Dirty Dancing



Main Cast: Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey

Director: Emile Ardolino

Being a celebrity wedding planner is a great deal of work.  Neely O’Hara’s big day is nearly upon us and the problems that have to be solved continue to mount.  Neely is being absolutely no help.  I found her in the foyer earlier today shrieking and demanding a doll.  I opened up a  new package of Vicki Lester collector dolls and gave her a lovely example of me dressed as Madeleine from the musical film version of Remembrance of Things Past, complete with scratch and sniff headgear.  She had the temerity to throw it at me and descend into new paroxysms of weeping.  Fortunately, it was only slightly dented and I will still be able to sell it on Ebay.

When Neely was a bit more coherent, she started on again about how her wedding had to be even grander than that Kimye person’s was.  She is absolutely demanding a golden toilet tower.  No matter how many times I reassured her that the lavatories at Chateau Maine are perfectly adequate for her guests, she wants a golden toilet tower.  I’m having three porta-potties stacked up and super glued together.  A little gold spray paint and voila!  That should keep her happy.

In the middle of all this, there was a phone call from the groom, the Sultan.  Apparently the ceremony has to adhere to something called Shari’s law.  Now Shari Lewis has been dead for some years but I’ve quickly had Mr. Ray, the florist, redo the flowers for behind the altar as white roses and pink carnations in an enormous portrait of Lambchop.  That should keep him happy.   He apparently arrives at the Beverly Hills Hotel from his kingdom just a few hours before the ceremony.  I’m making sure he has nice bacon and egg breakfast waiting for him.  He’ll need his strength for the elaborate princess fantasy Neely and I have designed.

Patrick Swayze 1989 by Alan Light

Patrick Swayze in 1989. Photo by Alan Light.

All this activity has been exhausting so I collapsed for a few hours in the home theater.  Normy was already there, in hiding from the omnipresent work crews and together, we decided to flip through Netflix on demand.  We ended up deciding on the 1987 sleeper hit, Dirty Dancing, starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in a story of young love and mambo dancing in the Catskills of the Kennedy era.  I was on the short list to play Baby’s sister, but the producers were unwilling to give the character a superior romantic plot and an extended tap solo so I wisely passed.

Patrick Swayze became a star playing Johnny Castle, bad boy dance instructor with a heart of gold at Kellerman’s summer resort.  Kellerman’s is emblematic of any one of a number of family resort hotels that catered to the well heeled Jewish community of the east coast in the decades after World War II, a place for families to swim, sing and play mahjong together;  a sort of summer camp for yentas in training.  Jennifer Grey is Frances Houseman, known to all as Baby, a sheltered young woman from an upper class background who becomes enamored of Johnny and his freewheeling style of dance with his partner Penny (Cynthia Rhodes).  Baby has to negotiate the road to adulthood through  domesticity, represented by  her sister (Jane Brucker), father (Jerry Orbach) and mother (Kelly Bishop), and through more mature kinds of love and attraction from Johnny, who is definitely not of her class.  Along the way, she learns to cope with adult decisions, learns that not all rich boys are nice boys, and executes a mean mambo.

Jennifer Grey 1988 by Alan Light

Jennifer Grey looking carefree and fabulous in 1988. Photo by Alan Light.

The film was directed by Emile Ardolino who helmed a number of feel good musical comedies and romances in the 80s and early 90s before his untimely early death.  He was a master of marrying material to great casting to an infectious soundtrack that make his movies eminently watchable and far less dated than many of the other comedies of the era.  Swayze, originally trained as a ballet dancer, effortlessly carries the movie as the wounded Johnny, when he dances with first Rhodes and later Grey, it’s hard to see anything else.  Grey does decent work as the uncertain Baby but it’s Swayze’s movie all the way.  The supporting performances are strong, especially from Broadway veterans Orbach and Bishop and one wishes that they were given a bit more to do.  Bishop does have one classic moment when she tells Orbach that Baby gets her dancing talent from her.  An in joke for those who remember the original cast of A Chorus Line.

The movie really succeeds on the strength of its music.  It’s an unusual amalgamation of early sixties doo-wop with mid eighties ballads, complete with synthesizers and drum machines.  In lesser hands, there would be a jarring problem in terms of tone but here, it blends together in an effervescent melange of pop, culminating in the famous dance sequence to Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes singing The Time of My Life, a moment cemented in the pop culture consciousness of anyone who lived through the 80s.  Between that and Merry Clayton’s Yes under the end credits, you can’t help but leave the film on a high.

In some ways, the film functions as an elegy, a last homage to a dying world – the innocent America of the post war years before the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam and social upheaval changed everything.  The film, opening roughly twenty-five years after this time, probably tapped into a cultural zeitgeist of a baby boom, hitting middle age, thinking back fondly on idyllic memories of childhood and adolescence.    Despite the summer setting, there is an autumnal quality to the photography and the light, at least in part due to the fall shooting schedule.  I’m not sure if it’s deliberate, but it adds to the mood.

The film holds up and remains a minor classic of the genre, well worth a look when the house is overrun with crazed caterers, feuding florists and a golden toilet tower construction crew.

Bungalow bunnies.  Watermelon carrying. Lake lifting.  Bagel serving.  Log balance. Gratuitous Ayn Rand reading.  Back alley abortion subplot. Missing wallet. Gratuitous Lonny Price. Bad Hawaiian singing. Baby in a corner.  Wig wearing.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, visit our introduction here, or find her complete archives here.

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