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The enduring success of this lighthearted romantic story has everything to do with its innocence, despite the title. Dirty Dancing is formulaic and predictable, but it also has tremendous heart and an on-screen couple with terrific chemistry. ‘Baby’ Houseman (Jennifer Grey) and Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) are two young lovers swept up in the magic of a perfect summer, thrust together at first by the lure of the raucous, inhibited dance craze secretly taking place after hours, but then finding their true bond when Baby takes over for Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes) in the dance show when Penny becomes pregnant and has a scandalous, illegal abortion. The core of the plot revolves around Baby and Johnny’s attraction and Baby’s disgruntled father Jake (Jerry Orbach) who naturally misunderstands much of what he thinks he sees and knows, a conceit that has everything to with a script and nothing to do with real life. That is essentially what all of Dirty Dancing is, a collection of crafted moments that don’t make much sense in a world beyond the screen.
Directed by Emile Ardolino, who found great success in this genre with titles like 3 Men and a Little Lady and Sister Act, Dirty Dancing is by far the most beloved with its passionate performances and fairy tale romance. Set in the 1960s (with some 1980s tunes), it has a 50s beach blanket vibe with conflicts and resolutions that come and go with little worry, even though some of the themes are decidedly modern. And we somehow have to accept that a group of kids in an impromptu dance number look startling professional as they perform incredibly well-choreographed steps, but that is part of the fantasy. The movie sidesteps taking any risks though, refusing to challenge beyond the tropes and clichés of the genre, with such tired has-beens like an obnoxious easy-to-hate ‘boyfriend’ type who Baby is originally set up with and the as mentioned fill-in-for-someone-who-is-hurt device used in too many films.
The movie should have been more about what it promises, but at least with Swayze and Grey, who are both convincing as dancers and new lovers, there is some kinetic energy to the plot that keeps it mostly compelling. A wildly popular film, Dirty Dancing has won a place in the hearts of many, seeing it as it surely was intended, a work of pure escapism.
Penny is pregnant with Robbie Gould’s (Max Cantor) baby. He’s a lecherous womanizer who is sleeping with and cheating on many women at the resort, including Baby’s older sister. She has no money so Baby asks her wealthy father, himself a doctor, for money but tells him she can’t tell him why. He obliges but Penny sees a back ally hack who severely damages her, leaving her in terrible agony. In desperation, Baby goes to her father again and confesses what has happened but pleads for help. Jake saves Penny but is angry with his daughter and blames Johnny for what happened, mistakenly believing he is the irresponsible louse who did this to Penny. He forbids Baby to see Johnny and his dancing friends.
Later, Baby sneaks away and visits Johnny anyway, hurt and distraught. At his place she tries to apologize for her father, but Johnny is actually grateful and in admiration of what Jake did and how brave Baby was for going to him in the first place. He also says his life is going nowhere even as it goes up, knowing it can come crashing down. Baby tells him it doesn’t have to be that way, that things can be better. Johnny can’t believe her trust in life and how courageous she is to find the good in people. He says he wishes he was like her, not scared of anything. But she quickly turns it around, that in fact she really is scared of everything but mostly that if she walks out of room she will never again feel the same as she does when she’s with him. The revelation is heavy for both of them as they fall into silence. A song kicks on the record player and in time, she rises and slips into his arms and they dance.
Expressing vulnerability to a person you love is one of the hardest things to do. Baby has been, to this point, a confident and magnetic young woman with the world at her feet. At least in Johnny Castle’s eyes. Conversely, he is irresistible to her, drawing her in with dizzying effect. Neither truly understand the depth of their attraction. This is the darkest time they have shared in their short but powerfully emotional relationship. It is crucial in that it exposes the private person they each are. Baby, fragile and hurt by her father’s demands, can’t see her life without orbiting around Johnny. And Johnny is swept up in the raw, seemingly effortless positivity that is Baby. She breaks down in a moment of unexpected honesty, perhaps even unrealized by herself. She tells him what’s in her heart. Johnny, shirtless, bare physically and metaphorically, has never known the closeness in a woman like this before. His companions were all partners but here, this girl before him, offers a profound confession that makes her much more. This is the first true moment of love, a sentiment that has great weight here. In a film that relies on over-sentimentality and grand gestures, this singular moment is anything but and is exceedingly satisfying because of its simplicity, and, as mentioned at the start, innocence. There’s no distracting musical score that signals what we should be feeling, no dramatic camera work and exaggerated emotions. This is two people facing each other on the most basic of terms and discovering that they are more than what they expected. The dialogue ends precisely when it should and the remainder of the scene progresses in silence between the two lovers, each holding and moving with the other in a passionate embrace that says everything they need to know about how the other feels.
Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, Jerry Orbach, Cynthia Rhodes