Why "Dirty Dancing" is the best girl movie ever

You can keep "Havana Nights" -- nothing compares to the original, a sizzling film that offered awkward, smart teens hope that a sexy heartthrob might sweep them away.


Curtis Sittenfeld
February 27, 2004 11:50PM (UTC)

There are other reasons why "Dirty Dancing" is the best girl movie ever made, and other reasons why its fans are so passionate, but the defining one is this: "Dirty Dancing's" basic proposition is that it's entirely reasonable for a moderately attractive young woman to find love with a smolderingly hot man. Go ahead and make jokes about Patrick Swayze in, well, pretty much any other role he's ever played. But as Johnny Castle, goy dance instructor at a Jewish resort in 1963, he's a swoon-inducing heartthrob.

This is why seeing Swayze in "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," the "Dirty Dancing" remake out today nationwide, is so depressing. Swayze's face looks both bloated and stringy, and because he wears similar clothes and plays a similar, if much less significant, role -- this time, he's the dance instructor at a swanky Havana hotel in 1958 -- it's as if ever since he mouthed "And I owe it all to you" in the last scene of the original, he's been preserved in formaldehyde. If Swayze embraced his age, it would be fine, possibly even sexy. But in the new movie, he's meant to be a kind of ageless, sexless dance Buddha who dispenses hollow psychobabble about "moving though your fear" to the main character Katey Miller (Romola Garai). He's so aggressively terrible that it's as if every minute he appears onscreen reduces his hotness in the original "Dirty Dancing" by 1%; luckily, he appears for only about ten minutes.

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The bad news is that as awful as he is, Patrick Swayze is far from the worst thing about "Havana Nights." Set five years before the original, with an otherwise completely different cast, it contains lines and shots that echo "Dirty Dancing" -- but not successfully. The plot, which unfolds against the backdrop of Fidel Castro's rise to power, could feel far more urgent than the abortion story driving the original movie. But instead, the swirl of class, race and dancing -- Cuban Javier gets fired from his waiter job at the hotel after he's spotted with American Katey, Katey then convinces him to enter a contest to win money -- lacks real momentum. The good news? All the shortcomings of "Havana Nights" remind you what a truly excellent movie the first "Dirty Dancing" is.

If you haven't indulged lately, a recap: In the summer of 1963, 17-year-old Baby Houseman (Jennifer Grey) goes with her parents and sister to a resort in the Catskills. While her parents play golf and her sister frets about lipstick, Baby secretly immerses herself in the staff subculture. When a dance instructor needs an abortion, Baby volunteers to fill in for the woman at a performance at another resort. As circumstances with the illegal abortion and Baby's family become more complicated, Baby and her dance partner Johnny Castle have no choice but to hold many sweaty rehearsals featuring much physical contact in increasingly skimpy clothing. Pegged as "a nicely bittersweet genre movie" by the New York Times, Dirty Dancing cost $6 million to make and grossed over $150 million worldwide.

I was 12 when my best friend Annie and I saw "Dirty Dancing" at Mariemont Theater in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1987 and afterwards I wrote a rapturous, multi-page plot synopsis in a powder blue journal with a cat on the cover and a thin blue ribbon for place-marking. I loved "Dirty Dancing" because of the dancing, which is just so much fun to watch. I loved it because it tackles big subjects, like first love, parental tension, and class conflict, without neglecting the smaller subjects: Minor characters are well-developed (smarmy resort heir Neil, Baby's annoying sister Lisa), and there are so many terrific details and moments (the part where Johnny tries to soulfully run his hand down Baby's raised arm and the side of her torso, and she keeps laughing because it tickles). But most of all, of course, I loved "Dirty Dancing" because of Baby herself.

I couldn't have articulated this as a teenager, but the movie strikes a perfect balance between not taking itself too seriously while never being dismissive or mocking of Baby. She's smart and curious and good-hearted -- she's at her most confident when she's doing the right thing, whether it's warning jerk waiter Robbie to stay away from her sister or comforting dance instructor Penny about her impending abortion -- and she's also fidgety and hesitant and dorky. And, as she figures things out, she's looking forward -- toward adulthood. In "Havana Nights" teenagers exist in the false high school world of overly bitchy girls and parents who don't understand. Baby isn't much older than these characters ("Dirty Dancing" takes place the summer before she enters Mount Holyoke) but she's way more interesting because of her own interest in the adult world.

Unlike many movie heroines whose goofiness is always, at base, supposed to be cute, Baby's awkwardness is authentic to an uncomfortable degree -- and she herself knows it. The first night at the resort, as Baby stands in the staff quarters in her prim sundress watching the employees getting freaky to Otis Redding's "Love Man," Johnny approaches to ask why she's there. She convinced Johnny's cousin to let her accompany him by helping lug food, so she says, "I carried a watermelon" -- and immediately realizes what a weird, dumb comment it was. Even more cringingly, after Johnny first dances with Baby in the same scene, there's a moment when she's finally cut loose, the song ends, she cheers gleefully, and then she realizes that Johnny has wandered off, indifferent to her.

That Baby is, in her gawkiness, so easy to identify with and that she eventually triumphs is, for many of us, a cinematic combo that's hard to beat. "That first dance demonstration when Baby dances with the old woman, and she's moving left where everyone else is moving right, is totally me," says Ellen Battistelli, 53, a director of membership and programs at a reproductive health association who lives in Silver Spring, Md. "And then all of a sudden she gets good, she gets great, she gets so drop-dead fabulous." Or, as a 29-year-old lawyer in Washington who didn't want her name used because she's not out of the "Dirty Dancing" closet said, Baby "has a big nose, like me, and [Johnny] still falls in love with her."

