. Swayze, classically trained as a dancer in his teens at his mother’s studio, regrettably, never fulfilled his dream to costar with his wife in a ‘Fred and Ginger’-esque musical of his own. Regardless, he is forever etched into our movie-land culture as the epitome of this sinewy hunk du jour. It helped that, two years earlier, the actor had played a pivotal part in one of television’s seminal mini-series; North and South, reprising the role of soft-spoken southern gentleman, Orry Main in the second installment of the franchise, on TV just before Dirty Dancing debuted. And Swayze, for all his tough-as-nails posturing and dark sun-glasses male machismo at the beginning of Dirty Dancing (my favorite line of his, actually directed at Max Cantor’s scummy waiter, Robbie Gould: “You just put your pickle on everybody's plate, college boy, and leave the hard stuff to me.”), cannot help but to remain the grandee of old school manly finesse: a sort of homespun toughness, as infectious and even more rarefied in movie studs from any vintage, though particularly, the eighties.
Dirty Dancing really is Patrick Swayze’s show; marvelous too for its Svengali-esque re-conceiving of Grey’s awkward and gawky ugly duckling with a Toucan Sam profile, miraculously transformed into a graceful swan in Johnny’s eyes, and, of course, through his expert tutelage in the bedroom and on the dance floor. Swayze and Grey possess that elusive spark of on-screen chemistry; as intangible as it is essential to make all the quirky comedy in Eleanor Bergstein’s screenplay click. Bergstein based the story largely on her own childhood as the younger sibling in a Jewish family whose doctor/father preferred to vacation in the Catskills. Ever since the ‘erotic’ dance sequence she had scripted for 1980’s It’s My Turn had been left on the cutting room floor, Bergstein had become hell-bent on doing a ‘dance’ movie. Four years later, with success, she pitched the idea to MGM’s Eileen Miselle and producer, Linda Gottlieb; basing Baby’s character on herself and modeling Johnny Castle on Catskill’s dance instructor, Michael Terrace (on whom Bergstein herself had had a crush). For inspiration, Bergstein handpicked choreographer, Kenny Ortega, a disciple of Gene Kelly. As the Catskills had long since ceased to be a favorite retreat for affluent vacationers, Lake Lure, North Carolina and the Mountain Lake Hotel near Roanoke, Virginia were substituted as locations.
By now, Dirty Dancing’s featherweight plot should be predigested and regurgitated as part of North America’s cultural DNA; the summer of ’63 transformed into an idyllic coming of age story about seventeen year old Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman (Jennifer Grey); the favorite daughter of dad, Dr. Jake Houseman (Jerry Orbach) and by far the most introspective and forgiving of this family brood. Baby is vacationing at the fashionable Catskill’s resort, Kellerman’s; its avuncular owner/host, Max (Jack Weston) a close friend of her father’s. Baby’s distant plans include attending college in the Fall to study economics. Her more immediate plans…well. She’s bored and disillusioned, and, truth be told, a wee sexually frustrated too. Her life has not exactly been enriched by her family’s affluence; her superficially prettier elder sister, Lisa (Jane Brucker) more interested in preening and teasing her hair than expanding her mind.
Max rather hopes to inveigle Baby in a summer romance with his goofy-looking son, Neil (Lonny Price) whom he is grooming to take over the family business. Instead, Baby develops an almost immediate crush on the resort’s butch dance instructor, Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), leader of the proletariat entertainment staff. Housed in a crooked line of squalid shacks on an adjacent properly, Johnny and his brood are generally frowned upon by Max as a ‘necessary evil’ to keep the middle-aged female clientele ‘happy’ – a word of varied meaning. Bored by the pre-arranged ‘event coordinated’ pabulum meant to amuse guests, Baby wanders off in the woods at dusk, encountering Johnny’s cousin, Billy Kostecki (Neil Jones). Offering to help him tote a pair of weighty watermelons to the staff quarters, Baby is introduced to the real life of this party; a bump and grind to the primal beats of rock n’ roll. Johnny is not amused, but he does give Baby her first lesson: dance as sweat-soaked/straight-up sex with their clothes on. Baby is mildly embarrassed and withdraws from the all-night bender, but later, discovering Johnny’s jaded dance partner, Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes), pregnant by Kellerman’s waiter, Robbie Gould (Max Cantor), magnanimously offers to get the necessary funds to help them both out of this very sticky situation.
