Monday, September 14, 2009
Patrick Swayze, R.I.P. (Updated)
EW is reporting that the Dirty Dancing star died of pancreatic cancer at 57.
(UPDATE: 9/15, 12:11 A.M.)
The thing about Patrick Swayze is that he had that kind-hearted, open face. His broad forehead and bright eyes always seemed matched to the smile of a southern gentleman. It's the kind of appearance that could lead one to be cast in a lot of "bland doofus" roles (which, indeed, he was) or cause an actor to be stereotyped as a himbo (a persona he winningly mocked on Saturday Night Live). Swayze's best roles were those where he could give himself over to that almost naive big-heartedness, while suggesting a slightly darker, more searching sensibility underneath the bright facade.
He was born in Texas, to an engineer father and a mother whose dance studio provided him with his earliest lessons. After training at the Joffrey Ballet school, he got his professional start as a dancer for Disney, before appearing on Broadway in Grease. Small roles in shows like M*A*S*H and a few TV movies led to him being cast in a small part in The Outsiders, and larger roles in Red Dawn and the TV miniseries North and South.
But it was Dirty Dancing that finally made him a star, at the relatively old age (for Hollywood) of 35. He carries that age with him as a bulwark against the film's potential silliness, allowing his experience and size and dancer's grace to suggest a slightly darker past for his character that the film is only briefly willing to admit. And make no mistake-- in the wrong hands, this sweet, unstable mixture of teen romance and 50s social problem film could've been a disaster. But everyone in the cast, from relative newcomer Jennifer Grey to musical veterans Jerry Orbach and Kelly Bishop, gives themselves over to the material whole-heartedly, and really works to sell the melodrama. The part of Johnny Castle-- his name a literal embodiment of the movie's fairy tale structure--allowed Swayze to blend the rough-yet-romantic persona he'd developed in films and television with his dance training, and the result was what might be called chaste sensuality. When Johnny dances he exhibits a raw physicality, but the kindness in his eyes and his stammering, inarticulate expressions of love balance it out, allowing Swayze to be onscreen what he played in his very first Disney stage show: Prince Charming. It was the manner in which Swayze (in tandem with a very good, wonderfully awkward Grey) symbolized a certain romantic ideal that would make Dirty Dancing a Gen X touchstone.
Is the movie hokey? Sure, especially in the absurd final number, where a supposedly "spontaneous" uprising of dancers in the Catskills dining room writhes and spins to Kenny Ortega's super-stylized choreography. If one was truly obsessed with 'realism,' such a scene would be rejected out of hand; but musicals have always relied on leaps of faith (in Swayze's case, quite literally, as his body jumps across the screen), and I think it takes a certain kind of courage as a performer to allow yourself the open-faced vulnerability Swayze shows in the final number. I mean it as no slam on his acting when I say that the creasing of his forehead and the darting hopefulness of his eyes conveys as much in these scenes as any of his line readings.
Swayze would display that vulnerability once more in Ghost, a very flawed and very dated romance, but one which simply wouldn't work at all if Swayze didn't tackle his character's disembodiment with gusto (it's all in the eyes, which look at Demi Moore with such passion that they transform her into what she never was again-- a credible object of cinematic affection). But most of his post-Dirty Dancing career would be a cinematic mixed bag: the camp pleasures of Road House couldn't quite make up for the wretched trucker thriller Black Dog, the well-intentioned but underwhelming City of Joy, or the sentiment-meets-guns awkwardness of Father Hood. He was very funny on Saturday Night Live, stretched in Donnie Darko (which I've still never seen) and made a recent attempt at a comeback in the dark cop show The Beast. But much of his post-Baby career would rarely take advantage of his quiet charm, his innate sweetness on screen (you really do wonder why no one thought to cast him in an Evening Shade-like, set-in-the-South sitcom), and that ability he'd displayed (that very cinephilic ability) to move.
The one movie that seems to pick up on the Johnny Castle thread and take it somewhere else is Kathryn Bigelow's deeply underrated surf-and-crime fantasia, Point Break. The film is a brilliant action movie, but also works as both a metacommentary on the genre (how one stages a crime-- complete with costumes and choreography-- being akin to how one stages a shot), and a hauntingly beautiful, water-drenched dreamscape. Maybe Swayze needed more fantasy-driven spaces--60s dance-halls and romantic after-lifes and surfer communes beneath the crashing waves-- in order for his down-to-earth charm to be more apparent. The two leads are a fascinating study in contrasts. Keanu Reeves is the strait-laced FBI agent who needs to loosen up, but Reeves has such an ethereal, otherworldly persona that he seems much more in tune with the rhythm of the water than any of his cast mates (that's not an insult-- that quality works really well in the film); Swayze is the koan-driven surfing guru, but Swayze's presence is so much earthier than his co-stars, a feeling enhanced by the long hair and scruffy beard that partially cover that angelic face. The surfing allows Swayze to move within a different kind of choreography, more controlled but no less sensual or alluring.
Covering his key asset with long hair and a beard is a nice signal of Bodhi's underlying nefariousness, and Swayze makes a pretty charming villain. But even in this role, that open-heartedness slips through like a surfer through a curl. In fact, Dirty Dancing and Point Break have very similar narrative structures: a working-class bad boy meets up with a bourgeois kid intrigued by this seemingly seamy new underworld, and the bad boy seduces and initiates the naif into the group (the homosocial bonding is very strong in the film). In the end, the naif stands up for the bad boy against the father figure that wants him arrested/thrown out; but where Dirty Dancing ends in stylized triumph, Point Break's crime narrative demands a darker closure. Bodhi sacrifices himself to the ocean, but Swayze's open-hearted performing style dovetails with Bigelow's compulsive aestheticizing, making those final images of Bodhi consumed by the waves something rich and gray and sublime: like Swayze's character they seem both open and dark, foreboding and appealing all at once.
R.I.P., Patrick Swayze.