80s Movie Challenge Week 2: Dirty Dancing (1987)

Welcome back to our 80s Movie Challenge (#80smc) where we look back at the films that made the 80s so memorable and enjoyable and defined the era!

After Robocop last week Paul Childs stays in 1987 and has the time of his life looking back at Dirty Dancing (for which there may, of course, be spoilers ahead).

I never saw Dirty Dancing at the cinema. I don’t think it was even really on my radar until it was close to the end of its initial theatre run. By then all the girls at school were quoting it and trying to do the dance moves in the yard at break time and that made me pay attention. If girls liked it, then I should watch it too, and if I say I like it, maybe they’ll like me. What could possibly go wrong with my ingenious plan to improve my romantic situation?

Who wouldn’t want to go out with this cutie? Everyone, it seems.

But I had to wait a while. It came out in the UK in October 1987 but wasn’t available to rent until the spring.

In the meantime, I started to hear my mum talk about wanting to see Dirty Dancing too because “It’s got my Orry in it” she’d say. She was, of course, referring to Patrick Swayze’s turn in the US Civil War drama North & South as Orry Main which aired in the UK in December 1986. OK, so my mum fancies the star. That would make getting her to hire it out from Anne’s Videos easy. Back then in 1988 I had a Junior Member’s card and could only hire out PG or U films for myself (Dirty Dancing was a 15, although the BBFC would downgrade it to a 12 in 2004).

So we had a rare family film night. Normally my parents would sit down in the kitchen (at the time we lived in a 3 story house with the lounge in the middle floor) and watch the little black and white TV if my brothers and I had “one of our films” on. I paid close attention to the movie but was ready to hate it. And then something unexpected happened. I liked it. Quite a lot, it turned out.

Surprising then, that the audience at the initial test screening didn’t really engage with it, some saying that they found the story confusing and others missing the point of Penny’s (Cynthia Rhodes) termination altogether. Having watched it again last night in preparation for this piece, I’m not sure how that’s something they could have overlooked – it’s the driving force behind almost everything that happens in the second half of the film.

Maybe it’s because I’m watching it through modern eyes, and women’s’ bodily autonomy is much more of a talking point now than it was back then, but I’m sure that even on my first viewing, thirteen-year-old me cottoned on to what was going on there pretty easily. This plotline was not overlooked however by acne cream manufacturers Clearasil. When Vestron were looking for sponsors and backers, Clearasil were keen to get on board and use the film to push their product to its intended teen audience. However, this was the Conservative America of the 1980s (Reagan’s tenure was drawing to a close and Bush Sr’s about to begin) and the abortion story, coupled with the teen demographic troubled them. They demanded the plotline be dropped entirely but writer and producer Eleanor Bergstein stood her ground, meaning the film lost its primary means of promotion. Swayze even petitioned the producers to change the name, thinking that the Bible Belt would never accept a movie that sounded like pornography. His suggested alternative? I Was A Teenage Mambo Queen. Luckily Bergstein was dead set on the title and it stayed.

Given the trouble it had caused them, Vestron almost consigned Dirty Dancing to the Straight-To-VHS bin, before straight to home video was even a common practice. Director Emile Ardolino said that after showing the finished cut to the board, one of them told him to “burn the negative and collect the insurance.” After much pushing from Ardolino and Bergstein, Vestron finally relented and gave the film a limited theatrical release to a rapturous reception, encouraging them to increase its distribution and eventually making them a tidy sum as it earned back its meagre budget of $5m almost fifty times as well as becoming the first film to sell over a million copies on VHS.

Sponsor woes and lack of studio support weren’t Dirty Dancing’s only setbacks though. Swayze, who, aside from North & South, had earned himself a name as a dancer, was reluctant to take on the role of Johnny Castle for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he wanted to break into more serious roles and didn’t want to get typecast in dancing movies. Secondly, he was wrestling with a knee injury from his Broadway days. He said, “because most of the cartilage in my knee was gone, the bones were just grinding painfully on each other.” This became particularly obvious during the scene where Johnny practices the lift move with Jennifer Grey’s Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman. “Despite the fact that Jennifer was very light, when you’re lifting someone in the water, even the skinniest little girl can feel like 500 pounds,” he later said.

