Dirty Dancing was originally predicted by executives at Vestron Pictures, the small studio that produced the low budget film, to be a huge flop. It is ironic then that three decades on the film continues to attract as many fans today as when it first opened at the box office in August 1987, and then in the UK two months later.
The Dirty Dancing phenomenon has produced a prequel. a West End musical, a recent TV adaptation, sing-a-long cinema screenings and has inspired first dances at weddings across the world. The soundtrack to the film has sold 32 million copies worldwide and includes the song, ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,’ which won both the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Original Song, and a Grammy Award. It is, undoubtedly, one of the most commonly sung songs at any karaoke or wedding party.
Written and co-produced by Eleanor Bergstein, the film is loosely based on her childhood experiences of attending summer holiday camps with her family in the 1960’s as well as her own dancing competitions as a teen. The director was Emile Ardolino, who also directed the charming and successful 1992 film Sister Act. Kenny Ortega, who was trained by the famous Hollywood dancer Gene Kelly, took the job as the choreographer of the dance scenes and production started in September 1986 in North Carolina and Virginia.
It tells the story of a 17 year old named Frances, although everyone calls her ‘Baby’ (Jennifer Grey), embarking on a family holiday in the Catskills in 1963. At Kellerman’s holiday resort she meets Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), a dance instructor who engages in late night illicit dancing with his friends, the resort employees. Baby learns to dance, falls in love with Johnny and learns some hard lessons about life and her father Jake (Jerry Orbach).
It is not a complicated film and the plot contains no twists or surprises. Johnny is irresistible from his first sweep of the dance-floor in his tight black pants. Baby is adorably enamoured with him as soon as she sees his ‘dirty dancing’ and the audience can predictably tell where all this smouldering tension is going to lead. An unexpectedly pregnant friend and scheduled abortion is the convenient backstory for Johnny to teach Baby to dance and the rest is cheesy cinema history. This is Baby’s sexual awakening and it is shown in unsubtle ways, such as her clothes getting smaller and more revealing the more she learns to dance.
Dirty Dancing feels dated 30 years later, although one suspects that it appeared dated in 1987 too! The clothes, hairstyles and music are an unconvincing mashup of 1960’s and 1980’s influences. In one scene, Baby wears 80’s shorts and Keds trainers and later she sits next to her sister whose hairstyle resembles a 60’s beehive. The universe in which the story is set appears to be a far more risque 60’s and not risque enough 80’s. The whole experience leaves the viewer feeling discombobulated about what epoch the story is set in and which set of social morals the characters are supposedly pressured to conform to. The dialogue is also at times very corny and feels even less sophisticated when watching the film in 2017.
Yet, at its heart, Dirty Dancing is still a wonderful film. It is perhaps the dated costumes and corny dialogue that makes the audience feel so nostalgic about it. Audiences also love the film’s optimistic view of life. Some difficult issues are explored in the story: sexism, class discrimination, prejudice, abortion and the repressive expectations of the 1960s American upper class. Flying in the face of all these ugly elements is the joyful idealism of Baby’s character. She is brave and kind, stands up to bullies, demands respect from Johnny and even confronts her beloved father. Her love story with Johnny is both sweet and romantic and reminiscent of many of the romantic dramas of the 1980’s and 1990’s.
Baby’s dancing and most of the dancing in the film is not so ‘dirty’ but more joyous and energetic. The film cannot be called raunchy and sexy compared to the explicit material of mainstream media in today’s world. This leaves the film, when viewed in 2017, appearing to be naive and innocent in its attempt to be risque. It is a struggle not to feel sentimentally nostalgic when Baby stumbles upon the after-hours ‘dirty dancing’ and gazes with wide-eyed wonder at the scene.
It is also easy to feel a nostalgic fondness for the actors in the film. Swayze and Grey are both young and fresh-faced and the chemistry between them is a testament to their acting talents. Filming had been difficult for both the actors and the crew as production first took place in intense summer heat dragging on into the Autumn during which many outdoor scenes had to be filmed in freezing cold weather, including the scene in which Baby and Johnny practice their dance lift in a lake.
Actors were encouraged to ad lib lines and act as natural as possible, which leads to some lovely scenes between Grey and Swayze messing about while dancing and that so charmed the director that they were included in the final cut of the film. Jerry Orbach’s sensitive acting as Baby’s father is also a pleasure to watch. He expertly portrays a man trying to understand his maturing daughter and his changing relationship with her.
Dirty Dancing is still a joyously fun film to watch, full of nostalgia, sweetness and romance. In an era of cynicism and dark storytelling, it is refreshing to watch a film with such innocence and optimism. It ends like all hopeful films of the 1980’s with a dance number with all the characters reconciled and dancing together. It is not difficult to see why millions of people still watch this classic and jump up to dance to ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life’ at parties and weddings across the Globe.
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