Movies & TV / Columns

Dissecting the Classics – Dirty Dancing

January 12, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Dirty Dancing

To answer the first question; because I occasionally like to challenge myself by writing about movies I recognize as being good but not really in my purview. In some ways going outside of my comfort zone actually produces better results, since I’ve got more “new” material to work with. And surprisingly, I have quite a bit to say about this one.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Dirty Dancing

Wide Release Date: August 21, 1987
Directed By: Emile Ardolino
Written By: Eleanor Bergstein
Produced By: Linda Gottlieb
Cinematography By: Jeffrey Jur
Edited By: Peter C. Frank
Music By: John Morris and Erich Bulling
Production Company: Great American Films and Limited Partnership
Distributed By: Vestron Pictures
Jennifer Grey as Frances “Baby” Houseman
Patrick Swayze as Johnny Castle
Cynthia Rhodes as Penny Johnson
Jerry Orbach as Dr. Jake Houseman

What Do We All Know?

“Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”

To answer the second question; because this is one of my mother’s favorite movies and I’ve always felt a certain obligation to check it out at some point. That really shouldn’t be a surprise; you’d be hard pressed to meet a woman who was alive in the 1980’s who didn’t love Dirty Dancing. Considered at one point to be “Star Wars for girls” because it was so widely seen, being both the rented VHS of 1988 and the first VHS to sell over a million copies. It propelled star Patrick Swayze to superstar sex symbol status, and even managed to revive oldies music for a time, with its soundtrack spending eighteen weeks at the top of Billboard 200 album sales chart. Its immediate impact and lasting legacy is unquestionable.

But is it good?

Well, if you’ve seen it, then yeah, you know it’s good. But let’s face it; there’s nothing that hurts a movie’s critical acclaim more quickly than for it to be made for women. That’s why Titanic still has a sizable hatedom despite being a pretty good movie overall. This isn’t really up for debate, and I won’t even front; the reason I took so long to see this cultural touchstone is because I had my own hang ups. I assumed the movie would not appeal to me because I am a man, and I tend not to care for romantic dramas as a rule. I was also very decisively a complete idiot, and getting over those hang ups led to me watching the movie, which led to me writing this column. So the question isn’t “Is Dirty Dancing good?”, but “What makes it good?”

What Went Right?

For those who might need a refresher; Dirty Dancing is about Frances “Baby” Houseman spending a family vacation at a resort in the Catskill Mountains, where she starts taking dance lessons from Johnny Castle, who she quickly falls in love with. He agrees to teach her because he needs a replacement dance partner because his usual partner Penny is pregnant, and they can’t afford to lose the money. What follows is a surprisingly complex plot that showcases a lot of different character motivations, discussions about class and mortality, and one of the hottest romances ever portrayed on screen. That is a very tidy sum up of a movie that has so many turns that I’m honestly having difficulty writing cliff notes, and suffice to say if you only remember the movie for the dancing, you’d be well served rewatching to refresh yourself on the plot.

But if there’s one consistent theme in this movie, it’s the agency of young women. Baby is learning to assert herself by declaring what she wants to do even when her parents, sister and even her friends are telling her not to. She learns to take control of her sexuality, sets goals for herself that are difficult but attainable, and even learns not to be ashamed of those actions. She stands up for her friends when they are mistreated, empowering Penny to have her abortion and standing up to Johnny’s boss when he is falsely accused of stealing. It is a very progressively feminist piece, to the point that I’m sure some viewers will be rubbed the wrong way. But it’s no real shock that women have gravitated to this movie; it’s not just an empty romantic fantasy. Eleanor Bergstein’s screenplay (based on her own life experiences) understands the struggles women faced in the 1950s (and in the 1980s, and still today) and writes a narrative that advocates for a certain kind of feminine strength; Baby’s right to choose her own destiny, make her own mistakes, deal with the consequences and reap the rewards.

But while Dirty Dancing is certainly told with a female voice, it doesn’t leave men in the dark. Johnny Castle is definitely sexualized, there’s no denying that, but he’s not just the object of Baby’s desire. But he is also a compelling character with his own agency and his own contributions to make to the script. He’s loyal to his friends even to his own detriment, he isn’t afraid to call Baby out on her privilege and discuss how he’s had to fight for everything he has. And he even gets a very poignant message about how women use him across. Baby doesn’t fix him, and he doesn’t fix Baby; they bolster each other up and make each other better than they are alone, without either being dependent on the other. That’s the sign of a good romance and it makes you truly root for these two. By the time the film comes to its conclusion and Johnny calls Baby by her real name, there is no better ending than these two coming together for one more dance.

The movie has plenty of steak, far more than it probably gets credit for even from its adoring fans. But yeah, this is still cinema, and we don’t just come for the steak, we come for the sizzle. And hoo boy, does this movie sizzle. I think I’m still a little bit numb from the shock of just how steamy this movie is. I’ve seen Grease, which definitely has its share of sex in it, but while that movie just talks about sex, Dirty Dancing doesn’t really talk about it. It just shows it; the dancing is provocative (especially for the time), but even more than that, it’s the look in Jennifer Grey’s eyes when she first sees Johnny and Penny dancing. It’s like she never really knew what lust was until that second. That tangible sexual tension between Johnny and Baby carries the scenes where they are getting to know each other. But by the time Baby says “I’m scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you,” we buy that they are totally in love. When it’s time for them to actually have sex, the movie is tasteful about it. After all, how could any sex scene live up to the chemistry these characters have?

What Went Wrong?

Okay, let’s take a step back. For as much praise that I have to heap on this movie, I can acknowledge that it isn’t quite perfect. The late Patrick Swayze had a ton of screen presence and impeccable dancing skills, but his ability to emote is a bit limited. Johnny being a compelling character has a lot more with how the screenplay treats him than how Swayze portrays him. Acting in general is not this movie’s strong suit; it’s intentionally melodramatic and shouldn’t be knocked for it, but some of it can be very cheesy. I also feel that while the ending is entirely appropriate for the story, “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the movie’s excellent soundtrack.

But if I’m honest, none of this really hurts the film in any meaningful way. I mean, the movie might be a better movie if it had better acting, but so would Star Wars and The Princess Bride. And I love those movies. The movie has a ton of melodrama, but so do Spider-Man and Independence Day. And I love those movies. Basically, if I’m going to criticize this movie for being sappy, naïve, poorly acted, simple and occasionally a bit dumb… I’m a hypocrite. If I’m allowed to have my big dumb movies about superheroes and alien invasions, then fans of Dirty Dancing are allowed to have their big dumb movie about sexy dancing and youthful romance. Fair is fair.

And In Summary…

Dirty Dancing deserves to be a beloved classic. As a romantic drama, it absolutely succeeds, providing a steamy but mutually beneficial relationship with interesting characters. But it also manages to have a compelling, unpredictable plot driven by complex people making difficult discussions with actual stakes. That’s an impressive tightrope to walk. It’s also a film with a distinctly female voice, about a young woman discovering and asserting her agency. It’s a bit naïve, a bit saccharine, and more than a bit cheesy… but it works. It entertains and it empowers. It will make you laugh, make you cry, might even make you think, but mostly just wants to make you stand up and cheer.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away,

Follow Me On Letterboxd!
I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include In the Heat of the Night, The Incredible Hulk and Tron