| Brogan Earney |
Swayze was cast because of his eyes. “I wanted hooded eyes,” Eleanor Bergstein said in Movies That Made Us. “So we went through picture after picture and I said, ‘Ah! Those are the eyes I want.'”1
Dirty Dancing plays at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, November 24th through Sunday, November 26th. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.
In the year 1987, masculine energy was at an all-time high in cinema. Movie fans all over the country flocked to theaters to watch their heroes do the impossible. Whether it was Dutch and Dillon handshaking their way through an alien Predator, Riggs and Murtaugh taking down drug smugglers in LA, a Robot cop cleaning up the streets of Detroit, or a classically trained dancer redeeming himself and getting the last dance at the Kellerman’s Resort in the Summer of 1963…
“Wait, did I read that right?”
“I get that you were referencing Predator, Lethal Weapon, and Robocop… but did you mention Dirty Dancing?”
Yeah… what of it?
“Isn’t that movie about a rich girl from Upstate New York finding love and learning how to dance? How is that masculine?”
Allow me to explain…
Johnny Castle as played by Swayze is a turning point in the display of masculinity in the 80s. In a decade dominated by muscle brained meatheads, it was refreshing to see a new type of male figure taking over the screen. What Swayze brings to the role is a quiet stillness; he knows he is the toughest in the room, the best looking, the best dancer, but he doesn’t show off or expect anything to be given to him. He lets his actions and hard work do the talking for him. Historically, we all probably remember Patrick Swayze as a sex icon and one of the most attractive leading males of all time. But before Dirty Dancing, none of that was relevant. Sure, he had some great roles and performances, but it was always playing second fiddle to some other young powerhouse actor. In Red Dawn it was to Charlie Sheen, in Youngbloods it was to Rob Lowe, and in The Outsiders it was to every other young dude in the movie. He never really had his moment to shine and show what he can bring as a true leading man, until a script called Dirty Dancing came across his lap. It was at that moment he knew he struck gold.
Before his film acting career, Swayze had been a classically-trained dancer since he could walk. His mother owned a dance studio in Texas and introduced Patrick to the sport at an early age. From there, he went on to study at the Joffrey and Harkness ballet schools in New York before performing with the Eliot Feld ballet, which led to roles on Disney On Parade and the Broadway production of Grease.2 “My dream growing up was I wanted to be as athletic a dancer as Gene Kelly and as smooth as Fred Astaire, but I wanted the cool of Frank Sinatra,” Swayze said in a 1995 interview. Unfortunately, due to the reappearance of a knee injury he acquired during his high school football career, he chose to give up dancing and just focus on acting. This led to his supporting roles in Skatetown U.S.A., M.A.S.H, The Outsiders, Red Dawn, Youngblood, etc. Once Swayze read Dirty Dancing, he knew it was the script that could show off what separated him from the rest of the leading men in Hollywood: he can dance.
As soon as he came on board, the production started catering to all of Patrick’s requests. Johnny Castle changed from Italian to Irish, Jennifer Grey was casted in the female lead, Swayze even got his own song “She’s Like The Wind” featured in the film and on the soundtrack! Everything was lined up for him to give the performance of a lifetime… and he delivered.
The entire film is about misconceptions. Baby is the lead of course, so hers is the most obvious: Quiet, little, rich girl who always obeys her Dad’s orders ends up demonstrating her ability to speak up for what she believes in, find her own sense of purpose, and discover new talents. Easy.
The real juice of the story is all in the character of Johnny Castle. The character on page is another piece of the hyper-masculine puzzle of the 80s. But Swayze is able to give him so much more depth and understanding. When Baby wanders into their employee dance party, he doesn’t hit on her, make a fool of himself, or make any inappropriate advances. He simply just asks her to dance and teaches her how to dance. When he finds Penny cold and in despair on the kitchen floor after being turned away by Robbie on the news of her pregnancy, he doesn’t call her foolish, say ‘I told you so’, or leave her be. He helps her up, brings her to a safe place, and offers his own salary to cover the expenses of her abortion. When Robbie makes an out-of-pocket comment after discovering that Johnny and Baby have been having a relationship, he doesn’t ignore him, he hops the fence and kicks his ass, and only delivers body shots so that nobody knows he kicked his ass! Because that is what a real man does, he stands up for the women in his life, and supports them through thick and thin.
Dirty Dancing is a 4-million-dollar film that made over 200 million at the box office and is the first movie to sell a million copies on home video. It’s what made Patrick Swayze an icon and a household name. It led to Ghost, Point Break, and a personal favorite of mine, Road House! After Dirty Dancing, the reign of the muscle brained meathead was over; a new era of leading men took over Hollywood. No longer were they expected to be fierce, strong ,and rugged. They could sing, they could dance, they could express how they truly feel. Think Johnny Depp, Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant, George Clooney, all of them were given a lane because of Patrick Swayze. Then think of the actors who grew up on Dirty Dancing and were inspired by Swayze. Guys like Ryan Gosling, Zac Efron, Jake Gyllenhaal or even Channing Tatum. Hollywood put leading men in a corner and Patrick blew it wide open, because nobody puts Patrick in a corner.
1 “Wurzberger, Andrea. “15 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘Dirty Dancing.’” People Magazine (October 20, 2022)
2 “Sanjoy, Roy “One Last Dance with Patrick Swayze.” The Guardian (September 16, 2009)
Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon