DIRTY DANCING (1987)
Built on the kind of spurious events that correspond less to remembrance than to the halo we sometimes place around memory, DIRTY DANCING is likable, warm little retro fantasy.
It is the summer of 1963. President John F. Kennedy is alive and well and living in Camelot. Vietnam is not yet a major cause for alarm. The Beatles have not yet reached America.The Freedom Riders are on.
Young people still go to upstate New York resorts with their parents -- but pretty soon they'll want to go to Europe and see twelve countries in three days, laments Max Kellerman (Weston) the owner of a Catskills resort.
Effusive Max greets Dr. Houseman (Orbach) and his Saturday Evening Post family : wife Kelly, daughters Lisa and Baby. Baby (Grey) adores her daddy and is the apple of his eye .( The time when you didn't trust anybody over 30 isn't on us yet.) She is sweet seventeen, bright though on the mousy side. She talks about joining the Peace Corps later.
Kellerman's is the typical place of organized fun, games, and matchmaking, where the waiters come mostly from Ivy League colleges, where the clients range from kids to gret-grandparents.
Bored and curious, Baby ventures into the off-limits living quarters of the staff. It's like those period movies where the young white miss from a southern plantation would wander off in the servants' cabins --and have a revelation.
The revelation here is unbridled, suggestive body-contact dancing which practically mimes copulation. When the fascinated Baby is taught how to do it by dance instructor Johnny (Swayze ) , she is, in effect, undergoing the rites of passage. It is terpsichorean deflowering.
The technical initiation into womanhood will follow, but later, all in good time -- and in good taste -- and only after Baby gets involved in the sad case of Penny (Rhodes), a callisthenics instructor and Johnny's exhibition-dancing partner.
Penny is pregnant by Harvard student, waiter Robbie-the-Creep . Do-gooder Baby comes to the rescue. She gets money from her father, which poses perhaps her first moral problem ever. Better yet, she will replace Penny in a dance number at another resort.
In a matter of a few, incredible days, while also incredibly going undetected by her parents and others, Baby gets a crash course from Johnny. When they do a jumbo Mambo, it's a hit.
Those transformations and compressions of time and events are nothing but the old formula for romances movies (the ugly duckling becomes a swan) and musicals (amateur replaces professional, and triumphs) but it is done so enchantingly that nearly every minute of this film is enjoyable, even when further corn and melodramatic implausibilities and routine misunderstandings are tacked on.
There is a delightful innocence about almost all everyone involved, especially Jennifer Grey (the daughter of Joel Grey) who brings a great deal of subtle sensitivity to her changes, and Patrick Swayze who is surprisingly good as an actor.
Handsome Swayze is basically an innocent too. Unlike the Harvard waiters, he is a proletarian who can't help it if women chase him and sometimes press rewards on him. In terms of Kellerman's bourgeois clientele, he is an undesirable so far as their daughters are concerned. In terms of the plot he is a gentle fellow whom the love of a good girl regenerates from ill-defined sins .
The movie's dancing is terrific and beautifully controlled , whether it is performed by the anonymous "corps de ballet" couples or by individual protagonists.
A former dancer, the gyrating Swayze is tops on the floor and genuine as a teacher. Glamorous Cynthia Rhodes is marvellous in elegant ballroom or in hyperkinetic "dirty dancing" numbers. Jennifer Grey's technical chrysalis-to- butterfly evolution is even more convincing than her personal growth. Above all, DIRTY DANCING is a most pleasurable showerbath of nostalgia, with its many late 50s, early 60s songs and some new pieces that pastiche the style of the period. The "chorus" girls are very sexy, and all the dancers look as if they had a ball on the movie's set.
DIRTY DANCING does not play up its ethnicity. The film's peripheral, humorous bits- of- business are only occasionally Jewish, as when they announce a lecture by Rabbi Sherman on the psychology of insult comedians. The movie is sober and does not caricature. Except for music and dancing, italso goes easy on its 1960-iness.
There are few pointed references --in speech or in artifacts -- that stress the period. There is an effort here to avoid exoticism. The men's straight-leg trousers, the women's "normal" hairdos (even though 1963 was a year of beehives and of wigs), their casually chic clothes have not dated much .
There are also several anachronisms which homogenize the movie on purpose and draw it away from excessive topicality. It is mostly the clean language of the film that, compared to the dirty speaking in coming-of-age movies set in the 1980s, makes you conscious of the time-gap. And in spite of its title and its unihibited dances, the movie as a whole is cleaner than most other films around.
[Published 22 January 1988]
Note 1: Emile Ardolino died of AIDS in December 1993. His last film was "Nutcracker Suite"(1993).
Note 2: The review above has no star (*) rating because, as I remember it, it was published during a short-lived period when I talked my then-editor into not using "grades."