"That was the summer of 1963, when everybody called me 'Baby,' and
I didn't mind," says our heroine in the opening of that 1987 cult
classic, DIRTY DANCING. Yes, it's been 10 years since that perennial
video rental favorite was released so its time for the studio to
release a new print to the theaters with a new Dolby Digital and SDDS
Let's cut to the chase. As a movie, the cliche-ridden script by
Eleanor Bergstein is so bad that it almost becomes unintentionally
funny. Easily, the worst part of the story is the self-imposed
second-class citizenship of the film's male lead. Patrick Swayze, who
delivers a terrific performance in the film when his mouth is firmly
shut, plays an enormously handsome dance instructor named Johnny
Castle. Johnny, believing his collar has been stained permanently
blue, complains about his place in life. "The reason people treat me
like I'm nothing is because I'm nothing," he laments in one of his
The film's saving grace is that fully a third of the film has the
actors dancing rather than talking. With the Academy Award winning
music by John DeNicola, Donald Markowitz and Franke Previte, the film
pulsates with good spirited energy in the dance numbers. The title of
the show comes from a sexually oriented dance that the kids do when the
grownups are not around. Certainly scandalous behavior in 1963 when
the film is set, the raunchy dirty dancing still works to titillate
even if no longer to shock.
In the film's first major dance number, Johnny dances with Penny
Johnson, his long-time partner and buddy but never his lover. Penny is
played by the svelte and lithe Cynthia Rhodes -- no, not even a kissing
cousin. Rhodes is as poor an actor as she is an incredibly
accomplished dancer. Johnny and Penny's dance routines resemble two
swirling tornadoes in a pas de deux. Rhodes has the flexibility of a
contortionist, and Swayze, oozing sex appeal, is the master of the
energetic and macho dance movements.
Johnny and Penny are dance instructors at a family oriented hotel
ostensibly in the Catskills but filmed in North Carolina and Virginia.
Johnny teaches the rich women ballroom dances like the mambo and
services them in their rooms at night for additional tips. Being a
PG-13 show, this and most of the other sex is mainly hinted at.
Into this most plastic of environments, where bringing only ten
pairs of shoes for three weeks is considered a tragedy, comes the
Houseman family. Although they can stay for only a few weeks for this
their first vacation in years, the owner assures them that it will feel
like a year. Ah, love those double meanings. Triple, if you consider
that the movie will feel that long when the actors aren't dancing.
Jennifer Grey, in a relatively undistinguished career, gives her
best performance ever as Baby Houseman. During Baby's three weeks, she
will have to confront the issues of abortion, lying, stealing and going
against her father, played earnestly by Jerry Orbach. Most of all, she
will learn to dance with and will fall in love with Johnny. In one of
moviedom's more fake plot devices, Penny, who has been "knocked up,"
will not be able to figure out a way to get off work the one night the
illegal abortionist will be in town. The only solution is for Baby to
train quickly to look and dance like Penny.
In an important and effective small part, Lonny Price plays the
self-proclaimed "catch of the county," Neil Kellerman. Neil is the
owner's slimy son, who loves barking orders at the staff.
Jeff Jur's cinematography adds to the dance numbers. Especially
worth noting is his choice of Baby's feet as a focal point. Her
pristine white tenny runners never get a speck of dirt on them. As
Baby dances on her little toes in her snow-white shoes, her innocence
is actuated in ways that a full profile could never accomplish. He
also does a good job of framing the two stars when they cavort in a
dance number on a log over a small stream. It is in playful scenes
like these that the film is at its most charming.
The show pumps you up at the end with a happy dance number
reminiscent of WEST SIDE STORY. You'll leave the theater with a song
in your heart and your feet tapping -- just try to forget the spoken
DIRTY DANCING runs 1:36. It is rated PG-13 for sexual situations.
It would be fine for kids ten and up.
Copyright © 1997 Steve Rhodes