Fearing his parental judgment, but knowing her cache as ‘daddy’s little girl’ will get her what she wants, Baby does not tell Jake for what the money is to be used. The more prescient problem: what to do about Johnny and Penny’s prearranged professional engagement at the nearby Sheldrake Hotel. To forfeit the money is not an option. So, with time running out, Baby suggests she might substitute as Johnny’s partner. Penny is game and Johnny very reluctantly agrees. Although Baby proves an extremely awkward pupil, she nevertheless invests everything into learning the necessary dance steps to perform the mambo. In the meantime, Billy agrees to take Penny for her abortion and look after her until Johnny and Baby return. Fate intervenes. Setting aside her anxiety, Baby takes notice of an elderly couple, the Schumachers (Alvin Myerovich and Paula Trueman): guests of Kellerman’s, curiously found their way to the Sheldrake. Returning to Kellerman’s after midnight, Johnny is informed by Billy that Penny’s backroom abortion was badly bungled. She is feverish and hemorrhaging. While everyone begins to panic, Baby rushes back to her suite, awakening Jake in the middle of the night. His medical expertise saves Penny’s life. Alas, he has mistakenly assumed Johnny to be the father, and furthermore, has lost all faith in Baby’s ability to make sound judgment calls. Vowing to keep the entire evening a secret from his wife, Jake plans to leave Kellerman’s immediately. But Lisa dissuades her father from this hasty departure because of her insidious desire to be the center of attention at the hotel’s planned ‘talent’ competition.
Embarrassed by Jake’s prejudice, Baby returns to Johnny’s cabin to apologize. Penny is grateful for her intervention, however, and Johnny has already begun to recognize her courage. Moreover, he has fallen in love with Baby. The two engage in a dance that segues into passionate love-making. Knowing Robbie was responsible for Penny’s pregnancy, and moreover, he is infamous for whoring around with the middle-aged female clientele at the hotel, Baby does everything she can to dissuade Lisa from ‘going all the way’ with him. Assuming Baby is merely jealous, not only of her ‘friendship’ with Robbie but also of the fact she has suddenly become ‘daddy’s favorite girl’, Lisa scoffs at Baby’s suggestion. Against Jake’s direct orders Baby continues to see Johnny on the sly, but sheepishly pulls him aside when she sees her father approaching. Believing Baby to be like all the rest, ashamed to ‘go slumming’ but just as readily hypocritical to use him, Johnny and Baby have their first argument. Having witnessed their tiff, Robbie confronts Johnny. The men scuffle and Johnny knocks Robbie to the ground.
Not long thereafter, one of Kellerman’s notorious ‘bungalow bunnies’, wealthy middle-aged viper, Vivian Pressman (Miranda Garrison) attempts to engage Johnny for a ‘private lesson’ – code for an afterhours sexual rendezvous. Reformed by Baby’s love, Johnny turns Vivien down. So she indiscriminately takes Robbie to bed instead (after all, any young stud will do); a scene accidentally witnessed by Lisa who has skulked off to throw herself at Robbie’s head, erroneously believing she has found true love. Alas, when Vivien leaves Robbie’s cabin at dawn she also witnesses Baby departing Johnny’s room. Not long thereafter Max and Neil reveal to the Housemans Moe Pressman’s (Garry Goodrow) wallet is stolen while he was playing poker with a few of the other guests. Driven by jealousy, Vivien accuses Johnny of the crime. As a few of the more well-heeled patrons at Kellerman’s have recently discovered their moneys and other valuables gone missing, Max, along with Neil, too keen to assume the worst about Johnny, immediately dismiss him. To spare Johnny his job, and unaware her confession will nevertheless result in his dismissal for ‘other reasons’, Baby confesses in front of the Kellermans and her own family Johnny could not have stolen Moe’s wallet because at the time of the crime she was with him in his bungalow and remained there all night.
