From the Bayous to the Catskills
'Dirty Dancing' Takes to the Screen With Some Smart and Funny Steps
August 21, 1987
By SHEILA BENSON, Times Film Critic
By being smart and
funny, touching and unabashedly sensual, "Dirty Dancing" (selected
theaters), a musical/love story set in the Catskills in the early '60s,
is the sweet sleeper of a hot season.
It works with the kick
that it does because writer Eleanor Bergstein and director Emile
Ardolino know their milieu so well they can handle it in
throwaway-perfect detail. And it especially works because from his
first, incendiary title dance sequence, Ardolino, using every tool of
film making, has an extraordinary ability to let us feel the
exhilaration and the pure animal pleasure of dancing in perfect sync
with a partner.
The "dirty dancers" here are young; their
audience doesn't have to be to share their elation. In this movie we're
encouraged to dream--no less than we did when Fred Astaire danced with
Cyd Charisse or Gene Kelly with Leslie Caron--that their transports are
ours. Because half the film's dances have to be learned by a faintly
klutzy amateur, we learn with her, and her final burst of joy is ours
Jennifer Grey is that student, Frances (Baby) Houseman,
bright, Peace Corps bound, cherished by her doctor-father (Jerry
Orbach) who prides himself that in her shiny idealism they think alike.
Take the subject of tragedy: To father and daughter Baby, what tragedy
is not is having left behind a 12th pair of pumps for a three-week
Catskills vacation. Tragedy is police dogs used in Birmingham. Older
daughter Lisa (Jane Bruckner), and her conciliatory mother (Kelly
Bishop) aren't quite so sure--it's Lisa's shoes in question.
has the brains, Lisa has the beauty--it's one of those family givens,
as immutable as the rules at Kellerman's, laid down by Mr. Kellerman
himself (the imperishable Jack Weston). The guests come first; the
waiters come from Yale or Harvard; the busboys and maids come from the
Bronx or Brooklyn and the entertainment staff come from the fringes of
show business and are absolutely not to be let anywhere near anyone's
The movie's dancing is also along strict
caste lines, the mambo or merengue for above-stairs, their elegance
painstakingly taught by the entertainment staff, ex-Arthur Murray
teacher Johnny Castle (ex-Eliot Feld dancer/actor Patrick Swayze),
former Rockette Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes), exhorting her ladies
that "God wouldn't have given you maracas if he didn't want you to
In the help's quarters it's the smoldering
exhibitionism of dirty dancing, imported from Bronx basements and a
guaranteed cause of cardiac arrest for any parent who discovers his
child grinding away in this fashion. It's into this absolutely
off-limits, smoky scene that Baby blunders late one night, to find
herself face to face with dozens of kids, barely more than her age,
dancing with an intimacy and an insinuation that shocks and mesmerizes
her. And it puts her eye to eye with Johnny, who gives her a taste of
this undreamed-of physicality before he moves on to another partner,
leaving her shaken and dazed.
The film makers use dirty dancing
as a hint of what is almost palpably around the corner in the America
of 1963, change of a radical, all-pervasive nature. They use Baby's
growing involvement with Kellerman's have-nots, with the charismatic
dancers who seem to have everything and haven't got carfare, and
especially with the complicated Johnny, to shake the foundations of
Baby's nice, simplistic liberal values.
The film is carried by
the painful, growing awareness of Baby, Johnny and her father, each
forced to give up some cherished prejudice about the other. Grey and
Swayze are tough, thoughtful, lovely actors, and their teacher-pupil
sequences absolutely soar. The Orbach-Grey moments are tear-stingingly
Because director Ardolino comes from a background in
dance films (including "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin' "), he doesn't
insult us with the impossible, too easily achieved. When Baby does her
crucial exhibition, it's brave and it will pass but it isn't
perfection; this is a director who knows the difference between a
natural dancer and a created one and he won't blur the distinctions. At
the other end of the spectrum, the Swayze/Rhodes dance numbers have
that wonderful, showy mixture of pride and abandon that comes only with
a lifetime of training.
