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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #405: Dirty Dancing

“Dirty Dancing” (1987) has been described as “Star Wars” for women. That may be true in terms of popularity, but story-wise we are talking about apples and oranges here. Just like “Footloose” and the “Footloose” remake, “Dirty Dancing” has a paper-thin plot that serves as an excuse to see well-toned people hit the dance floor and make it look improvised whereas they have been practicing for weeks. Of course it didn’t hurt the film that the male lead was Patrick Swayze, who, while not the best actor of all time, was one of the best on-screen dancers of all time.

So why did I decide to watch this movie? Two reasons: first, it’s on Empire Magazine list of Greatest Movies of All Times and I like to cross things off a list, even though I am not sure why it’s on the list. Second, when I saw it a year ago it was available on iTunes for 99 cents and I was low on cash. I was finishing my second semester in Journalism-New Media at Sheridan College, living off a student loan, and trying to save every dollar I had for, you know, food. But I still need some entertainment during my off hours, so if a movie is available to rent for almost a dollar, I may as well watch “Star Wars” for women.

The plot, for what it’s worth, is as follows. In the summer of 1963 17-year-old New-Yorker Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) goes on a vacation to an expensive resort in the Catskills Mountains. Her wealthy father Jake (Jerry Orbach of “Law and Order” fame) is the personal physician of Max Kellerman (Jack Weston) the owner of the resort, so that helps to get a good room.

Baby develops a relationship with Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), the resort’s dance instructor. By day he’s teaching the old couples how to dance, but after hours he and the rest of the hotel staff get together and really let loose. Baby is taken aback when she sees them dancing dirty. She gets a chance to learn a lot more of Johnny’s moves when his dance partner Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes) reveals she is pregnant. Baby convinces Johnny to let her become his new partner and they begin to train in secret for his performances at a different resort.

Penny’s pregnancy eventual adds whatever conflict the story can get at this point. When her backstreet abortion goes wrong, Baby calls on her father for help. He assumes Johnny is the father, when in fact Robbie (Max Cantor); the womanizing waiter is the one responsible. Doctor Jake is therefore upset at his sweet little girl for hanging out with such a character and forbids her from seeing him again. Yeah, of course a hormonal teen lusting after a buffed up Patrick Swayze is going to listen to daddy and stay away. In case you can’t tell, I am being sarcastic.

There is also a subplot involving thieves at the resort who will end up framing Johnny for their crimes, but that is irrelevant. The inevitable ending is Johnny sweeping Baby off her feet for a big dancing finale after uttering the immortal words “Nobody puts baby in a corner.” That final dance is beautifully choreographed to the tune of “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” during which both Swayze and Grey do a good job, but their story is too shallow.

The fact is there really aren’t that many reasons why these two shouldn’t be together. So Johnny dances professionally for a living. Why is daddy so upset? It’s not like the man is an unemployed bum who is into drugs and alcohol. It might also have been more of a conflict if Johnny had been African-American. The story is set in 1963, wouldn’t it have been more topical and dramatic for the daughter of a rich white doctor to date a black staff member? Otherwise, why bother setting the story in the 60s?

There is an unavoidable remake on the way, which for once might be a good idea. If they do not simply recycle the same story with different actors, there is an opportunity to improve the script. Of course it will be tough to follow in the footsteps of Patrick Swayze who owns this movie and the dance floor. In the meantime, there is always the version with Charlyne Yi and Channing Tatum. It’s only five minutes long, but it’s already an improvement to cast the diminutive Yi opposite the hulking Tatum.


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