to make a grown woman melt? Mention this movie.
It works on so many levels: as an
allegory about growing up, as a song and dance movie, as a love story.
And Patrick Swayze as Johnny? All muscle and sparkling eyes and
tough-but-tender sneer? Say it with me: “Nobody puts Baby in a corner!”
This 1987 film follows Frances “Baby” Houseman
during a pivotal summer in the 1960s. Baby and her family go to the
Catskills for the summer, staying at a resort that caters to wealthy
families like hers.
staff is viewed as “hired help,” a lower class of people who exist to
serve the wealthy vacationers. The standouts are Johnny and Penny (tough
and beautiful, as played by Cynthia Rhodes). Johnny and Penny were an
item when they were younger, and now they work as dance instructors at
the resort, teaching the fox trot to vacationers.
Penny gets pregnant (not by Johnny) and Baby helps fund her abortion.
While Penny is out “sick,” Baby takes her place.
That’s the basic outline, but how Baby goes from the outsider to an
integral part of this resort-employee culture is a major crux of the
film. So much happens to her, and Grey makes all the changes entirely
plausible. She gains a new perspective on class distinctions, matures,
and falls in love. It’s a lot for one summer, let alone one movie, but
Dirty Dancing (directed by Emile Ardolino and written by
Eleanor Bergstein) completely pulls the viewer in (well, this viewer,
anyway) and brings her along for the ride.
There’s a whole underside to the dance-instructor world at this resort,
and it’s one that beautifully aligns with the change that’s taking place
in Baby. While the vacationers see fox trots and instructors who flirt
chastely with elderly guests, Baby sees the “dirty dancing” that goes on
after hours. The sexually charged dance parties come to represent Baby’s
budding sexuality in a way that perfectly captures the simultaneous
fascination and repulsion that many young adults feel.
The relationship between Baby and her father (played by Jerry Orbach) is
nicely nuanced, as well. He’s a big-shot doctor who spent time in the
Peace Corps—a man who has a definite social conscience but isn’t sure
how he feels about his own “Baby” girl rubbing shoulders (and more) with
the hired help.
then there’s the music and the dancing. The dancing! It’s exuberant and
sexy. Swayze with his shirt off, Baby crawling over to kiss him—man oh
man it’s good stuff. Swayze was the rare actor who was a dancer first
and an actor later, and impressively talented at both.
The postscript to the film, which no one could have foreseen, will only
serve to sharpen its legend. Swayze died way too soon in 2009 (he was
57). And shortly after that, Jennifer Grey won it all on Dancing
with the Stars. It was a sweet tribute, with lines between
Hollywood and reality blurring. Grey had an outstanding dance partner on
the show (the adorable Derek Hough), but we all know who really
taught Baby how to dance.