It’s been a while since I’ve felt the need to do this so let me explain how I select the movies that I review for this blog before I get some weird looks about this current selection. I put every film nominated for certain categories at the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, and the Independent Spirit Awards (as well as every movie on the NY Times 1000 Greatest Movies list plus movies I chose), and I put them in a giant Excel spreadsheet. I randomize it, and that’s the order I watch the movies in until I have to randomize it again a year later when a new crop of movies get nominated for industry awards. Just by this year’s incredibly weak field of Best Picture nominees, you know this can cause problems, and that’s without even getting into things like the Golden Globes which have a separate acting category for comedies/musicals. That’s a pretty notorious place for sending really awful films to this blog (there are several Sandra Bullock films I’ll have to sit through later on thanks to that shit). So, obviously the 1987 “chick flick” Dirty Dancing doesn’t seem like the kind of thing I would voluntarily watch since my favorite directors are Malick, Lynch, Tarantino, and Fellini. It’s not the sort of intellectual material I crave. Yet, Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey were both nominated for Academy Awards, and as far as chick flicks go, this is one of the most famous. So, I sat through, and it wasn’t nearly as painful as I thought it was going to be. It was actually semi-enjoyable (thanks to the wonderful soundtrack and dancing) until the very end when it ratcheted the melodrama and ham-fisted storytelling up to absurd levels.
I feel sexist saying this but I’m basically writing this review primarily for middle-aged and pre-teen women (as well as gay men of all ages because if you’re attracted to men, how could you turn down Patrick Swayze in his prime with his shirt off for most of the film?) so there’s honestly a 95% chance you’ve already seen this film. So what’s the point of describing the plot? In the 1960s, the wealthy Houseman family goes to the Kellerman Hotel and Resort in the Catskills for vacation. Centered on the point of view of the young Frances “Baby” Houseman (Ferris Bueller‘s Jennifer Grey) who is spending her last summer before going off to college to study economics of underdeveloped countries, Dirty Dancing is a not entirely subtle take on the sexual development of a young woman on the verge of adulthood. Bored with the bourgeois life she has to live with her well-to-do but boring and stuck up family, Baby strikes up a friendship with the staff of the resort, especially the sensitive dance instructor Johnny (Ghost‘s Patrick Swayze). When one of the other dance instructors gets knocked up and needs an abortion, Baby takes up the reins of Johnny’s new dance partner, and while romantic yearnings begin to bloom between the two, the class system each was born into threatens to tear them apart.
Hoo boy! Patrick Swayze could not act. He can dance. He was a classically trained ballet dancer, and it’s obvious that he’s having to tone down his natural dancing gift to allow the less agile Jennifer Grey to keep up with him. I could watch the dancing in this film all day. It was wonderful. I’m weird like that. However, whenever Patrick Swayze actually had to speak and not just get all of the women in the audience hot under the collar, it was a disaster to watch him. His emotions were as wooden as his washboard abs (I feel like that’s probably a semi-gay thing to say but damn. Dude was in shape.). When he was trying to be dramatic, he was more likely to just make me laugh accidentally. Jennifer Grey was better but most likely only in comparison to Patrick Swayze. She vaguely resembled a young Barbara Streisand which was likely part of why I found myself so attracted to her. She was a decent dancer in her own right although obviously not nearly in the same league as Patrick Swayze. I was never able to buy the romantic chemistry between the two in this film though. There’s a good reason for that though. Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze absolutely loathed each other while they were shooting this film. Which was why there was just about zero heat between them sexually even though their romance is the crux of the whole film.
Like I said, I actually found a healthy portion of the film enjoyable til it decided to jump off the cliff in the final act. The visual imagery where dancing was meant to equate with intimacy, foreplay, and ultimately sex well was well-implemented, and there’s a brilliant match cut where (spoiler alert) a particularly sexual dance move with Baby and Johnny segues into their actual first sexual experience. Although I couldn’t buy the wooden romantic acting (and the less than convincing script trying to sell their romance), the dancing scenes were the closest the film came to a sort of raw and pure sexuality and in that regard, it succeeded. Similarly, while the class snobbery themes weren’t particularly subtle, it did add some substance to what would have otherwise been a pure chick flick fluff piece. Plus, Baby was actually a fairly sympathetic and likeable main character so that even though I knew the story was relatively simple and well-trod, she was so relatable that I was able to ignore the critical side of my brain. Then the film’s final act entered into the picture, and all of the sexual and class themes that the film was doing such a passable job of projecting visually devolved into amteurishly written speeches. The dialogue of this film is not a selling point, and when you don’t actually have to listen to anyone talk, it works. People talk way too much in the film’s final twenty minutes and it just insults the intelligence of the viewers because of how clearly it spells everything out (not to mention the absurdly neatly wrapped up ending which robbed the film of any attempts at actual gravitas).
Of course, perhaps the fact that I have a penis (and am not attracted to men) simply means I’m ill-equipped to review Dirty Dancing. I’ve never been a teenage girl in love and having to stare at the established (among women anyways) sexiness that was primo-Patrick Swayze. Even with my problems against this film, I still enjoyed parts of it. I thought it was going to be much, much worse. So, if you’re part of this film’s demographic (a woman) and haven’t seen this yet, I can definitely recommend it to you. I mean, for all serious movie fans, you can probably pass it up unless you consider its cultural legacy as enough of a reason to watch it. I wouldn’t mind watching it again at some point just to learn Patrick Swayze’s dance moves. If I could dance like that (and had his muscle tone), I probably wouldn’t have any trouble meeting women. I’d have to pass on the mullet though. It wasn’t even cool when he tried to rock it.
Final Score: C+