Ten Degrees of Eighties: Dirty Dancing
posted by Mickey on 5/20/03
[[The last link in the 80's movie degrees of separation chain was “Ferris Bueller's Day Off” which features Jennifer Grey in a small but pivotal role as Ferris's sister. I am conscious that this is a big call, but I believe my Mum has seen “Ferris Bueller's Day Off,” more times than the W-D staff put together. She used to put it on every time she had a big load of ironing to do.]]
A couple of week's ago, my sister and I were staying with our mother in her hometown in rural Queensland. One afternoon, we decided to rent a video and my sister and I decided “Dirty Dancing” would be a treat for my Mum to watch, as well as a treat for ourselves. My family used to go to my Mum's hometown for holidays a lot when I was a kid, and when my sister and I were driving back to my Mum's place, my sister was telling me that when she was about 14 or 15 and was watching “Dirty Dancing” on the 24/7 rotation typical of young woman of her generation, she had always wished that our family could have gone to a resort like Kellermans, instead to my Mum's hometown, to a place where you stayed in a cabin, and there was entertainment, and you could learn dance steps ...
NICOLE KIDMAN. And get to be deflowered by Patrick Swayze. Tell me about it. Mickey, that is every young woman's fantasy. Men are such fools. So, what did your Mum think of the film?
VON HANGMAN. Umm. Well, in our enthusiasm for the great dancing and the great music and the great lines and Patrick Swayze, my sister and I kind of forgot that the whole reason Johnny Castle gets together with Baby Houseman is so that Johnny's regular dance partner can get an abortion. My mum found it difficult to get beyond this plot point, and Baby kind of irretrievably lost her sympathy.
NICOLE KIDMAN. Although the abortion story line did not go down well, I am surprised that the dance finale did not change your mum's mind.
VON HANGMAN. Nicole, when Johnny lifted Baby high in the air at the climax of "(I Had) The Time of My Life," he could have dropped her like a sack of potatoes and as far as my mum was concerned, it would have served her right.
Kellermans: with complementary dance lessons in the gazebo and pasteurized milk on tap, this joint had it all, except in the war years, when it had no meat, and in the Depression, when it had nothing...
From the very first moment that “Dirty Dancing” starts rolling through the VCR (black-and- white figures grinding against one another, with lurid pink handwritten titles) right through to the end (basically the same thing, although the closing titles aren't pink), there aren't many movies more entertaining.
The music is great. Well, OK, parts of the music are only adequate. If I never hear “Hungry Eyes” again (not counting the many times in the future I plan to revisit “Dirty Dancing,”) it wouldn't be a major blow. But some of the music is great. “(I Had) The Time of My Life” is the all-time most performed song by groups of schoolgirls swaying drunkenly away from significant events like school formals and so forth. I just made that statistic up, by the way, but I am sure it is true.
If Oscar Wilde, William Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Edition of “The Bible” had collaborated on writing an episode of “Beverly Hills 90210,” they couldn't have come up with more memorable lines than this movie has in it. At least two of the lines, one each for Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, have gone down in 80s movie folklore i.e. Baby saying, “I carried a watermelon,” and Johnny saying, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” These lines, when placed in their context, have the sort of concision of expression that would make a haiku look longwinded. But even some of the lesser characters get as many as a half-dozen or so really memorable lines to put over. For instance, a character as minor as Lisa gets to say, “You wouldn't care if I humped the whole army - as long as I was on the right side of the Ho Chi Mihn trail!” and “But the coral shoes matched that dress!” and “I am so sick of all this rain... Remind me not to take my honeymoon at Niagara falls” and “I've decided to go all the way with Robbie,” not to mention, “Where is my beige iridescent lipstick?” And that is just Lisa. I could do the same for just about every character in the movie.
