“Top 23” Review: “Dirty Dancing”

I’ve got 23 favourite films: 10 from when I was a teenager and young adult, 10 from my adult years with a wife and kids and 3 ‘life-changers’ that hover over them all. I know these films inside and out and have lots to say about them. Journey with me as I try to explain why I love these 23 films and why I think they’re so appealing.

“Dirty Dancing” (1987) from Vestron Pictures — Starring Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Jerry Orbach and Jack Weston

We had a Jumbo Video where I lived. I had a membership. There was a time in my teenage years when I would rent movies from Jumbo; a lot of movies. For a time, I kept the receipts. I’ve always been a romantic. I think I can pinpoint part of the reason for this but its pretty heavy and pointless to get into. Suffice it to say that I have always been drawn to stories that depict a guy, a girl and love. I also love me a ‘shoot-em-up’, don’t get me wrong, but I have always been able to see the appeal in romantic films. Now, do I still seek them out? Absolutely not. As a happily married man, the goofy and heart-touching ups and downs of romance are far removed from where I’m at now so the ‘rom-coms’ and love stories of the last 20+ years appeal to me not one bit. But when I was young and single, I was fascinated by the stories about the many ways to fall in love.

I don’t remember exactly the first time I saw “Dirty Dancing”. If it came out in the theaters in 1987, then we can assume it was released on home video maybe 2-3 years later. Using this math, I must’ve rented it around, say, 1990, when I was 18. I immediately fell in love with it and, as soon as I was able, I added the VHS version to my growing movie collection. I’m sure you all know what it’s about 30+ years down the line but let’s run it down anyways.

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An iconic poster. Baby, Johnny and the “font”.

In the summer of 1963, sheltered Daddy’s Girl, “Baby” Houseman, vacations with her family in the Catskills at Kellerman’s resort. Her father, Dr. Jake Houseman, goes way back with resort owner Max Kellerman, who sets up his grandson, Neil, with Baby. While Baby is dancing with Neil on the first night, she spies ‘the dance people’; Penny and the handsome Johnny Castle. Baby befriends resort employee and Johnny’s cousin, Billy, who takes Baby to the off-limits-to-guests employees quarters where she observes the ‘dirty dancing’ of the title. Johnny expresses concern that a guest is among their number but playfully takes Baby in hand to teach her a few steps.

Meanwhile, Baby’s sister, Lisa, has caught the eye of Ivy League waiter and pre-med student, Robbie. Baby learns, however, that Penny – who is more like a sister to Johnny – is pregnant by Robbie. Penny wants to ‘deal with’ the situation but money is certainly an issue so Baby asks her dad for a loan, not telling him what it’s for. Billy explains that they can get a ‘doctor’ for Penny but the only appointment they can get conflicts with Johnny and Penny’s commitment to do their mambo number at neighbouring hotel, The Sheldrake. Baby, “Miss Fix-It”, suggests solutions, none that are acceptable. In the end, Baby is recruited to fill in and she and Johnny rigorously prepare to dance together and the number comes off OK.

Returning from The Sheldrake, Baby and Johnny begin to make eyes at each other but are interrupted by Billy, who says that the ‘doctor’ – more a butcher – has been and gone and Penny is in a bad way. Baby’s instinct kicks in and she runs to get her dad who attends to Penny but sees that Baby is somewhat involved with Johnny. Sizing up the situation, Dr. Houseman is disappointed in the apparent change in his girl and forbids her to associate with ‘those people’. Baby goes to see Johnny to apologize for the way Dr. Houseman treated him and she stays the night.

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Baby is cool. She is always in control. She takes the lead in Johnny’s cabin.

The next morning, a morose Jake tells his family he wants to leave but he is convinced to stay through the end of Labour Day to be involved in the end-of-season show. Jake engages with Lisa, much to her delight as she had been second to Baby in the past. Deceptively, Baby continues her relationship with Johnny, who reveals himself to be tenderhearted and tired of the divorcee guests using him for sex. Baby encourages him to change and to stand up for himself but Johnny gets upset when he and Baby have to hide from Dr. Houseman, who has been seen taking walks with Lisa and Robbie.

Baby overhears Johnny refusing one of his usual ‘customers’, Vivian Pressman, and is happy. Vivian, however, is not. She shacks up with Robbie and the two are discovered by Lisa. In the morning, Vivian sees Baby leaving Johnny’s cabin and frames Johnny for stealing her husband’s wallet. Baby defends Johnny to Max Kellerman in front of her family, saying Johnny could not have stolen the wallet at the assumed time because, at that time – the middle of the night – she was with Johnny in his cabin. Dr. Houseman is saddened by this news but Baby explains to him that she is sad, too, because her father has revealed his shortcomings in the form of a somewhat condescending attitude towards people who are not ‘like him’.

