Dirty Dancing is one of those quintessential “chick flicks” with a popular soundtrack, but it’s actually a lot more than that. The 1987 romantic film is directed by Emile Ardolino. Its dancing scenes are choreographed by Kenny Ortega, the guy who would go on to direct High School Musical. The movie was a box office hit despite having a budget of only $6 million. It generated over $213 million at the box office and continues to be one of the most influential genre pictures of all time.
Screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein apparently based Dirty Dancing on her own childhood. She used to spend summers in the Catskills with her family and participated in dancing competitions. Bergstein even called herself “Baby” as a girl and used to revel in the lustiness of dance. Dirty Dancing embodied the sense of sexuality for Bergstein and she was able to transfer a lot of the raw appeal from her own experiences to the script.
The film opens on 17-year-old “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey). She’s vacationing with her rich family at a resort in the Catskills. She wants to attend college after the summer and she’s an idealistic little thing. She wants to send pot roast to starving people. She wants to enter the Peace Corps. Baby’s dad (Jerry Orbach) clearly prefers her to his other daughter (Jane Brucker).
One day, Baby meets the sexy Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). He’s a dance instructor and “entertainer” at the resort. Baby quickly gets integrated into his group of friends and discovers that there’s some trouble in the form of an unspoken and illegal abortion. Johnny is at the centre of the controversy, but Baby sides with him anyway and a romance develops that culminates in what could best be described as statutory rape and a dazzling dance performance.
The subject of Dirty Dancing is amazingly gritty considering the time period. The abortion factor, one that evolves between Johnny and his dance partner (Cynthia Rhodes), is something that few other movies would tackle. The conservatism of irresponsible sexual activity was hard to overcome in films of the era, but Dirty Dancing makes it necessary. Baby is helpful and free of judgemental behaviour, making her a refreshing and ideal romantic partner for the rebel Johnny.
Interestingly, the storyline and the social issues kind of get buried in the mix. The “dancing” aspect would be focused on by and large, but the movie really has more meat on its bones than it’s given credit for. Not only does it focus on the procedure and on an unwanted baby, it also focuses on a relationship that would be “illegal.” The romance that buds between Johnny and an “underage” teenager is something unique.
Jennifer Grey would never be able to match the success of her role here. She had a completely unnecessary rhinoplasty in the early 1990s and was never considered for another successful role again. Swayze would enjoy considerable popularity. The chemistry between the two is quite enjoyable and they smoulder in their respective roles. It’s nice to see two romantic leads that seem to matter to one another, especially given the context and the subject that they are forced to deal with in the infancy of their relationship.
Of course, there’s a lot to be said about the movement and the music of the film. Songs like “Hungry Eyes” and “Time of My Life” give Dirty Dancing a special quality. Swayze even gets to sing on “She’s Like the Wind.” The dancing is good and it helps to set the stage for the hot romance between Baby and Johnny as the movie progresses. It would also set the standard for a number of similar “dance flicks” that would attempt to capture box office success in later years.
All in all, Dirty Dancing surprised me. It’s a reasonably intelligent, romantic, heartfelt picture that has some true sex appeal and realness with respect to its stunning subject. It is not just a “dance movie.” The soundtrack might be legendary, but it’s the subtle thread of social and contextual issues that really makes Dirty Dancing something unique.