In our Teen Movie Rewind series, we explore coming of age stories and teen cinema, looking at the impact of the films themselves and the careers that they made.
There is no doubt that Dirty Dancing was, and continues to be, something of a legitimate phenomenon. Released in 1987, the film was produced on a lower than usual budget, coming in at around $5 million and yet, punching substantially above its own weight, became not only a smash hit but also found a larger audience in the burgeoning home video market, becoming the first film to sell over a million copies on VHS when released.
It was also a film that was met with pretty sniffy reviews. Despite being one of the most popular films of all time, and having – as seemed to be something of a contractual obligation for many films of the era – an iconic soundtrack, Dirty Dancing has a supposed reputation amongst snobbier film critics and cinephiles for not being that good.
To them, I say, boohoo.
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Part of a cycle of films of the 80s centred around a lead character in the world of dance, Dirty Dancing was part of a trend of 80s films that also saw the likes of Flashdance, Fame and Footloose that partnered up character-driven stories with well-choreographed dance scenes; in some cases the dancing being better than the rest of the story around it (I’m looking at you Flashdance).
Dirty Dancing’s popularity is much deserved and the film itself is wonderfully entertaining, while also being something of a rare film from the period it came from; it’s a film written by a woman and which actually deals with feminine themes and stories from a female point of view.
A teen movie told from the point of view of a female protagonist was nothing new in the 1980s, so Dirty Dancing wasn’t breaking any ground in that regard; we already had the John Hughes/Molly Ringwald batch of films a few years prior to the story of Baby (Jennifer Grey). But when one compares Dirty Dancing to those movies, one can see how Sixteen Candles could only have come from a male writer.
Yes, there was Flashdance which focused on Jennifer Beals’ character Alex, but the film was once again very male-driven behind the camera, not to mention incredibly leery and male-gazey when it came to the dance numbers and the choreography. Given that the script of that film was co-written by Joe Eztherhas who would go on to write Showgirls and Basic Instinct, that’s really no surprise.
While Dirty Dancing was directed by a man, Emile Ardolino, there is something refreshingly feminine about Dirty Dancing’s portrayal of coming of age and sexuality, and while the film is all about suggestive dancing, its gaze is very much a female one.
The film made Swayze into a superstar who would go on to star in the equally successful Ghost, another romantic box office smash, while mixing it up with action films such as Point Break and Road House. Dirty Dancing wasn’t the first film to star both himself and Grey, the two having worked together two years previously in Red Dawn, where they didn’t exactly get along very well. It was when Grey read against Swayze during the audition process that the chemistry between them became very noticeable and with it came the decision to cast the two of them together.
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Some of that antagonism did return during filming, as evidenced most famously during the montage when Swayze slides his hand down her arm and Grey continually breaks character by giggling, causing Swayze to sometimes lose his temper; the moment feels raw and honest and was left in the film.
The film is one very much told from the point of view of Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman, with Grey in nearly every single scene of the film, carrying it brilliantly for much of its running time. Where most other female-driven teen films would cut back to her male best friend or the male object of her affection, Dirty Dancing holds firm from Baby’s point of view, allowing us to see the world of The Catskills, where the film takes place, and of Johnny himself from her eyes. It’s a creative decision that makes the film feel uniquely ground-breaking for the era, not least in its love scene, which puts more emphasis on Swayze’s physique than it does on Grey’s.
The film builds up to a grand dance number, and with it one of the most quoted lines of all time; not that one wants to say that “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” is right up there with “Here’s looking at you, kid”, but given how famous a line it is, maybe the time has come to admit that it is pretty damn impactful instead of trying to pretend that Dirty Dancing is some guilty pleasure.
For a film set in the 1960s, it’s perhaps none more 80s when it comes to the soundtrack. ‘Hungry Eyes’ by Eric Carmen, ‘She’s like the Wind’ performed by Swayze himself and of course, ‘The Time of my Life’ by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, all ensured that the soundtrack album was, and continues to be, one of the biggest selling and most popular of all time.
Soundtracks may not be considered as vital as they once were when it comes to movie marketing, with some of the biggest films of the current era going for the jukebox approach of using classic songs in their films (Guardians of the Galaxy being the biggest and most recent example), but during the 80s, a film wasn’t anything if it didn’t have a soundtrack of original, ready-made hits on it.
Dirty Dancing followed a trend that was becoming a major marketing factor in Hollywood during that decade, a decade that brought with it Top Gun with Kenny Loggins and Berlin, Rocky III and ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and Flashdance with ‘What a Feeling’. For all the aesthetic wonders of the film (good looking cast, great choreography, crowd-pleasing finale), it’s the sense of female exploration that remains Dirty Dancing’s greatest legacy, not least in being unafraid to go to darker places if need be.
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Lest we forget, Dirty Dancing is a film that features an abortion plotline. While many other teen films of the decade would go on to be very highly regarded despite the many problematic elements within them, Dirty Dancing was always thought of as somewhat lower than those films. Its development and portrayal of abortion, class, and female sexuality made the film something of a groundbreaker for the decade and these themes were never once used to facilitate a joke or a laugh in the manner another film might have done.
The film being produced by an independent studio, in this case, Vestron, with a lower than average budget, most likely allowed the abortion plotline to stay in the film. It’s dealt with in a serious manner and always reminds the audience that the film is never quite as frivolous or as silly as its reputation would suggest.
We all know the film for the dance numbers, that line, and some of the most famous scenes of the decade, but Dirty Dancing is a film that has always had more meat on its bones than one might realise, and whilst being successful and popular, it also deserves to be known for being a hell of a lot better than its reputation.