I grew up attending the Churches of Christ - a conservative evangelical Christian sect most know for our aversion to instrumental music and, like John Lithgow’s minister in Footloose, our declarations against pre-marital dancing. While watching Dirty Dancing on the big screen for its 30th anniversary care of Fathom Events, my wife turned to me and said, “this is why we couldn’t go to dances.” It's true the film is filled with, as its name suggests, plenty of dirty, sensual, sexy dancing that would put prurient thoughts into the most wholesome of minds.
Made on a tiny budget of $5 million by the relatively new Vestry Pictures, Dirty Dancing featured mostly unknown actors (Jerry Orbach was a star on Broadway but not widely known to national audiences). Nobody expected it to do very well at all. It became one of the highest grossing films of 1987 earning $217 million worldwide. Its soundtrack sold 32 million copies and created an oldies music revival. The films leads, Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, became international stars.
Before watching it, my wife and I discussed whether or not we had actually seen it before. She thought she’d probably not been allowed to by her own conservative Church of Christ parents, and I had vague memories of having a "taped off the TV" VHS recording of it, but wasn’t sure I’d actually sat through the entire thing. Both of us recalls seeing a great many scenes from the film over the years and knew the soundtrack well.
That’s really the type of movie Dirty Dancing is: memorable for a handful of scenes and a great many songs, but not so much for its entirety. Jennifer Grey plays “Baby” Houseman, a 17-year-old girl vacationing with her rich family at a fancy resort in the Catskills in 1963. She’s quickly bored with its collection of old people playing old-people games and its snobby waiters constantly hitting on her. Taking a walk one evening, she encounters a wild dance party being held by the resort's underclass staff. She’s given an impromptu dance lesson from Johnny (Patrick Swayze) and from that she keeps coming back night after night. When she learns that Johnny’s dance partner Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) needs an abortion, Baby begs her daddy for the money to do it. When that operation goes poorly and Penny can no longer dance, Baby offers to be Johnny’s partner at an upcoming gig. Beautiful montages filled with Johnny teaching Baby to dance and lots of early R&B classics ensue.
Honestly, the plot is pretty hackneyed. It's the "classic boy and girl from completely different backgrounds fall in love and must overcome various odds to stay together" story that’s been told a million times before. It's often been told better as well. But it's not the story that’s made Dirty Dancing a much-beloved classic for three decades; it's the energy of the film, the music, the two beautiful leads, and yes, the dancing. Director Emile Ardolino, whose only previous directorial work was a documentary about ballet dancer Jacques d'Amboise, films the many dance sequences with an energy and sensuality that fills the screen. Many of the scenes were improvisational and that energy shines through in places like when Grey laughs through multiple takes as Swayze lightly moves his hand across her body.
Grey and Swayze are a joy to watch on screen. Apparently they had a rough time off screen, but on it, they simply sizzle with chemistry. The dialogue is often cheesy, but somehow it works. When Johnny approaches Baby towards the end of the film and utters the now-famous “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” my screening erupted with cheers. As a bit of a sidebar, my fuzzy memory of the film remembered that line but for some reason I thought Baby was Swayze’s character’s name and that he said the line when being backed into a difficult situation. In reality, he says it to Jennifer Grey’s character, who is called "Baby" and is literally sitting in a corner. Such is the silliness of this film, yet again it somehow works.
Dirty Dancing isn’t a good film by any critical evaluation. Its plot is overdone; its dialogue often corny. Swayze and Grey perform as well as they can, but this isn’t Shakespeare. Yet despite all that, it's an incredibly fun and endearing film. There is a running joke that the film made all of its money from 14-year-old girls who saw it again and again. Well, I’m not a girl and I watched it for the first time at the ripe age of 41 and I really rather loved it. In these dark times, a cheesy, silly little film filled with great songs and crazy sexy dancing is just what we need.
In front of my viewing there was a nice short documentary feature about the making of the film featuring many of the behind-the-scenes players (sadly, Jennifer Grey did not show up and both Patrick Swayze and Jerry Orbach are dead). I suspect that will show up in the upcoming anniversary Blu-ray and it was well worth watching.
Dirty Dancing will show again in theaters this coming Tuesday. Check Fathom Evens website for more details.