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Movie Review: Celebrating 30 Years of Dirty Dancing

Looking at an 80s movie with an eye toward revolution.

By Sean PatrickPublished 7 years ago 8 min read
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“It’s nothing, Marjorie, go back to sleep.”

As I watched Dirty Dancing for the first time in several years, this seemingly throwaway line from Jerry Orbach to Kelly Bishop, as the parents of Jennifer Grey’s Frances “Baby” Houseman, struck me. Orbach's Jake, a wealthy doctor, has just returned to his bungalow at this Catskills Hotel after having given treatment to Cynthia Rhodes’ Penny who has just undergone what at the time was referred to as a back-alley abortion. This was after she’d been knocked up by Robbie, a selfish snob doing time to raise money he doesn’t need for his Ivy League education.

The line struck me because of the way in which it spoke volumes in just six words. Here was past and future colliding; generational values only beginning to be challenged and two symbols of the supposed Greatest Generation, one in denial urging the other two go back to sleep and pretend time isn’t passing them and their values by. Seven years after when Dirty Dancing is set, Roe v. Wade would give women their first victory in reclaiming their bodies and their decisions from the white male patriarchy.

I realize that a review of Dirty Dancing is not the most likely place for a discussion of issues like abortion but that’s what makes this seeming trifle of 80s nostalgia so powerful, in of all places, the Reagan Era, when it seemed as if the Eisenhower, 50s family values crowd was making comeback after having defeated the hippies while getting millions of people killed to reclaim their supposed family values, here is Dirty Dancing, a musical with this innocent, almost Disney-esque sheen to it, to remind us what so many people had fought and died for. Change.

This theme of how the times they are a changing plays as the Greek Chorus of Dirty Dancing, always popping up in the background, playing peek-a-boo behind the graceful coming of age love story between Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze’s electrifying Johnny Castle, a man who looks like he just walked off the poster of some bad seed, Hayes Code era, motorcycle picture. Keeping with the theme, Baby is the idealistic innocent swept up in the change that people like Johnny are busy bringing about.

I’m not going to try to convince you that Dirty Dancing is some underappreciated work of art; in many ways, the film is as light and feathery as its reputation. That said, director Emile Ardolino’s work is brave and bold regardless of the many feathers. As a theater veteran, Ardolino was a perfect choice to direct Dirty Dancing. His combination of theatrical dance clashes with the very nature of cinematic presentation and while some might cite that as a sign of awkwardness, I find it in keeping with the film’s theme of the clashing of values and generations.

Emile Ardolino was a gay man who died of AIDS a mere five years after the triumph of Dirty Dancing which managed to become a monster blockbuster despite its grown-up, sexed up scenes and the heavy duty use of metaphor to capture how things changed so quickly from 1963 to 1987 and the seeming return of the values that people like Baby and Johnny fought so hard to disrupt and change to make room for more than just old white men and the wives and families they carried like luggage to be packed and unpacked at their leisure.

Ardolino’s life was a symbol of change despite its tragic ending. And yet, his contribution has been lost over the years, papered over by people eager to focus on the light-hearted fun of Dirty Dancing and unfortunately, unintentionally, overshadowed by the film’s two incredible lead performers. Ardolino has been sadly overlooked in the history of Dirty Dancing, at least among its large cult of fans who could likely tell you the name of the actor who played Johnny’s cousin but not the name of the man who made the film they love come together.

Emile Ardolino’s direction of Dirty Dancing reminded me of that of another overlooked and underappreciated theater trained director of a 1987 classic, Luis Valdez, who, like Ardolino, used his background in the theater to reshape the presentation of the film story in La Bamba. Just as Valdez used the theatrical performance of Esai Morales as a cinematic counterpoint to Lou Diamond Phillips' more traditional movie performance, Ardolino uses the art of musical theater to break the down the barriers between the film and the stage and the clash of styles is as breathtaking here as it was in La Bamba.

Just as Johnny and Baby and their generation are battering the gates of power, oppression, division, and class, Ardolino is battering the gates of cinematic presentation. Notice the way he uses modern music in Dirty Dancing. A cynic would say he’s simply attempting to create a hit music soundtrack and I can’t pretend that isn’t part of the thought process but look closer. When you hear The Pointer Sisters, or you hear Patrick Swayze’s one hit wonder "She’s Like the Wind," notice the way they are used in the scene. Especially watch the ending with the massive pop hit "I’ve Had the Time of My Life," it’s a showstopper straight off the boards of Broadway.