Johnny tells Baby that he has been cleared of the wallet theft but fired anyways for fraternizing with a guest. They share a tender goodbye and Baby is consoled by her sister. At the end-of-season show, Johnny returns. He interrupts the proceedings and tells the crowd that – as he has always done – he will end the season with a dance in a style favoured by him and his friends – his way. Jake realizes Robbie is a rat and Johnny is an OK guy and he fixes things with both young men. Baby and Johnny dance and the guests at Kellerman’s end the summer in thrilling fashion.

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In obvious symbolism, Baby succeeds at the end. She has navigated the waters and is now free to soar.

Some people have one movie in them, one story. Such is the case with Eleanor Bergstein. “Dirty Dancing” is mostly autobiographical. Bergstein grew up vacationing in the Catskills with her mother, her doctor father and her older sister. While her folks played golf, Bergstein was dancing, however in this respect she was more “Johnny” than “Baby”. She was a ‘mambo queen’ and entered ‘dirty dancing’ contests. Here’s where my eyebrows go up a bit. Being a mid-century guy, I have a familiarity with not only the films and music of the ’50’s and ’60’s but also cultural and societal things and, in my travels, I have never run across the mention of ‘dirty dancing’. I have no doubt that such dancing existed and was referred to as such it’s just that I haven’t heard of this from any other source.

During university, Bergstein was a dance instructor at Arthur Murray studios and then she married and turned to writing. A novel (“Advancing Paul Newman”) and a screenplay (“It’s My Turn”) were poorly received. During production of “It’s My Turn” – which starred Michael Douglas – producers cut a provocative dance number from her story which inspired her to document the dancing she remembered so fondly. She began to write her ‘personal story’, the story of her youth and she started with the music she loved as a teenager. Another of my “Top 23” films is George Lucas’ “American Graffiti”, which is also a personal story of youth. Bergstein wrote her screenplay the same way Lucas did – with a stack of 45’s at her side, the songs forming the skeleton of the scenes she was creating.

Like so many other legendary films, Bergstein’s script for “Dirty Dancing” was rejected by several studios until it landed at the tiny Vestron Pictures, who’s major interest was home video distribution. The project eventually got green-lighted and Bergstein and her producing partner, Linda Gottleib, began assembling their team. For a director they chose Emile Ardolino who had won an Academy Award for a documentary but had never directed a feature film. Another key piece was choreographer Kenny Ortega. Ortega got his start working with Gene Kelly on “Xanadu” (1980) and gained career momentum choreographing for films such as “St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985) and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) and directing music videos. Ortega choreographed Billy Squier’s video for “Rock Me Tonite” (1984), a video that has been cited as one of the worst in history and one that is considered to have ended Squier’s career. Kenny also directed the video for Styx’s polarizing “Mr. Roboto”, a video that some fans claim “killed Styx”. These two blemishes aside, Ortega is a choreographer of note in Hollywood and has worked on multiple Michael Jackson tours, Super Bowls and Academy Awards telecasts. He also directed and choreographed the “High School Musical” trilogy.

Filming took place in two locations – neither of which was the Catskills. The “Borscht Belt”, the colloquial name given to the string of hotels in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York catering to Jews from New York City, is no more so stand-ins had to be found. Lake Lure, North Carolina has one of the most beautiful man-made lakes in the world and was used for scenes depicting the staff’s cabins, the “log” scene and the famous “water lift” scene. To this day, Lake Lure hosts an annual “Dirty Dancing Festival” which features dance lessons, watermelon carrying and a lake lift competition. Other scenes were shot in Virginia at Mountain Lake. Here we see the beach, the Houseman family’s cabin and the Mountain Lake Hotel Resort that stood in for Kellerman’s. Mountain Lake turns itself into “Kellerman’s” four weekends a year for “Dirty Dancing-themed Weekends”.

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One of the highlights of the “Dirty Dancing Festival” in Lake Lure, NC is the Friday night outdoor screening of the film.
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Travel to the Mountain Lake Hotel Resort in Virginia where you can see the hotel that stood in for Kellerman’s and the cabin where Baby and her family stayed.

Cast as 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman was 26-year-old Jennifer Grey. Grey is the daughter of Academy Award-winner Joel Grey who was initially chosen for a role in “Dirty Dancing”. Jennifer had previously appeared in “Red Dawn”, “The Cotton Club” for Francis Ford Coppola and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. Jennifer was a trained dancer who possessed a sweetness that was essential for portraying the innocent Baby. Grey was nominated for a Golden Globe award for her role and her career is defined by it. While Billy Zane had tested for the role of Johnny Castle, 34-year-old Patrick Swayze was ultimately chosen. In screen tests interacting with Grey, Bergstein was blown away by their amazing chemistry. Previously, Swayze had made notable turns in “The Outsiders” and “Red Dawn”, also featuring Grey. The role of Penny Johnson, Johnny’s dancing partner, went to Cynthia Rhodes. Rhodes was much more a dancer than actress who had previously danced in “Xanadu”, “Flashdance” and “Staying Alive”. After “Dirty Dancing”, Rhodes gave up acting to concentrate on her family, husband Richard Marx and their three boys.

Tony Award-winner Jerry Orbach portrayed Baby’s father, Dr. Jake Houseman. Orbach had been a Broadway actor and singer of some note. He was the first performer to sing the standard “Try to Remember” and had released an album in 1963. Orbach would go on to achieve international fame and admiration for portraying Det. Lennie Brisco for 12 years on television’s “Law & Order”. Jack Weston played hotelier Max Kellerman, an amalgam of the type of regal hotel owner prevalent in the Catskills at this time. Weston brought with him hundreds of credits and a Golden Globe nomination. He appeared in “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”, “Palm Springs Weekend”, “The Cincinnati Kid”, “Wait Until Dark” and “The Thomas Crown Affair” among many other credits including a notable “The Twilight Zone” episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”. And watch for Wayne Knight who, in his first credited film appearance, has a few scenes as “Stan”. (Significantly for me, his only previous film appearance was playing an uncredited waiter in 1979’s “The Wanderers” – another film in my “Top 23”)

The coming together of the cast and crew to create this legendary film was truly serendipitous. The team that was assembled – behind the camera as well as in front of it – created magic this one time. Most of the principles were never able to recreate their success here. Patrick Swayze, as we all know, became a star of the highest magnitude. His star turns in “Road House”, “Ghost”, “Point Break” and other films endeared him to fans the world over. Perhaps more importantly, he was, by all accounts, a pretty good guy as well. Sadly, he died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, aged 57. Jerry Orbach, as we’ve seen, went on to greater fame as Lennie Brisco. However, most of the principles involved with the film were not able to capitalize on the movie’s success.

Eleanor Bergstein had just the one story to tell; her own. The creator of “Dirty Dancing” has not worked again on an entity that isn’t related to this story based in part on her life. Director Emile Ardolino went on to direct only minor films like “Three Men and a Little Lady” and “Sister Act” and sadly died of complications from AIDS in 1993. Everybody loves Jennifer Grey. We always will. Truth be told, though, she was not able to turn her Golden Globe-nominated turn as Baby into a productive Hollywood career. A few weeks before the release of “Dirty Dancing”, she was in a car accident. Her boyfriend, Matthew Broderick, was at the wheel and the mother and daughter in the other car were killed instantly. Grey has said that her physical injuries coupled with her ‘survivors guilt’ made it difficult for her to enjoy her success. She famously underwent two rhinoplasty procedures that rendered her unrecognizable and all but ended her career. Max Cantor played skunk Robbie Gould. He made one more film before turning to journalism. While researching addicts in New York City, Cantor freebased cocaine and became a heroin addict. He died of an overdose in 1991, aged 32. Cynthia Rhodes, Jane Brucker (“Lisa Houseman”) and Lonny Price (“Neil Kellerman”) never really acted again but research shows that as basically a choice of theirs; they went on to other things. Neal Jones, who I thought was cool as “Billy”, guested on random television shows and was invisible in a dozen movies – albeit 4 with Al Pacino (?!) – before dropping off the face. Jack Weston and Charles “Honi” Coles (“Tito Suarez”) both passed away, although aged 71 and 81, respectively.

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“I’m not sure who you are anymore”, Baby’s father once said to her. Imagine if he’d seen her after her rhinoplasty.

Music can account for a great deal of a movie’s charm and appeal. An effective score, yes, can be an asset to a picture but a period piece like “Dirty Dancing” relies heavily on carefully selected songs from the past. I mentioned earlier that Eleanor Bergstein wrote this film from her personal experiences and used her old 45s as a starting point. I mentioned that George Lucas wrote “American Graffiti” the same way and it bears repeating. Lucas invented the idea of loading a film with old songs, something that became commonplace and with his “memoir film” it is fitting. We all have memories of significant times in our lives. Oftentimes, these memories can be triggered when we hear a particular song. Certainly, music has the ability to transport us directly back to a certain time and place and if you’re writing a story about the past then music is invariably going to play a huge part. This is definitely the case with “Dirty Dancing”; after all, the essential elements for dancing are at least one human body – and music.

Bergstein has made a point of separating the songs of her youth into two categories; ‘dirty dancing’ songs and ‘clean teen’ songs. For example, the film starts with the iconic Phil Spector “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes. Bergstein states that, in her youth, this was the type of song that the kids would save to listen to when they were alone with people their own age. To this type of song, they could dance the way they wanted to. Next up as the film begins is “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by the Four Seasons. Here was ‘cleaner’ (‘whiter’?) music that you could listen to in the car with your parents. I suppose a third category would be the Latin mambo and merengue music that was danced to in the Catskills of the era and that is featured in the film.

The “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack – two volumes, actually – sold incredibly well. The initial album sold 32 million copies and spent an incredible 18 weeks at #1. It is one of the five best-selling soundtracks of all-time. Jimmy Ienner was placed in charge of selecting the music; he took on the role of “music supervisor”, the job that George Lucas had created – and did himself – with “American Graffiti”. The soundtrack helped spark a renewed interest in “oldies” but, in what was a brilliant part of it’s mass appeal, contained new music that became iconic. The main theme to come out of the film was “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”, a song that went to #1 on many charts and in many countries. Upon initial release in the UK, the song went to #6. Four years later, when the film was played on television in that country, it re-entered the charts and went to #8! The song, sung by Bill Medley – one half of the Righteous Brothers – and Jennifer Warnes, won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a Grammy.

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The fifth biggest-selling soundtrack of all-time. Only outsold by heavy hitters like “Purple Rain” and “The Bodyguard”.

The song has it’s origins in an obscure ’80’s band called Franke and the Knockouts. Lead singer and songwriter, Franke Previte, was approached by Jimmy Ienner to write music for “Dirty Dancing”. Previte was hesitant as he was still trying to make it as a performer. He finally acquiesced and wrote “Time of My Life” with two other writers. Bill Medley was approached repeatedly to record the song but Medley was awaiting the birth of a child and didn’t want to commit. Warnes was approached and said she would only do it with Bill. Medley and Warnes were able to get together after the birth of Medley’s child. It has become one of the best-loved motion picture songs and is one of the songs most often played on the radio. The song is the perfect companion to the emotional ending of the film.

Patrick Swayze really could do it all. Act, dance, fight, rip your throat out and not only write songs but sing them, too. He contributed a three-year-old song he had co-written called “She’s Like the Wind” which was recorded with singer Wendy Fraser and included on the soundtrack. Startlingly when you think about it, the song reached #3 on the charts, #1 Adult Contemporary. Patrick Swayze has charted a song as high as #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. That is higher than any song charted by the likes of Van Morrison, Eddie Money, Alice Cooper or Chris De Burgh.

Eric Carmen was given “Hungry Eyes” to sing. Once again, here was a song that Franke Previte had written and recorded with his band in 1984. Ienner had worked with Carmen when Carmen was lead singer of the Raspberries and called on him to lend his vocal talents. Carmen was hesitant but eventually recorded the song. It became another popular song from the soundtrack and peaked at #4. Two other songs from the soundtrack are personal favourites of mine. “Overload” is a great late-’80’s pop/rock song from Alfie Zappacosta. How a song from an obscure Canadian singer ever ended up on this soundtrack I’ll never know. “Where Are You Tonight?” is a nice tune performed in the style of early ’60’s R&B. It took me awhile to confirm that it was actually Tom Johnston from the Doobie Brothers that sang it. It doesn’t sound like him to me and I was skeptical that it was the same Tom Johnston but it is.

The “oldies” on the soundtrack also add greatly to the charm of the film. And in turn a much deserved light was shone on this music and a lot of the songs re-entered the public consciousness. “Be My Baby” has long been heralded as one of the finest songs from the era and has become iconic. “Stay” by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs is what I call one of the “pillars” of this era. A number one song in it’s time, it is the shortest song to ever reach the top of the charts. “Hey! Baby” by Bruce Channel is the perfect lighthearted back drop to Baby and Johnny dancing on that log. It was this song that inspired John Lennon to learn the harmonica. “Love is Strange”, “Love Man” and “Cry to Me” had prominent positions in the film. “Do You Love Me” is an early Motown classic written by the label’s founder, Berry Gordy, Jr. It was a Top 10 hit when originally released in 1962. Amazingly, owing to it’s use in “Dirty Dancing”, it re-entered the charts 25 years later and reached #11! It is one the few songs from the classic era to perform well on the charts again years after it’s release.