Although Johnny is exonerated after the Schumachers are exposed as a pair of pro con artists, he is nevertheless dismissed from the hotel for this ‘fraternizing’ affair. At the end-of-season talent show, Jake is more disillusioned than ever. He cannot forgive Baby her indiscretion. Unaware of Robbie’s indiscretions, Jake offers to give the boy an endorsement for medical school. Believing Jake already knows the truth about him from either Lisa or Baby, Robbie now casually confesses to having impregnated Penny. Thoroughly insulted, Jake withdraws his offer in disgust. Despite having been ordered off the property, Johnny suddenly appears at the Houseman’s table. He challenges Jake’s classicism and liberates Baby from her corner seat, taking center stage to perform the closing ‘dance’ against the Kellerman’s objections. Sensing the couple’s infectious romance, the auditorium erupts into thunderous applause as patrons – young and old - decide to partake of this eclectic dance explosion. Jake accepts Johnny as Baby’s boyfriend; the couple’s future uncertain as everyone enjoys one final spin around the dance floor.
It all looked good – on paper – except that a management shakeup at the perennially flailing MGM forced the project into turnaround. Free to shop her script elsewhere, Bergstein was soon to discover zero takers on the outside, except for the fledgling Vestron Pictures. In a series of ‘firsts’; Dirty Dancing would be Vestron’s entre into picture-making and herald the debut of its director, Emile Ardolino, who had never made a feature before, but had won an Oscar for 1983’s documentary, He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’. At a time when the average feature cost $12 million, Dirty Dancing’s paltry $5 million budget seemed like a safe investment to Vestron’s President Jon Peisinger; not enough to sink the newly amalgamated studio if the picture flopped, and just enough to lend credence to a possible sleeper hit, should Bergstein’s hunch play itself out. Casting Dirty Dancing proved a minor ordeal as Ardolino was adamant about filling the two leads with dancers who could act, rather than actors who could learn to dance, or worse, flat-foots requiring a double, lit in half shadow, to conceal the switch. Jennifer Grey was first to be cast. An experienced dancer and the daughter of 1972’s Cabaret gris eminence, Joel Grey; her hiring created a minor difficulty when Ardolino announced his decision to costar Patrick Swayze. Swayze and Grey had not gotten on during the filming of Red Dawn (1984). And actually, Billy Zane had already tested for Johnny Castle, proving the right ‘type’ – physically, but quite unable to keep up with the more vigorous dance moves during his audition.
Reluctantly, Grey agreed to ‘test’ with Swayze; the pair amicably finding their détente on the dance floor in an audition Bergstein would later describe as ‘breathtaking’. While Gottlieb and Bergstein were over-the-moon to hire Swayze, he received minor opposition from his well-intentioned agent who advised him not to accept the part. Swayze, however, loved the role and vetoed his agent. Of the various other casting choices, only two would remain a constant during Dirty Dancing’s preliminary phase: Broadway actor, Jerry Orbach (who had made himself familiar to TV audiences with a reoccurring character part on Murder She Wrote) and Jane Brucker (as Baby’s vacuous elder sister, Lisa). Bergstein’s initial plan to hire close friend and sex therapist, Dr. Ruth Westheimer to play Mrs. Schumacher fell through when Westheimer learned her character was a kleptomaniac (Paula Trueman eventually filling the role). Bergstein was also to recast the part of Kellerman’s social director, Stan with Wayne Knight, and Mrs. Houseman with Kelly Bishop, after the original actress signed for this latter role, Lynne Lipton suddenly fell ill and was forced to withdraw. As Bishop had already been hired to play Kellerman’s resident oversexed rich bitch, Vivian Pressman, Bergstein coaxed Dirty Dancing’s assistant choreographer, Miranda Garrison to accept this part in her stead.