Listen to "She’s Like the Wind." I can’t defend it as a pop song of great style but as a song in a musical, it indulges in deep, glorious melodramatic imagery that, if presented on the stage in all of its earnest glory, you wouldn’t bat an eye, other than to maybe wipe away a tear. Ardolino here, in my eyes, breaks the fourth wall with intent, he brings the past into the present, changes the context of his characters for a moment, thrusts them into our time, deepens our connection to them before winding back into the world and the time of the movie.

Look at all of the use of music in Dirty Dancing. Watch the way the dusty tangos and waltzes and pachangas stumble their way into history while the heart of rock n’soul embodied by Otis Redding’s "Love Man" boogies onto the screen, sweaty, thrusting, sensual, the pure embodiment of the rhythm and blues that is the core of the rock revolution of the 1960s. That "Love Man" happened to have come out in 1967, four years after the time period of the film, is something that the pedantic might call a mistake. I, however, see it as further evidence of the future bleeding into the past and helping to compel these characters into the tumultuous revolutionary period to come.

Dirty Dancing defeated all of my defenses on this re-watch. I kept trying to find fault in the film. My critical brain kept trying to remind me that this is Dirty Dancing, that movie that little girls loved because Patrick Swayze was so cute. I reminded myself that the movie stars Patrick Swayze, the guy from Roadhouse and Ghost, who I and many others have made a mockery of for so many years. I fought the movie as much as I could but in the end, my heart pulled my mind aside and gave it a good talking to.

It was my heart that convinced me to look closer at this piffle of a movie and consider it with new eyes and in doing that my mind and my heart began to work together to build this review. I stopped fighting the movie and myself and began to see what so many others have seen before me, that Dirty Dancing while being a joyous celebration of young love triumphing over the stuffy old folks, is also about a generation that is just about to try to change the world and quite poignantly, fail.

There is even a hint near the end of Dirty Dancing that Ardolino knows that the revolution that Baby and Johnny are about to join won’t survive the loss of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Vietnam, and Richard Nixon. Pyrrhic victories will be won with Nixon falling but overall, and especially by 1987, and the invasion of the family values body-snatchers, the revolution fails and there is a poignant moment where Johnny begins to sing along with Bill Medley on "Time of My Life" with this wistful look in his eyes that seems to say that times will never be this good again.

I must apologize, by the way, to Mr. Swayze. Though I will never have been among his fans, he is a true movie star in Dirty Dancing. The moment he walks back into the Hotel ballroom after having been fired over his relationship with Baby is glorious. Director Ardolino flash cuts to the ballroom entrance and Johnny blasts through the door, his vitality and charisma seeming to thrust the camera backward with its momentum. Johnny is, in this moment, the future, coming to blow away the past. You can argue that a dance is the least threatening way to blow someone away, but the combination of sex and dance and that clash of past and present is undeniable in this moment and if you give yourself over to it, it’s revolutionary.

The hollow happy ending in which the old people dance with the young in seeming defeat of their tired old way of the world, is yet another quietly cynical and biting moment. It’s as if Ardolino were admitting that eventually, these young people and their new, more open values would have their day but eventually be coopted into cooperating with the patriarchy, fighting and negotiating their way to significant victories like civil rights and empty victories like Nixon’s fall. The best way to beat a revolution is to join it and when the old are dancing with the young it’s as if they know in their wisened state that this won’t last, that like the villain in an old movie their corrupt moralizing will make a comeback as it did with Reagan.

I realize that Emile Ardolino isn’t here to agree or disagree with my take on his movie. He’s not here to say that he just wanted to make a fun musical or to pat me on my back for seeing his vision as few saw it. This is, in many ways, me bending Dirty Dancing to my will, making it the movie I want it to be. But you know what, that doesn’t make me wrong. Watch Dirty Dancing with me some time and I think you might just see what I see, one of the most remarkable, revolutionary movies of the 1980s, a warts and all mix of what’s good and bad about 80s aesthetics, film tropes, and stage tropes. It’s imperfect but it is wonderfully, gloriously, brilliantly imperfect, much like Baby and Johnny and their soon to be failed revolution.

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About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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