If you ask me what my favorite movie was when I was a kid, I’ll say Star Wars. And it’s true, that was the movie that I had the most toys from. But in reality, my favorite movie was Dirty Dancing. My brother and I went through a phase (that lasted at least two summers, maybe more) where we watched that movie Every. Single. Weekend. We’d go over to my step-grandparents house, have a big Italian lunch and then watch Dirty Dancing.
I can recite huge chunks of the movie (though I won’t, and you’re welcome). I know every shot, every joke, every moment that made my little girl heart flutter. But I was watching it today for the ten-thousandth time, and it hit me: for all I know the dialogue, I never realized how fucking dark this movie is. Statutory rape, attempted date rape, back-alley abortions, de-facto prostitution and an entire sexual subculture that ultimately functions as a blow in class warfare.
So here it is. Dirty Dancing. We start with Jerry Orbach, the well-off Dr. Houseman, whose family is treated to a luxuriant weeks-long vacation as VIP guests of one of his patients. Yeah. The wealthy patient who thanks his doctor for saving his life? With a month of vacation? I know it’s set in 1963, but Jesus, that’s pretty hard to swallow, don’t you think? Granted, I wasn’t part of a Jewish doctor’s family in the Catskills, so what do I know? I guess they didn’t pay retail price, right?
Anyway, his daughter Baby is the main focus of the movie. She’s seventeen and headed off to Mount Holyoke in the fall, to study Economics of Underdeveloped Countries and join the Peace Corps. I think part of the reason that people love this movie so much is that she’s not a Mary Sue. Bella from Twilight, or Sarah from Labyrinth, are pretty place holders that girls can project their own personalities on. Baby is a person. She’s passionate and optimistic, but also very sheltered and kind of awkward (though not in a Bella-can’t-take-three-steps-without-injurng-herself way). She’s cynical and practical but also brave and kind. She’s a little annoying in her pretentious politicizing, though that’s more implied. She’s pretty, but not movie-star beautiful. In fact, this entire movie is full of people who look…normal. Relatable. The only really startlingly good-looking person is Johnny.
At one point, Neil Kellerman says something that I realized is the theme of the entire movie. “Sometimes, in this world, you see things you don’t want to see.” Baby starts out by accidentally overhearing Max Kellerman (owner of the resort) instructing the staff to flirt with all the daughters, “even the dogs.” When Robbie, the waiter, starts hitting on her sister Lisa, Baby is immediately suspicious. Rightly so; Robbie’s an absolute doucheknuckle who later clearly at least tries to get unauthorized nookie with Lisa.
There are two clearly defined classes of “help” at Kellerman’s. The waiters, who are wealthy college boys from Harvard and Yale, and the entertainment staff. Who are scum, at least to all the uppity white folks. Later, Baby unwittingly sees a whole hell of a lot when she winds up at a party thrown by the entertainment staff. There’s a lot of fancy grinding (dare I call it dirty dancing?) and, compared to the sterile dining room looks like a den of debauchery. Probably is, honestly; although we never see anything more illicit than dry-humping and beer, I have no doubt that there was plenty going on in that smokey room. It’s an eye-opener for Baby, who gets an impromptu dance lesson by Johnny Castle.
Johnny is interesting. Given that Baby is only seventeen and he’s clearly at least in his late twenties (Patrick Swayze was 34 when the film was made), it’s unquestionably inappropriate for him to make sexy time with Baby. And he doesn’t actually seem to be trying to. He teaches her to dance a little and his behavior isn’t sexual at all, despite the up close grinding. He’s kind of just…being nice. Teasing her a little, but the way you’d act with a kid, not a hot girl. Maybe giving his cousin a rough time for bringing her. Baby, on the other hand, is in looooooooooooooooooove. Instant, vicious crush.
Baby again sees something she didn’t want to see when she notices Penny, the lead dancer (and Johnny’s ex-girlfriend/best friend), quietly crying in a corner. Being the helpful, nice girl she is, Baby runs and tells Johnny (and his cousin, who is only in the movie for expository purposes). Suddenly she’s finding out that Penny is pregnant (by Robbie the Creep) and too poor to afford an illegal abortion.
After confronting Robbie (and confirming he is a total doucheknucke) Baby asks her father for the money. And he just hands it over to her, just making sure that it’s not for something illegal. Seriously? That’s trusting. I can only assume that Baby has been a really, really good kid all this time. Anyway, it isn’t just the money standing in the way; there’s a performance at the Sheldrake Hotel that Penny and Johnny are already booked for, the only night the “doctor” will be in town. So Johnny ends up (grudgingly) teaching Baby to do the routine. He’s pretty regularly irritated with her, and she’s not exactly good at it.
This goes on through not one but two dance training montages. With falls and collisions and plenty of eye contact. As they go along, Johnny starts kind of liking Baby; he definitely isn’t seducing her–on purpose. But she’s seventeen, and he’s a good-looking man who is often shirtless. That’s really all it takes. Not to mention all the scantily clad touching, which can’t be avoided. It’s when they head out to the woods to practice balance that they actually get to know each other. They start playing and relaxing, and actually start enjoying each others’ company.