To suggest Dirty Dancing’s shooting schedule was tight is an understatement; two weeks of rehearsals followed by a mere 44 days of principle photography, with cast and crew sequestered at the Mountain Lake Lodge and Lake Lure Inn and Spa. Shot after Labor Day, 1986, cast and crew were exposed to some inhospitable weather; staggering 105 °F heat, stifling humidity and impromptu showers. As temperatures soared, casualties were incurred; fainting spells and bouts of dehydration. The production was also delayed when Patrick Swayze, having repeatedly tumbled while performing the ‘balancing scene’ on a log, suffered a knee injury that required immediate hospitalization. As the shoot moved into late autumn, Ardolino and his set designers were forced to spray-paint the turning foliage green; the unpredictable temperatures toggling from stifling heat to just above freezing. While crew were shielded from these radically fluctuating conditions, allowed to wear whatever clothes they required to keep warm, Swayze and Grey were forced to strip down to light summer attire in order to perform their now iconic ‘lake rehearsal’ scene. Inspiring a sense of community as well as friendship, Bergstein encouraged fraternizing on the set; the line between actors and the characters they were playing, effectively blurred when after work gatherings turned into off-the-cuff disco parties, both dancers and non-dancers honing their terpsichorean skills in a spirit of playfully erotic interaction. Alas, Swayze and Grey were to reestablish their old mutual animosity as production wore on; Bergstein forcing them to re-watch their screen test to regain that aura of ‘positive’ chemistry for their love scenes. Despite these delays, Ardolino wrapped his movie on Oct. 27th, on-time and on-budget.
Interestingly, the director’s rough assembly and sneak peek impressed no one; not even Ardolino and certainly not Vestron’s executives, who believed they had a formidable turkey on their hands. Almost half of the test audience failed to grasp the movie’s abortion subplot, while producer, Aaron Russo is rumored to have sarcastically suggested to Vestron exec, Mitchell Cannold “Burn the negative, and collect the insurance.” Instead, Vestron began shopping the film for a sponsor. Acne cream manufacturer, Clearasil offered a tie-in until they learned of the abortion subplot. As Bergstein unequivocally refused to cut this out to satisfy the sponsorship, Clearasil withdrew, leaving Vestron to promote Dirty Dancing alone. As Vestron was primarily a video distributor, the plan now was to quickly premiere the picture for a weekend and then quietly pull it from circulation with a direct-to-video release shortly thereafter. Given the initial reaction from Vestron, Gottlieb’s sentiments and level of expectation ebbed low as the official premiere on August 16, 1987 fast approached. With heavy hearts, Vestron, Ardolino and the rest of the cast and crew prepared to accept their raspberries in public. Ironically, they had absolutely nothing to fear. Audiences fell in love with the picture almost instantly, Dirty Dancing doing repeat business, with word-of-mouth catapulting the box office into the stratosphere; $170 million worldwide, making it one of the highest grossing movies of 1987.
Fueled by its pop-chart topping soundtrack, that not only included the Jennifer Warnes/Bill Medley crowd-pleaser, ‘The Time of My Life’ (weirdly, the third most popular song to be played at funerals forever after?!?) but also Swayze’s singing debut, ‘She’s Like the Wind’, Dirty Dancing’s dreaded Hiroshima-sized implosion with audiences never happened. The critics were more or less forgiving, their reviews ping-ponging from over-the-moon ebullience (The New York Times called in “a metaphor for America in the summer of ’63 – orderly, prosperous, bursting with good intentions; a sort of Yiddish-inflected Camelot”) to downright insidious and scathing (Chicago’s Roger Ebert eviscerating the “idiot plot” as “tired and relentlessly predictable.”). And Dirty Dancing would continue to break records: the first VHS cassette to sell a million copies at a rate of approximately 40,000 a month. As of 2005, in its various home video incarnations, Dirty Dancing continues to sell roughly a million copies per annum, listed in Britain's Sky Movies as the #1 most-watched video of all time; well beyond figures touted for the Star Wars trilogy, Grease, The Sound of Music, and Pretty Woman.