As well as a lot of great words, courtesy of Eleanor Bergstein's wonderful script, it has got lots of good dancing in it. I will not make some ridiculous claim about how the dancing in “Dirty Dancing” is better than you would see in a Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly movie, because that wouldn't be true, but it is dirtier. How dirty? Well, I admit, not as dirty as some of the action you might see if you visited an adult store and asked the sales assistant if they had anything along the lines of “Horny Mambo Instructress” or “Anal Rhumba Mama.” But in terms of striking a near perfect equipoise between gracefulness and smut, “Dirty Dancing” comes up trumps. Aw, come on ladies, God wouldn't have given you maracas if he didn't want you to shaaaakkkkkeee 'eeeemmmmm!
And this is as it should be, since “Dirty Dancing” is pre-eminently a fable about first love, first sex, and a girl's passage to womanhood. There is a parable about class in the story, too, but this is far less important than the parable about ass. The subject matter of the movie is not disguised. It is pretty much as clear as can be, but director Emile Ardolino presents his theme in different ways, some simple, some obscure. The name of the character, Baby, for instance, is pretty much a giveaway that when the story opens, our heroine is a child. Riding to Kellermans, Baby tells us in a voiceover- “That was the summer of 1963, when everybody called me Baby, and it didn't occur to me to mind …and I thought I'd never find a guy as great as my dad.” The name of Jennifer Grey's character is actually Frances. When does she reveal this adult name? I'll tell you when. Directly after being schtupped by Patrick Swayze.
This brings me to the famous line about carrying a watermelon. If anybody hasn't seen the film or doesn't remember it, Baby has just entered a hall full of proletarians who have paired off and are dry humping one another under the thin camouflage of dancing. Baby has already seen and been dazzled by Patrick Swayze's character, Johnny Castle (the phallic significance of this name is pretty obvious) but they haven't met and when he comes up to her and asks what she is doing there, Baby answers, factually, “I carried a watermelon.” and then winces as if to say, "OMG what a stupid thing to mention." It is a fantastic little piece of writing and acting.
W1: How did you get here? W2: Baby carried me. *Baby Carried me! OMG! What a dork I am. I can't believe I just said that to that hot looking watermelon
Since just about everyone in the world has their own “I carried a watermelon” moments, this line is etched into the collective memory as a perfect epiphany of that miserable embarrassment we all feel when we say something stupid to someone we are trying to impress. At a subliminal level, the watermelon in the line is also a kind of metaphor for fecundity. Baby is embarrassed not just by the stupidity of what she has said, but also by the whole greater issue of her own unexplored ripeness. When she is actually carrying the watermelon, she clutches it both to her breasts and to her belly. Would it go too far to say that Baby is as flustered as she is over the watermelon remark because she senses that on one level she has just told Johnny, “OMG, I want to bear your children”? Well, probably that is going too far. But aw, come on ladies, God wouldn't have given me a nimble mind if he didn't want me to shaaaakkkkkeee it!
About two minutes after uttering the immortal watermelon line, and while Baby is still recovering her equanimity as best she can, and while some pretty raunchy R & B is blaring over the soundtrack (Otis Redding pleading, “Cuz I'm a love man”), we see Johnny insinuate himself across the floor and, in one of the greatest moments in all cinema, the leering wild-eyed perspiring dance instructor leans in to beckon to Baby with his index finger … and how could she resist? (The index- finger come-hither is a Johnny Castle trademark: he makes the same gesture later on to lure Baby onto the log, and again before the climactic dance).
Hey you, the girl who just made the remark about the watermelon, c'mon and dance with me. You know you can't resist. Cuz I'm the love man.
Once on the dance floor, he offers her instruction in the dance step. I don't know what the dance-step is called, but it ought to be called The Hump, since the sole move involved in mastering it, the Johnny Castle way, is to swap pelvic thrusts with your partner. From there, and via a Penny-needs-an-abortion-inspired program of special dancing lessons, over the course of which both Baby and Johnny's outfits get more and more provocative and revealing, it is only a matter of time before the two of them go all the way. But because this is a fable about the joy of sexual awakening, the film-makers go further than just showing that Baby has lost her virginity; we also get to see that she has turned the tables on Johnny so completely with her lovemaking that when they dance together afterwards, he is unable to keep his spaghetti-like hands from groping her at her body in sated voluptuary forgetfulness of all his previous rulings on the importance of appropriate personal space when performing exhibition dances.