"Dirty Dancing" is also a musical, one
of the most significant fusions of drama and dance since "Saturday
Night Fever"--and more involving. It has some the cliches of classic
musicals: the untried girl who must go on for the pro; the wrong that
can only be righted by a damning personal confession; the prideful,
wrongly accused hero. And it has a finale that's the utmost test of the
great Brackett and Wilder rule of movie making: Make an audience want
something desperately . . . and then give it to them.
away with these conventions you have to build on completely believable
characters and action, and here is where Ardolino, Bergstein and their
impeccable colleagues shine--choreographer Kenny Ortega and his
sensational young dancers, cinematographer Jeff Jur, editor Peter
Frank, costume designer Hilary Rosenfeld, production designer David
Chapman, John Morris, who did the music, R/Greenberg Associates, who
created the electrifying opening and closing credits, et al.
is loaded with the real thing--sketched in swift, sometimes stinging
detail: the low lifes, Kellerman's nephew Neil (Lonny Price) who, in
the tradition of short, rich young men, is a blowhard and a bully;
Robbie-the-Creep (Max Cantor), the philandering med student, and Baby's
spoiled sister Lisa, who almost (but not really) deserves him. And the
memorable tap man, Charles Honi Coles, leading Kellerman's
ultraconservative dance band through a lifetime of waltzes and fox
One shock is saved for the trip home: with its PG-13
rating, this may be a movie intended for young audiences--certainly
it's one of the rare films that take seriously the considerable
struggles of young people to find their place in the real world. If so,
they're going to have to share the theater with a lot of bemused
adults, torn between libido and nostalgia.
'DIRTY DANCING' A
Vestron Pictures presentation in association with Great American Films
Limited Partnership of a Linda Gottlieb Production. Producer Gottlieb.
Executive producers Mitchell Cannold, Steven Reuther. Director Emile
Ardolino. Screenplay, co-producer Eleanor Bergstein. Editor Peter C.
Frank. Camera Jeff Jur. Choreography Kenny Ortega. Musical score John
Morris. Music supervisors Danny Goldberg, Michael Lloyd. Music
consultant Jimmy Ienner. Costumes Hilary Rosenfeld. Production design
David Chapman. Associate producer Doro Bachrach. Art directors Mark
Haack, Stephen Lineweaver. Sound John Pritchett. With Jennifer Grey,
Patrick Swayze, Jerry Orbach, Cynthia Rhodes, Jack Weston, Jane
Bruckner, Kelly Bishop, Lonny Price, Max Cantor, Charles Honi Coles,
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
On the Set of His First Film Since 'Dirty Dancing'
July 24, 1988
By STACY JENEL SMITH,
Swayze has discovered that with huge success comes the feeling
"everything is designed to help you sell out." He doesn't like the
For years, the Houston-born actor with the Adonis body
and good ol' guy face has been talking a true believer's line when it
comes to the subject of artistic integrity. Now riding the tidal wave
of his "Dirty Dancing" success--magazine covers, mob scenes with fans,
and a Barbara Walters interview behind him--Swayze is finding himself
with the opportunity to practice what he preaches.
people who want me to do a cologne. They want to call it 'Patrick,' "
he scoffs. "I was offered a fortune to make exercise videos. Posters,
all kinds of stuff--something like $10 million worth. It's insanity.
I'm not going to do any of it."
What Swayze is doing is producer
Joel Silver's $15-million "Road House," now shooting in the Santa
Clarita Valley near Valencia. Due out next winter, it's the first
feature Swayze has made since "Dirty Dancing" mamboed its way to
box-office heaven, and it's a decided switch from the romantic "women's
movie" that marked his breakthrough.
"Road House" has Swayze as
a bouncer with a difference (a Ph.D. in philosophy) who takes on the
chore of cleaning up a rowdy Missouri honky-tonk and soon runs into
trouble from local kingpin Ben Gazzara. Sam Elliott is Swayze's buddy
and newcomer Kelly Lynch provides the love interest.
is chockablock with the sort of macho-minded ingredients that have
become producer Silver's stock in trade in movies like "48 HRS.,"
"Commando," "Lethal Weapon" and this summer's Bruce
Willis-vs.-terrorist adventure, "Die Hard."
It features stunts
ranging from a high-speed chase in which a Mercedes is blown up in
midair to a "big foot" truck smashing through a plate glass window.
Instead of lifts, splits and swiveling hips, Swayze will be seen
executing a combination of nine different fighting styles, from basic
street scuffling to exotic kick boxing.
After five days of
shooting a fight scene on a river bank near Fresno, Swayze, 35, had to
have 80 cc.'s (approximately 2 1/2 ounces) of fluid drained from the
damaged left knee that's plagued him throughout his career. Four
operations on that knee led to Swayze's 1978 decision to move to Los
Angeles from New York--where he had studied and performed with the
Harkness, Joffrey and Feld dance companies--and channel his drive into
an acting career.
More surgery now looms. "Running, I think, is
difficult for him," says director Rowdy Herrington. But he adds that
whatever pain the actor has experienced, it hasn't slowed him or the
production down. Even stunt coordinator Charles Picerni says that among
other things, Swayze handled a stunt that required making a 20-foot
drop from a rooftop to a truck bed.
During a break in shooting,
Swayze talks about his physical woes with the unemotional air of a
professional athlete doing a locker-room interview.
he says, asked how he initially hurt his back. Then, off-handedly:
"I've had so many injuries." But he's quick to point out that they
haven't stopped him yet.
What Swayze's anxious to get across is
his desire "to turn an action film into a performance film--by turning
this character into a real, feeling human being."
He also hopes
to attract a considerable portion of his female following to "Road
House" by bringing as much sensitivity to his tough-guy-with-a-brain
character as possible.
While it isn't a romantic film, "Road
House" does have a romantic moment or two, he notes. "The love scene is
probably the hottest I've ever done, and clothes don't even come off.
powerful about a love scene is not seeing the act. It's seeing the
passion, the need, the desire, the caring, the fear," Swayze adds. "You
don't need to get graphic unless the actors can't deliver the goods. .
. . Maybe that's not always true, but in most cases it is. Sometimes
it's just that the film maker wants a little porn for himself. I don't
believe in that."
One of the creative collaborations in which
Swayze and his wife, actress/dancer Lisa Niemi, engage, he says, is
"figuring out these love scenes together in advance, working out what
is going to make them the hottest."
The at-home choreography
also helps him, "because it's very scary to do a love scene. You're
displaying something private with 50 people on the set watching. I
don't think you ever get used to it, because, boy," he laughs, "it
still intimidates me!"
Since Swayze fans have proven ravenous
enough to queue up for a chance to sleep in the same hotel room he used
while on North Carolina location for "Dirty Dancing," it's not
surprising that admirers have been out en masse whenever the "Road
House" company has worked in public.
(In one frequently-cited
case, the film production unit was working on what was thought to be
inaccessible private land--but a pickup truck full of middle-aged blond
women trundled in just the same.)
Swayze is widely perceived by
his co-workers as being generous about giving time to his fans. Several
members of the production team remember a night when he was still out
signing autographs as the crew was leaving.
"He hasn't realized
yet that he's not going to be able to sign an autograph for everyone
who wants one," says his manager, Lois Zetter, who said she receives an
average of 50 pieces of fan mail addressed to Swayze each day. "He has
very strong feelings about what he owes the fans."
A few days
later, in the quiet of his motor home dressing room, Swayze talks
wistfully about getting away from it all. His wife recently spent six
days alone in an isolated mountain cabin in order to get back in touch
with herself. He would like to do the same.