The big finale in the Kellerman’s ballroom almost didn’t happen thanks to Swayze’s knee troubles. The scene when Johnny and his fellow entertainment staff dance up the aisle towards the stage was proving difficult to get right and Ardolino repeatedly cut the scene. As the pain was getting worse and worse, aggravated even more by the jump from the stage earlier in the routine, Swayze told Ardolino he had one more try left in him and then he was done. Luckily for all involved, they managed to get the perfect take that final time!

Swayze reluctantly accepted the role when the original choice for Johnny, Val Kilmer, turned the offer down, and second choice Billy Zane had neither the required dance experience nor the chemistry with his co-star Grey (who reportedly beat Sarah Jessica Parker and Sharon Stone to the role). You can see a part of her audition here:

Swayze and Grey, despite occasion on-set arguments (and reports that they disliked each other while making Red Dawn together a few years earlier), did have the connection the producers were looking for, and this spark led to some of the film’s most iconic moments.

The scene in which Johnny and Baby mess around to Mickey & Sylvia’s Love Is Strange was intended as a warm-up for the pair to get into character, but Ardolino rolled the cameras on it, realising something special was happening, and the rehearsal made it into the final cut of the movie. Another unintended moment was the scene, during the training montage, where Johnny repeatedly tries to teach a dance move to Baby, but each time he touches her it makes her burst into laughter, much to Johnny’s annoyance. The laughter is real corpsing on the part of Grey, who was particularly ticklish, and Johnny’s annoyance is actually Swayze’s exasperation at the take being repeatedly ruined.

Despite its success, Dirty Dancing never reached number 1 at the US box office, being held off the top spot by Stakeout (remember that? Of course you don’t)! It did fare far better in the worldwide market, however, bringing in over $234m. The film’s success pleased none more than it did Jerry Orbach, who was all set to turn down the role of Baby’s father Jake when the producers were unable to meet his asking price. He finally agreed to appear in return for a percentage of the profits from both the film and the soundtrack release. The first of the two albums accompanying the film went on to become the 17th biggest selling album of all time. It made Orbach very wealthy and he described it as the best deal he ever negotiated.

Jane Brucker, who played Baby’s older sister Lisa did rather well out of the film too. Originally she was supposed to sing a song from South Pacific at the movie’s climactic talent show, but the rights were too expensive. Brucker, an accomplished singer-songwriter, was asked to pen something to replace it or the entire scene would have to be cut. She quickly threw together Hula Hana with assistance the film’s choreographer Kenny Ortega, who arranged it to make it more Hawaiian. It took Brucker 20 years of legal fighting to be recognised as the author of the song, finally succeeding when it was used in the Dirty Dancing stage musical. She has now earned more money from that song than she was originally paid to appear in the film and continues to earn a steady income from it!

Watching it back last night, one thing that struck me, for a film that is often regarded as a little cheesy and, dare I say it, a guilty pleasure (I hate that phrase, but it does seem appropriate here), there is a lot of great acting going on. I mean really great. Jerry Orbach in particular. How he didn’t earn even a nomination for any of the major film awards for his role as Jake Houseman is beyond a mystery to me. Jennifer Grey is also noteworthy. She was given five minutes in her audition to prove that she, a 26-year-old, could play a 17-year-old – and she does it very well. In the awkward and shy Baby, we meet in the opening act of the film I instantly recognised a few similarities with my teenage self. I could just have easily have blurted out something as equally ridiculous as the famous watermelon line when trying to impress my new female friends. Chances are I did.

So did it work? My grand plan to impress the ladies? Well, kind of. Not in the way I hoped though. Yes, I was able to talk to them about the film, join in with the quotes, discuss character motivations and even attempt to bust the occasional move. I became “one of the girls”. In short, my familiarity with Dirty Dancing got me friend-zoned. Hmph.

We leave 1987 behind next week and go back even further in time to 1985 with the amazing Jane Roberts who has a thing or two to say about Back To The Future. Great Scott!

Paul Childs

As well as writing for Den of Geek and Your Truth, Paul also runs Badgers Crossing, a site for ghost stories. He loves the 1980s and thanks to a keen interest in Public Information Films he has never been electrocuted or set himself on fire.

Join the fun - leave a comment below!