I watched the first of the Audience picks, and I still like it.
It’s the Summer of 1963, the British Invasion isn’t happening for a few months, and 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) is vacationing with her family in the Catskills. It turns out that Max (Jack Weston), a friend of Baby’s father, Jake (Jerry Orbach), runs the resort and has instructed the wait staff to seduce the daughters of the guests. One night, Billy (Neal Jones), one of the locals, invites Baby to a secret dance party that the staff throws after hours. There she meets and briefly dances with Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), a 26-year-old dance instructor at the resort. Yes, he’s more than one-and-a-half times her age, but I guess it was the 60s?
Johnny’s dance partner, Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), gets pregnant after sleeping with Robbie (Max Cantor), one of the staff who goes to Yale Med School. Robbie quickly starts to move onto Baby’s sister Lisa (Jane Brucker) and abandons Penny. Baby borrows money from her father to get Penny an abortion, but Baby has to take Penny’s place at a dance performance at another resort. Baby and Johnny train together repeatedly and do a decent job, aside from not being able to pull off the finale. However, Penny’s back-alley abortion turns out to be done by a hack and she starts to bleed out. Baby gets her doctor father to stabilize her, but Jake assumes that Johnny was the father and bans Baby from seeing her. They continue to see each other in secret.
Johnny gets hit on by a cheating wife, Vivian (Miranda Garrison), but he rejects her. She sleeps with Robbie instead, which fortunately turns Lisa off of Robbie when she catches them. Vivian sees Baby leaving Johnny’s cabin, however, and tries to frame him for theft as revenge for turning her down. You’d think the fact that she got laid anyway would have assuaged her anger, but I’m guessing Robbie is crap in bed. Also, missing out on some Patrick Swayze lovin’ is probably going to anger any woman. Fortunately, Baby alibis Johnny to save him from being arrested and the real thieves are caught, but Johnny gets fired for sleeping with Baby.
At the talent show at the end of the Summer, Jake gives Robbie a recommendation for med school, but then retracts it because he admits he got Penny pregnant. Also, he’s just a jackass in general. Johnny arrives and declares his love for Baby, leading him to inform her father that “nobody puts Baby in a corner.” They end up performing the dance that they’d practiced but this time they nail the final lift, which is so powerful that Dr. Houseman apologizes to Johnny and Baby and apparently classism ends forever.
The prompt here was a movie which began with my first initial (D). I let you all nominate films and I picked a movie using a random number generator. The first time, I let the films be weighted by how many people nominated them and got this movie. I decided to try just assigning one number to each movie to see what would win that way and… this movie won again. So, apparently, the universe wanted me to watch this again.
It’s only when I attempt to summarize this film that it fully hits me just how ridiculous much of this movie is. I know that a ton of people have made fun of it before, but the idea that Dr. Houseman is the bad guy for forbidding his daughter from sleeping with a guy who would be a statutory rapist in some states does not age well. While it’s clear that he’s a bit overprotective and doesn’t have great communication with his children, I’m pretty sure every parent with a high-schooler would be wary of her banging a guy who is pushing 30. Of course, to balance this movie putting the idea that this is okay in the audience’s head, we have Lisa’s journey trying to lose her virginity to Robbie, the elitist jerk, and only being spared that presumably terrible moment of regret by catching him with another woman. On the other other hand, Robbie was literally ordered by his boss to have sex with the customers, so maybe Max is the real crapbag of this film. I was shocked that I’d remembered that we were supposed to hate Robbie but had completely forgotten about Max.
Actually, that’s one of the things that surprised me most on re-watch, how much of this movie really gets forgotten about while we mostly remember Patrick Swayze flexing and Jennifer Grey being thrust into the air. A back-alley abortion that was so poorly done that it almost killed the mother is a large plot point in this film. Having to bring Baby’s father in to save Penny’s life is responsible for Baby and Johnny being separated for the second half. I don’t know if it was intentionally trying to make a point, but this film is one of the rare instances of media pointing out how desperate women would seek abortions even when it was illegal and that it would often go horribly because of the clandestine nature.
Also, I had forgotten exactly how horny this movie was. I know it’s a film that’s famous for conflating dirty dancing and sexuality, but that’s kind of ignoring the unbelievable amount of actual sex that’s in the movie. Everyone in the catskills wants to get it on, from the guests and the wait staff to Lisa and her burning desire to lose her virginity to Johnny and Baby to Vivian the adulterous housewife. Sex so permeates this movie that I am shocked how many parents let their kids watch it. Hell, I think I saw it before I was 10. I think it’s because the dancing sequences are so overwhelming that people literally just forget about all of the wanton sexuality. Given that the movie is set in 1963, it stands to reason that this is really just on the gap between the uptight social mores of the 1940s and 1950s (which consisted of banging people but not admitting to it) and the free love movement of the 1960s (which consisted of banging people and telling everyone about it).
The performances in this movie are solid, no question. The characters are pretty simple (poor guy with heart of gold, poor little rich girl), but there’s a reason why Swayze and Grey are icons for the roles. She has a natural ability to convey her desire through a mask of being a meek good girl. On the other hand, Swayze has a natural earnestness that makes him seem heroic while he has so much charisma that it practically oozes off of his shirtless body. It gives them the perfect balance.
The soundtrack to this movie is so good that, if it had not won the vote, it would be a strong contender for Day 6’s “best movie soundtrack.” Aside from the iconic “The Time of My Life,” which will forever be associated with this film (for which it was composed), the background music is a litany of great 50s and 60s songs. There’s Otis Redding, The Drifters, The Four Seasons, and the Ronettes, and they help convey the setting far better than most of the other aspects of the film. The hairstyles and outfits make this the most 80s version of the 60s ever, but at least the soundtrack puts it on track. A weird thing I’d never noticed before is that they use The Blow Monkeys’ cover of “You Don’t Own Me” rather than Leslie Gore’s original version. While Gore made it into a powerful feminist anthem, the Blow Monkeys sing it from a man’s point of view, which is really odd since the famous line is “nobody puts Baby in a corner,” not “nobody puts Johnny in a jail cell.” I just think it’s a weird twist.
Overall, still a great film. It’s got a lot of stuff in it that I just plain didn’t remember about it, but it’s got so many iconic scenes that it deserves its status as a perennial watch.
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