Good press and clever marketing can greatly enhance a picture’s reputation. But not all movies are worthy of the hype. Some calculably survive it. Placed in its proper context, Dirty Dancing remains a modest and enjoyable programmer, elevated in status by Patrick Swayze’s reputation that would continue to soar and acquire even more cache in the intervening decades as an amiable and very popular leading man. Above all else, Swayze had personality plus to recommend him; and class too. It goes a long, long way. He left us much too early; dead of pancreatic cancer at the age of 57. In viewing the picture again, it speaks to his incredible vitality as both a dancer and a true artist whose acting style was as unaffected, natural and well-meant as the man himself. Emile Ardolino, who only directed a handful of movies, among them, Chances Are (1989) and Sister Act (1992) would never scale such heights again. Spun off into a tragically underwhelming TV series in 1988 (that lasted only 11 episodes) and a rather unprepossessing prequel, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (released in 2004 but set in 1958), like most any example one would care to ascribe, it’s the original that counts here. Dirty Dancing remains a cultural touchstone from the whack-tac-u-lar eighties; a decade fraught with fun and fabulous ‘feel good’ flicks that made one glad to be alive and optimistic about the future. Viewed from our present day dystopian movie culture, Dirty Dancing is still exuberant, energetic and amply endowed entertainment, with good solid talent working both in front of and behind the camera.
Perhaps it’s time to have the time of one’s life all over again. Ah…not quite. Certainly, Lionsgate Home Video thinks as much – or as little – with this 30th anniversary re-re-re-reissue. Dirty Dancing has to be one of the most obscenely milkable sacred cows in the home video industry with multiple reissues to make even the likes of Disney Inc. blush. We could almost jump for joy, except Lionsgate has done absolutely nothing to update the tired and sincerely flawed 2010 1080p transfer, still sporting thick and rather unnatural grain that sporadically appears more digitized than indigenous to its source. Colors tend to clot, or rather, look muddy and inconsistent. Daytime photography yields some impressive fine detail, but Jeffrey Jurs’ moodily lit interiors are bland and boring; flesh tones pasty and pinkish; the whole image wanting for that colorful oomph it ought to have. Increasingly I am impatient with video-mastering companies recycling old transfers with new swag as their only supposed selling feature; that, and the fact the old Vestron Pictures logo remains lopped off at the start of the movie. If it’s a rights issue, get the rights! Period! We do get a new 7.1 DTS soundtrack, adding new life to these time-honored classic rock tunes interpolated throughout. But dialogue still sounds tinny and frontal by comparison.
Okay, we get a newly produced 30-minute retrospective with Bergstein and original cast members, Bonnie Timmerman, Miranda Garrison, Doriana Sanchez, Jesus Fuentes, Jane Brucker, Kelly Bishop and some of the Broadway musical revival’s cast weighing in on the ‘timeless’ magic of the original. There’s also 90 minutes of archival interviews with Patrick Swayze, Bergstein, Jennifer Grey, and, choreographer, Kenny Ortega, who was rumored to be first in line to direct a remake that, mercifully, has since fallen by the waste side. Two optional commentaries enlighten further: Bergstein’s the better of the two; the other, misguidedly fluffy and featuring Ortega, Garrison, Jur and Production Designer David Chapman and Costume Designer Hilary Rosenfeld. None of the aforementioned really goes beyond the self-congratulatory gushing phase in their praise of the movie. Nearly two-dozen deleted, extended or alternate scenes, some screen tests, and, three horrendously tacky music videos pad out the extras. Monumentally disappointing, the old tributes to Swayze and Jerry Orbach have been excised; also, the rather silly, but fun ‘trivia track’. The Limited Edition Collector’s Set delves deeply into some A-list swag; including a rather handsomely produced set of ‘lobby cards’; a fake map to Kellerman’s resort, a ‘Do Not Disturb’ door tag and hall key, a poster reproduction and ‘Arthur Murray-esque dance map to illustrate how to do the mambo. I like swag, but not at the expense of a properly remastered hi-def transfer. Bling is bling – not the thing to make me want to double dip for this pointless reissue. If you already own Dirty Dancing on Blu-ray steer clear of this set.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)