“Dirty Dancing” has something in common with other legendary films. When the film was finished shooting and was edited together, no one liked it. Because Vestron, the company that made the film, was primarily concerned with home video, it was initially thought that after a brief run in the theaters it would go straight to home video. One producer even suggested burning the negative and collecting the insurance (there were those who suggested burning the negative of “Citizen Kane”, as well). Promotion of the film floundered as well as a corporate sponsor that would put it’s money and it’s product to work promoting the film could not be found. The acne product Clearasil was on board for a time until they found out that abortion was a plot point and they pulled out. Bergstein’s partner, producer Gottleib, began to wonder if the film would be released as opposed to when. Of course, it was eventually released to theaters and gradually, through word-of-mouth and a few positive reviews, it gained momentum and became a huge success. It won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe but more than that it became a true fan favourite, adored by millions. Many ‘bit players’ were able to dine out on it for years as part of touring companies singing songs from the soundtrack and dancing to them. Stage shows, a ridiculous and pointless ‘prequel’ and a live television event followed. Catch phrases from the film entered the popular lexicon: “I carried a watermelon”, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner”. Poor Vestron, though. They thought they could recreate this success but released flop after flop and went bankrupt only two years later. The film itself, though, has grossed well over $214 million and has the distinction of being the first film to sell a million copies on home video. I know I had it on VHS.

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You know you’re iconic when…

I think I’ve made a good point that there is a lot of “story” to “Dirty Dancing” and it is no accident that this story takes place in August of 1963. The opening narration even makes the point that this is a time of innocence; not just in Baby’s life but in all of American society. I have always insisted that ‘the fall’ began in September of ’63 when “Leave It to Beaver” was cancelled. That show was the epitome of (the ideal of) family life of the era. Then, it’s yanked off the air and two months later, JFK is shot and then three months after that, the Beatles land in America and nothing would ever be the same.

When you consider what happened to Frances Houseman – and to Johnny Castle – that summer it takes on mythic proportions. The story of ‘coming-of-age’ – transitioning from childhood to adulthood – is a dramatic story, one that is ripe with plot points. Baby comes of age before our eyes and it is tender and beautiful. And she has been in control of her pivot and has navigated it with her moral compass. Her entree into adulthood has been successful and this will inform the rest of her life. Comparatively, we see that Johnny has already had his pivot point and it was corrupt and has lead him down a destructive path.

Baby has been courageous. She has stayed true to herself. She has suffered, yes. She has fallen in her father’s eyes but his failings have been revealed to her, as well. But she accepts these revelations about her father and deals swiftly with any illusions she had about him. She has also brought about great change in Johnny’s life. Through Baby, Johnny has encountered fortitude, optimism and integrity. Meeting Baby has set him on a new path. But let’s face reality; there is no way that Baby and Johnny stay together. They are two different people going in different directions. Each will remember the other always. Each will look back on this summer and remember that this was the time that everything changed – and each will recall the other as a true catalyst of that change in their lives. Knowing that they do not stay together does not diminish your appreciation for the film. In fact, your appreciation grows once you accept and understand that this is not the ‘origin story’ of their relationship. This is their relationship in it’s entirety.

Scholars have found in “Dirty Dancing” comparisons to some of the world’s greatest literature. This film, they suggest, contains the same idea of ‘the journey’ that lies at the heart of “The Odyssey”, for example. Baby – and she does start out as a baby – goes on a journey, a journey we all take, that from childhood to adulthood. Her story contains a lot of the tropes of the epic journey; she starts in innocence but acknowledges the need to progress, she journeys to a mountain where she encounters a ‘castle’, she crosses a bridge to a forbidden place and she suffers which is, of course, the only way to gain wisdom.

But all this heaviness aside, I think the film’s biggest appeal lies in it’s glorious intangibles; those wonderful things that are hard to define but simply make you feel good. I’ve always felt it was significant that the lyric is “I’ve had the time of my life”. Colloquially, it is saying ‘this has been fun’. But philosophically; this has been the moment that will define who I am for the rest of my life.

 

 

 

 

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Author: Wellsy

Many people call me a "Renaissance man". That's not true. I do have a lot of interests, though, and I like to assemble and share my thoughts on them. I welcome your feedback.

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