How the period romance 'Dirty Dancing' became a timeless classic

“Nobody puts Baby in the corner.”
Released Aug. 21, 1987
Directed By Emile Ardolino

August is a dark horse month for studios. The big films have already been released in the summer; there might be one or two movies left that they think is good, but don’t have the confidence that it will find an audience amongst the blockbusters. But sometimes you get lucky with a generational classic like “Dirty Dancing.”

Set in the summer of 1963 before the mood of the country changed with assassinations and pop music, “Dirty Dancing” is about teenage Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey), set to spend a few weeks with her family at a resort in the Catskills Mountains of upstate New York. The guests of the upper-class resort can lounge around, play cards, watch shows and even take dancing classes. That’s how Baby meets Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), an energetic young man raised in a working-class family who connects with the best part of himself as a dancer. Baby is instantly smitten with Johnny, who is told by the resort owner that him and the other dancers are not to fraternize with the guests outside of work.

Johnny’s dance partner Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) has an unexpected pregnancy after a short-lived romance with Robbie (Max Cantor), a privileged waiter attending Yale who carries paperbacks by Ayn Rand in his back pocket. Penny’s issues force her to skip an important dance appearance, and Baby is drawn in to replace her as Johnny’s partner. Forging their connection through dancing solidifies their relationship in love.

“Dirty Dancing” gained people’s attention with its provocative title, but the so-called “dirty” portion of the movie is fairly anticlimactic, as there’s only one brief scene where the resort’s dancers grind up on each other during a post-work party. Even still, there’s a remarkable amount of themes spread throughout the movie, including abortion, classism and adulthood, that’s deftly handled by screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, who based the story on her own experiences.

Bergstein’s presence gives “Dirty Dancing” a perspective with a little edge. Neil Kellerman (Lonny Price), grandson of the resort owner Max, attempts to mentor and show Baby around the business he intends to eventually run himself. I’ve seen many films where such a character may be treated as a goof filled with unrequited love, but a number of Max’s comments contain a hint of menace that has only become more relevant today.

Besides Johnny, the other major relationship Baby has in the film is with her father, Dr. Jake Houseman, portrayed by the legendary Jerry Orbach. Jake loves Baby’s good-hearted nature and is pleased she wants to join the Peace Corps, but is clearly taken aback when that perception is put into practical reality. This is a tale about the love between father and daughter as well, a coming-of-age story where the patriarch has learn how to watch his Baby becoming an adult. As the father of three young girls, rewatching the lakeside scene where Baby confronts Jake about his hypocrisy hit me like a ton of emotional bricks. That’s how you know “Dirty Dancing” rises to become great art, because it reveals something new every time you experience it throughout your life.

When it was finally released in late August, “Dirty Dancing” only placed fourth for the weekend. But the word of mouth was strong, and it actually increased its audience in its third weekend. The movie’s momentum continued over the next 10 weeks, consistently staying within the top six through Halloween. “Dirty Dancing” was the 11th top grossing film of 1987, a year in which the top 10 only featured one sequel, no superheroes and no cartoons. How times have changed.

But even looking at that top 10 list from 1987, there can be a pretty strong argument that “Dirty Dancing” is a better and more beloved film three decades later. Nowadays, the most well regarded movie culturally is “The Princess Bride,” but that didn’t find its audience until it came to cable and VHS. “Dirty Dancing” was both a critical and financial success from the start, helped by a best-selling soundtrack that combined the music of the film’s era with new songs released in 1987. Its main theme, “I’ve Had the Time of My Life,” won the film its only Academy Award, and even Swayze contributed a song with “She’s Like the Wind.”

The film remains the highlight of Grey’s career, her first starring role. Fortunately, she’s fantastic in it; a role she believed to be perfect for her and it’s hard to dispute it. It’s a part that required Grey to believably transform from an awkward teenage girl into an elegant dancer, a feat she exceeds through a montage that puts her on equal footing with Rocky Balboa.

The other star-making performance came from Swayze. Trained in various disciples like ballet, Swayze suppressed his dancing skills early in his acting career to offer a more masculine presentation. This is the role that transformed him both in the public and personally, an experience that led him to trust his own instincts when choosing future projects. Swayze would go on to have a successful career in Hollywood, and in hindsight, I can’t think of a single film that wasn’t elevated by his presence. The guy made “Roadhouse” work, for heaven’s sake, and if the actor were still alive today (he passed away after battling pancreatic cancer in 2009), I’d suspect he’d be in the midst of a Matthew McConaughey or Keanu Reeves-like career renaissance.

As many male-led 80s franchises continue to see sequels and reboots decades later, “Dirty Dancing” has become the dark horse classic again, the film you forget how good it is until you watch it again. Many actors and filmmakers rose to their best to make the movie, a period romance film that addresses themes that audiences struggled with in 1987, and even still today. It continues to endure because “Dirty Dancing” is a rare piece of popular entertainment that fulfills its artistic promise at every level.

The Legacy: Not that “Dirty Dancing” didn’t return to the well on occasion. A stage musical based on the film debuted in Australia in 2004 and continues to tour in the United States. Also that year, “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” was a film prequel set during the Cuban revolution and featured Swayze in a cameo role. A stage musical based on the film also debuted the same year. The original was remade as a TV movie in 2017.

The Weekend: As August draws on, the list of notable films will continue to shrink, but there are still gems to be found. Marvel found its first big screen success with 1998’s “Blade,” while Quentin Tarantino pulls a historical hat trick by writing 1994’s “Natural Born Killers,” acting in 1995’s “Desperado” and directing 2009’s “Inglorious Basterds.” This weekend also saw the debut of comedies “Strange Brew” in 1983 and “Bring It On” in 2000.

Next Week: “Hero”