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Johnny, meanwhile, is macho but not threatening but not unthreatening either. His ability to seem tough and rugged while wearing dance pants and tank tops for most of the movie is nothing short of miraculous. And the significance of the male lead who's more attractive than the female can't be underestimated -- it's so rare as to be, à la "Something's Gotta Give" with its older-man-who-dares-to-date-older-woman premise, subversive. (This is why Jennifer Grey's post-"Dirty Dancing" nose job felt like a personal betrayal; for those of us with a weak understanding of the difference between fact and fiction, it implied maybe Johnny didn't love Baby unconditionally after all.)

Unlike passive Katey, who spends "Havana Nights" either allowing or not allowing Javier to touch her, Baby is the one who initiates the affair with Johnny. "It's like she decided that she's going to be a seductress even though she's an ugly duckling," says Susanna Daniel, 28, a writer in Madison, Wis. Or, as Baby herself puts it the night she goes to Johnny's cabin, in the most thrilling lines of the movie, "Me? I'm scared of everything ... Most of all, I'm scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I'm with you." Then, giving legions of teenage girls the erroneous impression that a confession of love is usually a good idea leading to a positive outcome, Baby says, "Dance with me," and the next thing you know, as "Cry To Me" plays scratchily in the background, her peasant blouse is pressed to Johnny's bare tan chest, and his big tan hands are gripping her butt through her white jeans.

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Yes, there are people who hate "Dirty Dancing," or who find it cheesy. But the rest of us not only don't change the dial when "She's Like the Wind" comes on the radio -- we actually turn it up. Such is the excellence of the movie that discussing it reduces intelligent and mature women into effusive seventh graders. "Oh my gosh, it just sings to me," says Ellen. "The music is so fabulous, the romance is so fabulous. It's just such a great thing. I just love it." Says Susanna, an ardent feminist, "I thought it was so romantic that she became a dancer and at the end he came back and rescued her."

Those of us who were in junior high when the movie came out had already bought into notions of romance but weren't as sure about sex, which sounded, frankly, kind of repulsive. "Dirty Dancing" changed all that. Emily Donahoe, 28, an actor in New York, says that the aforementioned white jeans scene was "when I actually felt something go off in me -- like 'Whoa, what was that?' 'Dirty Dancing' gave me a way into the whole world of sex and relationships and how normal the nerves and the goofiness were and how you could find someone who loved you and wanted you despite the fact that you were a jumpy mess."

The movie also served as a form of sex education for Susanna -- much to her chagrin. "My friends and I wanted to go see it, but my mom had heard things so she offered a compromise in which she took me to see it," Susanna remembers. "I really, really liked it, but there were parts where I was squirming in my seat. And then afterward my mom took me out for hot chocolate and she said, 'So did that turn you on? Did these parts make you aroused, because they did for me, and I think we should talk about it.' I denied any understanding of what she was saying."

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Lest it seem like only girls were affected, Jesse Oxfeld, 27, an editor in New York, and his childhood friend Joel convinced their music teacher to transcribe the sheet music for "(I've Had) The Time Of My Life" so they could play a piano-sax duet at their sixth grade piano recital in suburban New Jersey. "It brought the house down," Jesse says. Peter Saunders, 32, a high school teacher in Washington, began taking jazz dance lessons after seeing the movie because, he says, "I was this chubby outcast high school kid, and I wanted to be Patrick Swayze." Recalling this, Peter began to dance in place and pat his chest while asking, "You know that great scene when he says, 'Feel the heartbeat? Guh-guh. Guh-guh.'" Then there's Antoine Wilson, 32, a writer in Los Angeles who along with his wife, Chrissy, blended irony and sincerity when they hired professionals to dance to "(I've Had) The Time Of My Life" at their wedding last spring. The routine, Antoine admits, "was both a joke and not a joke. There's something about that song that you can't shut out of your heart no matter how much irony you employ -- because [on your wedding], you are having the time of your life."

Undeniably, "Dirty Dancing" is a phenomenon: People repeat dialogue from it (my 19-year-old brother likes to break out "Nobody puts Baby in a corner" to show girls how sensitive, and down with their culture, he is); it's surprising if someone hasn't seen it; and it can be referred to, at the public and personal level, with the assumption that everyone will get the reference. The credit card company Capitol One has a commercial running now, 17 years after the release of the movie, in which a couple stands outside saying farewell while -- you guessed it -- "(I've Had) The Time Of My Life" plays in the background. And while other girl movies have become phenomena -- "Pretty Woman," "Clueless," "Bring It On" -- none of them feature hook-nosed heroines planning to enter the Peace Corps.

The only real problem with "Dirty Dancing" -- the dark side of it, if you will -- is, as Susanna puts it, "It was the first of several movies that I thought were teaching me about love when actually they didn't teach me anything. I thought, That's the way it's going to happen. Somebody's going to see me and think I'm special and pursue me despite how weird I act and how unappealing I might be." But, as Susanna now laments, "Men don't have time to go finding gems in piles of coal."

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Some of us, of course, haven't yet come to terms with that painful truth. When I first saw the movie, Baby was, at 18, six years older than I was. Now she's 10 years younger than I am, and I still haven't met the thuggy, chivalrous man who'll tell me I'm the one thing he can't get enough of.

If I'm deranged in my hopefulness, at least I'm in good company. "I want my life to be like the dance at the end," says Ellen who, as you may recall, is 53. "It's got it all: beauty, skill, love, passion, parents begging forgiveness. And she does the jump and he lifts her up, and all of a sudden everybody starts dancing -- the races and ages and classes come together. I want everybody in my life to all of a sudden dance together and to have grace and style and be smiling. Is that too much to ask?"


Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novels "Prep" and "American Wife."

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