I carried a watermelon
At this stage Baby would pretty much appear to have accomplished all that could reasonably be expected of a romantic heroine. Not only has she conquered the heart of a prime piece of twinkle-toed beefcake. She holds him as a helpless captive in her erotic thrall. But there is one more thing she wants before her triumph is complete, and that, of course, is the approval of the previous man of her dreams, her father (Jerry Orbach). Apart from a one-liner about how Dr Houseman thinks she might run off with Arnold Palmer someday, and some snappy one-two dialogue with Lisa about shoes, you wouldn't exactly say that Mrs Houseman is a well-drawn character, presenting as little more than an older version of Lisa. Dr Houseman, however, is very central to the plot of the movie, and to all intents and purposes figures as the third point of the eternal triangle. His role as the kindly dedicated medico who balances professional genius with a certain fond-hearted foolish regard for his special little daughter anticipates in many ways the role Dr John Martin would play over the long course of “Beverly Hills 90210,” as the figure handing out wisdom, moral guidance and loads of cash to Donna Martin, although, of course, the analogy cannot be drawn too closely since, firstly, Dr Houseman gets through to the end of the “Dirty Dancing” story alive and, secondly, is never revealed to have knocked up Mrs Houseman's sister at a hot-tub orgy. But, just as Dr Martin would occasionally get the wrong end of the stick about some of the boyfriends Donna used to torment over the long course of guarding her cherry, so Dr Houseman's judgement goes seriously awry when he favours the court that Robbie the Creep is paying to Lisa, and dislikes Johnny for no better reason than that when he asks who is responsible for Penny's pregnancy, Johnny responds, “I am,” and, when given an opportunity to clear up the misunderstanding, runs off saying, “You would think that, wouldn't you?”
That is why the climax of the movie isn't Johnny and Baby getting together. The climax occurs when Johnny barges in on what would otherwise have been just about the lamest event ever to pass for entertainment in the annals of human history, announces that no-one keeps Baby in a corner, and sweeps her on to the dancefloor where they are able to gyrate in front of everybody, including Baby's parents, in what is not so much a dancing exhibition as it is a bout of simulated lovemaking, and where “the lift” that Baby had previously been unable to perform is surely a terpsichorean representation of orgasm. Now, Baby is a woman. “I think she gets this from me,” says Mrs Houseman, perhaps thinking back, or forward, to some of her sexual gymnastics with Arnold Palmer. At the end of the dance, Dr Houseman confronts the happy lovers. To Johnny he says, “I know you weren't the one who got Penny in trouble. When I'm wrong, I say I'm wrong.” And then he turns to Baby and says, “You looked wonderful out there.” But what he is really saying to her is, “You looked wonderful out there (and no doubt amongst the crumpled sheets in Johnny's proletarian quarters as you gave up your sweet innocence to his frenzied pumping.”) Now that's what I call a happy ending!!!
Nobody puts Baby in a corner
And since that is the end of the movie, now might be a perfect place to type my name and email details, but having looked at the main narrative line of “Dirty Dancing,” I don't want to lose this opportunity to inquire into a few details of “Dirty Dancing” minutiae, if there is anyone out there who may be able to help me. The last time I put out a question of this sort, in regard to the present Emma Bennet gave to Brandon Walsh at the end of their relationship, a reader won my eternal gratitude by telling me it was a watch. Not only was my observant reader able to tell me it was a watch. She could add that Kelly was the one who found it and assumed it was a present for her. This detail was such an uncanny echo of the Tracey Galleon wedding ring fiasco that it would have been handy information to have had before I put up that post, but, if I had never put up the post, I never would have found out. Ex nihilo, nihil fit. So, over to you guys.