So, they get to the night of the big show. Adrenaline is running high. Penny will be having her illegal abortion while the underage girl sneaks out of her parents house to drive to another town to dance with an older (and disreputable) man in front of strangers. Sounds good so far, right? Baby does an adequate job on a routine that just isn’t very impressive after watching several seasons of So You Think You Can Dance.
There’s a momentary scare, when an elderly couple from Kellerman’s shows up at the performance (the movie calls them the Schumachers, but they’re really the McGuffins), but beyond that everything seems to have gone beautifully. They’re flying high. But when they get back to the cabins, all is not well. Penny’s back-alley abortion has gone terribly wrong. The “doctor” is described as having “a dirty knife and a folding table,” which is just a fun thing to picture. This is what happened before Roe v. Wade, kiddies, lets just remember that. Baby runs and gets her-father-the-Doctor to come tend to Penny, and he is none too pleased to see what his money paid for, and where his daughter has been hanging out. He’s suddenly seeing a part of his daughter he didn’t want to see.
Dr. Houseman immediately (and erroneously) assumes Johnny was the father, and that Johnny and Baby are involved, and forbids her to see “any of them ever again.” So naturally, Baby immediately sneaks out and goes straight to Johnny’s room. As a teenage girl is apt to do under these circumstances. Thing is (and this may just be my opinion), I don’t think Johnny ever intended to sleep with her. He’s been resisting her the more he’s been liking her, and when she first starts touching him, there’s a lot going on in his face. Its like he’s seeing something he doesn’t want to see: Baby seducing him. Which is kind of Lolita, right? Admittedly, I’ve only read the Cliff’s Notes of the Nabokov, but still. I do like that she’s confident at least. It takes some guts to take the lead, especially for a sheltered virgin.
And they totally do it. After a dance scene (or possibly during; the camera is pretty high up).
So here we are. Romance. Dr. Houseman tries to get the family to leave early (while Baby throws him scathing looks), but Lisa’s protests about missing the talent show quash that idea. The only encourages Baby. Once again she heads immediately to forbidden cabins, this time checking in on Penny (who is recovering suspiciously quickly; Dr. Houseman must be amazing). Penny sees something she doesn’t want to see when she notices the sparks between Baby and Johnny. She’s more concerned about the class difference than the age difference, but she’s none too pleased about it.
Once again, there’s a lot going on in Johnny’s face. He looks embarrassed, uncertain, torn. She’s too young and she’s too rich and this is a bad idea. But he’s definitely seen something in Baby he didn’t want to see, and he doesn’t resist. Meanwhile, Baby’s sneaking out once again. Once you go Swayze, you never go back, I guess.
It’s a chance to learn a little more about Johnny, too. He isn’t at all proud of the fact that he’s been sleeping with guests for money (remember the “de-facto prostitution?). He doesn’t say it outright (although we’ll get to that, too), but he’s been the summer man-candy for a few years now. There’s a lot of anger right under the surface – Johnny is pretty tightly wound. Meanwhile, back at her parents room, Lisa confesses that she’s going to “go all the way” with Robbie. Because these girls make good choices about men. Baby halfheartedly tries to dissuade her, but is coolly rebuffed.
And then we get another dance scene. It’s really pretty impressive, how they’ve worked all these musical numbers into a movie that isn’t a musical. I think this is a good place to mention that the soundtrack to this flick is fantastic. It’s all 60’s, of course, but it adds so much to the film. I kind of obsessively played this soundtrack (and the soundtrack from Cocktail, for some reason) all the time when I was a kid. And this was my favorite number to try to mimic, lifts being hard when you don’t have a partner. Especially when you’re nine.
They almost get caught by Neil (who seems to still think he’s Baby’s arranged boyfriend), who antagonizes Johnny about the final dance at the talent show. Baby is determined that Johnny should stand up to them, but Johnny is just as adamant that they are “rich and mean” and therefore won’t listen to the likes of him. Just then, they almost get caught by Dr. Houseman, Lisa and Robbie. Baby pulls him into hiding. Now, he’s made it pretty clear that she’s the first person to encourage him or believe in him and that’s what he finds so irresistible about her. That and her bull-headed bravery. So seeing her cower and hide him pisses him off. And, for the first time, Johnny stands up for himself. Which is a pretty big change for him, and I think that might get overlooked in all the rape jokes. Because that isn’t what I’m saying. He’s not actually a rapist, which is why this movie isn’t Lolita. Even though he’s older than Baby, he actually is pretty emotionally immature. He’s having an emotional coming of age right along with her.
That’s what saves this movie from being creepy (that and it’s awesomeness). This is a coming of age movie where the characters actually come of age. It isn’t about her virginity, it’s that she starts seeing what she kind of didn’t want to see. When she fights for someone, the world will fight back, and she has to be prepared for that. She gets stronger, and wiser, and matures pretty dramatically. She really is a girl becoming a woman; the sexual angle ultimately is just part of the expression of that. And she demonstrates her increasing maturity by apologizing. I know plenty of adults who can’t do that.
Of course, that moment of maturity is shattered when Robbie sees Baby down at the staff cabins and jeers at her, saying that he “went slumming too.” The class system is pretty rigid, and Baby is definitely on the wrong side of the tracks. Johnny defends both Baby and Penny (remember, Robbie was slumming with her) by giving Robbie a well-deserved ass-kicking. Johnny stops short of really beating him though, saying he’s not worth it. I read that as another step forward in his maturity – the ability to walk away from a fight.
So. That whole thing about implied prostitution? Yeah. not implied anymore; Johnny gets outright offered cash for “extra dance lessons” for a guest’s wife. She is obviously very offended when Johnny turns the offer down. Oh, and we also get the most awkwardly hideous rehearsal of Lisa hula dancing. It’s like watching auditions for American Idol.
So. Horrible Evil WASP Woman (or Vivian, for short), who we’ve glimpsed, like, twice in the entire movie, is suddenly really important. She’s a handy physical representation of all this classism, if nothing else. She goes and nails Robbie instead, thus letting Lisa see something she didn’t want to see when she walks in on them.
Vivian is different, though. When she’s doing the Walk of Shame from Robbie’s cabin, she sees something she didn’t want to see: Baby sneaking out of Johnny’s room. So she goes for revenge. Her husband’s wallet was stolen that night, and Vivian “thinks she remembers” Johnny there. Johnny’s alibi that he was “alone and reading” doesn’t fly, but Baby defends Johnny, admitting that she was with him while suggesting the McGuffins…er, the Schumachers might have done it.
Of course Dr. Houseman doesn’t want to see any of this. But there’s a really heartfelt moment between him and Baby, where she apologizes for lying to him and accepts responsibility for her mistakes. She also points out several things he’s been wrong about, and says that she’s very hurt. All of it is handled with more emotional maturity than I had at seventeen, and than lots of adults have now. Dr. Houseman doesn’t say a word, but it’s all over his face. It’s a surprisingly powerful scene.
Oh, hey, Baby’s back at Johnny’s cabin. No surprise there. She finds out that her hunch about the McGuffins was correct–but Johnny is still fired, because he got involved with Baby. There’s anger and frustration from both of them; Baby has lost a lot of her idealism and has hurt her family, and Johnny has still lost his job. Johnny tries to appeal to Dr. Houseman, but it definitely isn’t a welcome visit. So Baby and Johnny say goodbye, assuming they’re not going to see each other again.
And so that’s it. Romance over, virginity lost, wisdom gained. There’s a fairly effective Baby-is-sad montage (though again, not a Bella-sits-by-the-window-for-three-months montage). Time to go home, right after the talent show, which we thankfully don’t have to watch. We do get another solo by Lisa, which is just great.
Dr. Houseman finally realizes what a doucheknuckle Robbie is, which is good. From what I can tell, Mrs. Houseman is still ignorant of every single goddamn thing that has happened in this movie, except that her husband got a bug up his ass for a couple of days. Seriously, where the fuck was this woman? Anyway, Johnny shows up. Totally unexpectedly (to anyone who has never seen a movie, ever, or read a book). And says that one line that everybody quotes.
And then they do the dance of joy!
And of course, Dr. Houseman apologizes to Johnny and validates her newfound maturity (or, as my husband added as I’m writing this, “Oh, yes, please continue to nail my underage daughter!”) . And they kiss, and I usually cry a tiny bit because I’m stupid like that. And then the credits totally fucking wreck the moment. Seriously, whoever chose Merry Clayton’s Yes to blast over the tail of (I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life? Bad call. And that big party at the end? With the “dirty dancing” flooding out on the dance floor? And the rich stuffy white people start dancing with the scruffy underclass? Artistically, that’s a nice extension of Baby’s father accepting her lower-class boyfriend. It sort of says to me that Baby’s stubbornness and bravery could maybe change things after all. Also, Vivian stomps out.
So, there it is. I think it’s a legitimately good movie, not just a teen romance. Certainly the best of those 80’s dance movies. It has aged well. Because it was set in the sixties, it actually feels less dated than other, similar movies. The story isn’t too outlandish, aside from the lavish dance number at the end, where everyone hugs and makes up and loves each other. I actually kind of think the epic final dance number is all in Baby’s head. Not that she’s gone crazy or anything, but that this is how she imagines it would be if Johnny came back. Her father would accept him and apologize, she would get to dance again, everyone would make up, the rich would dance with the poor, and unicorns would fart rainbows. It’s so out-of-place. I hate that I even think that, because of course I want them to have their Ever After! But that’s the thing. Sometimes you see things that you don’t want to see.