"When I think about
it, it brings up a lot of emotions, because I need that. I need it
bad," he says. "I'm feeling like I'm walking on the edge of a cliff
that drops off either side. If I don't keep my focus straight and
clean, I'll fall.
"I thought I had prepared myself for this
success," says Swayze, whose earlier movies include "The Outsiders" and
"Red Dawn." "I've dealt with a certain amount of notoriety
for six years now, so I felt I knew the ropes. But I knew nothing."
decision to "disappear and bury my butt in acting classes" after his
almost hysterically lauded 1980 film debut in "Skatetown U.S.A." has
become a shopworn article of his celebrity lore. Determined to avoid
categorization as a beefcake teen idol, he rejected several of what he
deemed "crotch first" roles. He guessed early fame "would mess up my
Swayze is already preparing for his next role--a
Kentuckian who comes to Chicago to avenge thedeath of his brother, a
cop--in Lorimar's "Next of Kin." The picture's set to roll in
Meanwhile, he's had the bed taken out of his
dressing room and replaced with portable recording equipment. Between
"Road House" takes, he is hustling to finish writing songs for the
sound track of his upcoming movie, "Tiger Warsaw," a low-budget drama
he completed before "Dirty Dancing."
Based on Swayze's new
celebrity, Sony's fledgling film distribution arm now plans to give
"Tiger Warsaw" a nationwide release in September (the company's first
film release). Swayze, who plays the estranged son of Piper Laurie,
returns home 15 years after a violent scene during which he shot his
In contrast to his $1 million "Road House" fee, Swayze
has said that he and the rest of the "Tiger Warsaw" cast took "almost
nothing" in payment.
(Swayze and Niemi completed "Steel Dawn"
seven months before "Dirty Dancing" opened. The futuristic Western
opened and died in two weeks last November, taking in a paltry
$526,000. This year, hyped by on-sight billboards touting Swayze's
name, it was resurrected in video stores. Vestron Pictures reports
sales of 400,000 units to rental outlets.)
As for other film
plans, he's high on a Columbia project that would team him with Robert
Duvall--"but I really shouldn't say too much about it"--and he's
"mixed" about the much-discussed "Dirty Dancing II."
times a sequel is a rip-off. People think they can get away with less
because they've got a built-in audience. I don't want to be involved
unless it looks as if it has a chance to be better than the first one.
with "Dirty Dancing" passing the $125 million mark in domestic and
foreign box-office revenues, Swayze and Niemi have "about 10" projects
in the works under their own production company banner, Troph
On a Friday afternoon inside the Valencia
warehouse that's serving as a sound stage for the "Road House" team,
crew members cluster around Swayze as he shows off snapshots of the
foal his Arabian mare delivered the night before. The event kept him
and his wife busy most of the night at their five-acre ranch in the
foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Even so, he looks only slightly
Swayze says he's had a total of six hours' sleep in three days.
been an insane schedule, and also, the racehorses are going inside my
head," admits the former Houstonite in his normal off-camera drawl.
"But I have a well of energy that's never run dry. People say, 'You'll
burn out.' I say, 'Really? Watch me.' "
An Afterlife Love Story
July 13, 1990
By SHEILA BENSON, TIMES FILM CRITIC
increasingly fragile and unpredictable world, "Ghost"(citywide) might
well strike a seductive chord: a lover from the afterlife hovering over
his beloved to keep her from harm, trying to communicate the love he
couldn't express to her in life.
The movie's slogan is
"Believe," not an unreasonable request. But even those who'd be happy
to comply must get past "Ghost's" one casting jaw-dropper, a certain
woolly-mindedness to its script and a production prettified to the
point of stickiness.
With some of its actors--Demi Moore as the
cracked-voice, desolate lover; Whoopi Goldberg as an extremely
reluctant spirit go-between and Vincent Schiavelli as an irascible,
subway-dwelling ghost who will teach our novice tricks of the nether
world--things are in the best hands possible.
But Patrick Swayze
as a corporate New York banker? The filmmakers know Swayze's appeal
perfectly well: He has to move, he has to turn dancing into an act of
lovemaking and he has to take his shirt off more often than Sigourney
Weaver. All this he does, no matter how implausible the surroundings;
you even begin to suspect that certain scenes were earmarked Swayze
In all his athletic scenes, leaping through
doors, leaping between uptown and downtown trains, leaping on an
assortment of villains, Swayze is just fine. It's the movie's big
cosmic questions that throw him; for these he's reduced to a look of
total stupefaction--not the movie's finest moments, although they may
be some of its most collectible ones.
Ah well, the same
audiences who bought Jennifer Beals as a rugged shipyard welder in
"Flashdance"--from the same studio--will probably have no trouble with
Swayze's banker. Put it down as wish fulfillment.
Bruce Joel Rubin has had fun updating the rules governing ghostly
behavior: Today's ghosts don't seem to be able to whooooosh places at
will. In New York they must still take the subway, although they can
change without a transfer. Making objects move, however, is harder than
it might seem; it takes a lot of practice--and first-rate special
effects, which "Ghost" fortunately has.
Rubin is less successful
with the lovers' winsome dialogue; the bit with Moore saying "I love
you," Swayze answering "Ditto." Rubin's frail little plot involves
skulduggery among the bank accounts and supposedly bright central
characters who can't seem to tell the snakes from the saints. "Ghost"
is billed as a mystery, but it doesn't stay one long: The villain's
sincerity is about as real as Eddie Haskell's, and as transparent. In
any case, mystery isn't the point of "Ghost."
Zucker is packaging the distilled essence of romantic yearning and he's
done a canny job of it. First there's his setting: A lot of "Ghost"
takes place in a yuppie dream of a Manhattan TriBeCa loft, all muted
creams and taupes and beiges, with enough square footage to set up a
bowling alley. In the bathroom.
Then he teases us with one
situation after another in which we think Swayze's Sam Wheat will
depart this life. Will it be as he helps the movers wrestle a highly
symbolic antique angel through his loft window? Will it be at the hands
of a late-night intruder, as he and Demi Moore's Molly Jensen smooch
over the clay she's shaping on her potter's wheel?
staging of this scene isn't subtle but it's certainly effective. He
mixes his audience's childhood memories of messing around with silky,
squishy, slippery clay with the full-blown visual eroticism of two
adults sharing the same sensual experience--and each other. It's an
almost tangible charge, and probably before you get out to the theater
parking lot it will have been knocked-off by seven less adroit
One way or another, Sam does die, Molly does mourn
and after a sort of baptismal sprinkling of astral dandruff, Sam begins
to figure out his ghostly guidelines and the fact that Molly is in
danger. Most importantly, he discovers that psychic Oda Mae Brown
(Goldberg), the biggest charlatan since the Wizard of Oz, is the only
person on Earth who can hear him. With her arrival, this little
spun-sugar movie gets some needed vinegar.
Oda Mae, stunned to
discover that for the first time her gift is real, is Goldberg in her
element, giving the film its kick and energy. In the three-way scenes
with Sam and Molly, as Sam's mouthpiece on Earth, translating,
transposing, deleting in outrage when his language offends her,
Goldberg is gleefully, wickedly funny. Working out the villain's
comeuppance, she's even better.
As the anguished and vulnerable
Molly, Moore manages to give backbone and definition to a role that
must be played largely through sheets of tears. Clearly the hope is
that the audience is in a similarly soggy condition and doesn't giggle
at moments when they should be wowed, like Sam's radiant oneness with
the hereafter. It may be pushing believe one step beyond.
Dancing in like Flynn
* Got a musical for Patrick Swayze? Bring it on!
January 04, 2004
By Elaine Dutka,
SWAYZE, who made his name as the hunky dance
instructor-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks in 1987's "Dirty Dancing,"
will be displaying his moves onstage in Bob Fosse's "Chicago,"
beginning Wednesday at the Pantages Theatre for a three-week run. To
prepare for the role of Billy Flynn, the slick legal eagle popularized
by Richard Gere in 2002's Oscar-winning movie, the actor put in a
short, unadvertised stint in the Broadway production, his first
appearance on the Great White Way since "Grease" more than 20 years
ago. Next year, he'll star as Allan Quatermain in Hallmark
Entertainment's "King Solomon's Mines" and (one of the town's
worst-kept secrets) appear in "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," set for
release in February. Closest to his heart, however, is "One Last
Dance," 17 years in the making. Written and directed by his wife, Lisa
Niemi, it's part of their attempt to revive the movie musical -- a
species on the rebound after "Chicago" and "Moulin Rouge" scored big.
Is it harder to "razzle-dazzle" an audience after they've seen "Chicago" larger than life -- on celluloid?
at all. The film actually created a giant resurgence in the musical's
Broadway road companies. "Chicago" continues to work so well because
it's so contemporary. These days, everything is smoke and mirrors and
showmanship -- with the perpetual undercurrent of a lie. Billy Flynn,
this Svengali ringmaster, manipulates people to his way of thinking --
no matter what the truth. The challenge is to bring a level of reality
to such a stylized, almost vaudevillian concept. And to avoid falling
down those stairs at the side of the stage when I'm making my grand
entrance. I had a gymnastics scholarship and rodeoed for three years
but, even so, they're an accident waiting to happen.
Were you a fan of the movie?
[director] Rob Marshall did with people who weren't real dancers blew
me away. He and the cinematographer created movement in every shot. If
I had my druthers, I'd have cast unknowns and gone with the power that
creates. But filmmakers need drawing cards -- a Catherine Zeta-Jones, a
Renee Zellweger, a Richard Gere -- who not only pulled it off, but put
people in the seats. I could kill myself for not going after that role.
Are you fully recovered from the 1997 horseback riding accident that shattered your legs and left shoulder?
have a titanium rod in my right femur, 15 anchors and 20 staples in my
shoulder. I'm the 6 Million Dollar Man, setting off alarms in airports.
Fosse's steps require a virtuoso level of athleticism, but, at 51, I'm
in the best shape ever. I no longer drink, and I'm trying to lose
cigarettes in my life. I was born with this intensity and drive like my
dance-teacher mother, a powerful, talented beast with a "perfection"
mentality. I spent so many years trying to be "Patrick Swayze" rather
than "Patsy's son." Dad was a cowboy with this sweet, loving energy,
and I inherited that from him. That soft but hard quality, I think, is
what made my career work.
Did you draw on your experience with the Eliot Feld and Joffrey ballet companies in making "One Last Dance"?
cleaned it up because no one would believe how grueling it was. Telling
the complete truth would get in the way of storytelling and seem bitter
or depressing. Still, no dancer calls it "suffering" because it's such
a gift to have an opportunity to do what you're trained to do. I only
abandoned that world because I didn't want to subject my body to that
anymore and knew my career would be finite. "One Last Dance" drew
standing ovations at film festivals in Philadelphia and Houston, and
we're looking for a distributor. It deals with that moment in time when
you give up a dream and, though we don't go for the "Rocky" ending, it
passes the "goose-bump" test. Because studios are consumed with
blockbusters, and TV is so far down the road of "reality" crap, it's up
to the artists to take responsibility for the product.
You promised Gene Kelly to do everything in your power to pump life into movie musicals.
saw "One Last Dance" when it was a play and convinced us to make it a
movie. He was my hero, an athlete -- guys could relate to him. I'm
going to make sure "An American in Paris" gets remade -- with me in it.
I agreed to do the retelling of "Dirty Dancing," dancing this little
girl's heinie off, for free. Keep your money, I said to Miramax. Just
give me your musicals -- they bought the rights to "Damn Yankees,"
"Pippin" and "Rent" -- and your next hero roles.
-- Elaine Dutka