When Robbie the Creep declines to assist Penny with the bun he has put in her oven, he comments, “Some people count, some people don't,” and produces from his pocket a copy of Ayn Rand's novel “The Fountainhead” which he hands to Baby telling her. “Read it, but make sure you return it. I've made notes in the margins.” This would be just about the most egregious piece of product placement for any novel ever to have occurred in any film, if the context of the scene wasn't sending the audience exactly the opposite instruction, i.e. whatever you do, don't read “The Fountainhead.” And, faithfully to the wishes of Eleanor Bergstein, I never have. But I would be very curious to know if there is any direct anticipation of the plot or themes of “Dirty Dancing” in the Ayn Rand book. Anybody? As for Robbie the Creep, it is interesting to see the terrible fate that awaits him at the end of the film. At a couple of points it looks as if his attempt to seduce Lisa is going to succeed. However, when Lisa announces, “I've decided tonight is the night with Robbie and he doesn't even know yet” (yet another of her memorable lines) and flounces off to let him know, she discovers him locked in a carnal embrace with bungalow bunny Vivian Pressman (my God, I know her name!). It has already been established that before she began indulding in foreplay with Robbie, Vivian has had her motor pre-revved by the prospect of a bit of lascivious Johnny Castle action, so, all in all, Robbie the Creep, who will now be forced to go ahead and sleep with her after all, really gets some big-time comeuppance there.
It has always puzzled me that there is a piece of really good dialogue near the end of “Dirty Dancing” that nobody, not even people who have seen the film a dozen times or more, ever really quotes, despite its importance. I mean Max's great elegiac speech about how the whole “Dirty Dancing” way of life is about to pass away
MAX. You and me, Tierry, we've seen it all, eh? [Somebody or other] serving the first pasteurized milk to the boarders, through the war years when we didn't have any meat, through the Depression when we didn't have anything.
TITO. Lots of changes, Max, lots of changes.
MAX. It's not the changes so much this time, Tito. It's that it all seems to be ending. You think kids want to come with their parents to take foxtrot lessons? Trips to Europe. That's what kids want. 22 countries in 3 days. Feels like it's all slipping away.
Now, if my sister's testimony is anything to go by, Max was needlessly pessimistic about kids not wanting to take foxtrot lessons anymore. Hell, there is nothing kids want more, particularly if all the non-dance related activities at a resort are going to involve Newman from Seinfeld. I know why Max felt like he did. You suddenly bung a new continent like Europe down on a map of the world and, sure, it is going to be fashionable for a while, but that is going to pass and when all the fuss has died down the kids are going to want to return to good old fashioned foxtrot lessons. My question is, in Max's rather extraordinary summary of highlights from the history of Kellerman's, who is it that he talks about as serving the first pasteurized milk to the boarders? I rewound twenty times and still couldn't make the names out, but someone out there must have a script. For triple bonus points, why is this milk so significant? Everything is slipping away, Johnny is about to give Baby the time of her life, and the only thing on Max's mind is that day the boarders got pasteurized milk for the first time, an event that, in his mind at least, is of comparable historical significance to the Great Depression and the Second World War. Why?
[[All that remains, then, is to announce the next link in the chain of 80's movies degrees of separation. He or she will be the person to be looking out for in the next installment of this series. Hey, having done this once before, you wouldn't think I would be so nervous. I was wondering what Nicole Kidman was doing around here, but it turns out she was here to be my co-presenter for this part of the program.
NICOLE KIDMAN. That's right. And the nominations are: Newman from Seinfeld, Jerry Orbach, Cynthia Rhodes, Jack Weston and OMG Patrick Swayze.
VON HANGMAN. Names to conjure with, beyond a doubt. Are you nervous , Nic?
NICOLE KIDMAN. It is a bit difficult to tell, since my heart beats so much faster every time I'm near you, Mickey.
VON HANGMAN [big capped grin]: OK. [Opening the envelope] And the winner is … [hands envelope to Nichole Kidman]
NICOLE KIDMAN [Voice raised an octave, and bursting into tears and clapping]: And the winner is PATRICK SWAYZE!!!
Patrick Swayze. That is who to be looking for the in the next installment. It's STILL Patrick Swayze season here at W-D. Hell, here it's Patrick Swayze season virtually all year round.
In the meantime: send answers, comments, abuse, marriage-proposals, complementary dance-lessons, beige iridescent lipstick to: