It’s the last week of my look back at essential summer movies. For my final selection, I have chosen an essential summer romance movie. It’s Dirty Dancing from 1987. Starring Jennifer Grey and the late Patrick Swayze, it’s a story of forbidden romance set during the course of one memorable summer. It was released nearly 25 years ago, but there’s a reason it continues to be a film favorite generation after generation.
Dirty Dancing takes place in the summer of 1963. 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) goes vacationing with her family in the Catskills at the Kellerman resort. Baby’s father, Jake (Jerry Orbach), is friends with the owner of the resort the family is staying at. During the family vacation, Baby develops a crush on resort dance instructor Johnny (Patrick Swayze). It turns out the resort staff have after-hours parties. Baby is stunned and intrigued by the “dirty dancing” taking place at the parties. She receives a short, impromptu dance lesson from Johnny. And the sparks of a summer romance start to fly.
But no romance is without obstacles, especially in the movies. Johnny’s dance partner Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) is pregnant by a philandering club waiter. Making maters worse is that the philandering waiter is cheating on Baby’s older sister Lisa (Jane Brucker). Baby manages to get the money from her father for Penny to have an abortion (of course she doesn’t tell him that’s what the money she’s borrowing is for). But having the procedure means that Penny will miss her weekly dance performances, forefiting the salary of both herself and Johnny for the summer. Eventually Baby is brought on as Penny’s substitute. After all, Johnny can teach anybody to dance, right? Their first few days as dance partners are rough. But eventually they work the kinks out.
As their dace lessons progress, Baby and Johnny enter into a secretive affair. Their clandestine romance is discovered when Johnny is framed for being a thief. Baby’s parents and other resort guests are furious. But after Baby starts to smooth things over with her family, especially her father, she and Johnny reunite for the end-of-season talent show. It is here where the film’s iconic dance sequence happens (done to I’ve Had the Time of My Life). The rest of the resort guests join in afterwards and credits roll.
I left out some of how the melodrama plays out. But that’s because it’s not the point of the movie. The real reason to see Dirty Dancing is, of course, the dancing itself. Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze have wonderful screen chemistry together. And it’s a joy to watch their love blossom as the plot unfolds. The film has a soundtrack full of great songs, and it adds to the film’s charm. If Dirty Dancing has a weakness, it’s that at times it feels a little too much like a family soap opera. I would like to have seen some of the characters developed better, especially her father. I mean, you have Jerry Orbach, one of the best actors of his generation. Give him more to do than be a stereotypical protective father figure. Orbach’s performance manages to redeem the thin material he was given. That’s a testament to his gifts as an actor.
Dirty Dancing is not a perfect movie. And that’s okay. Not every movie has to be Casablanca. But it’s a very enjoyable piece of summer entertainment. Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze shine together. Looking at it again recently, I was struck by the depths of Swayze’s performance. Sad that he died so young. But his talents won’t be forgotten as long as Dirty Dancing continues to be discovered and embraced by generations of film lovers.