Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Patrick Swayze’s performance in Dirty Dancing.
As a kid of the 1990s, my relationship with the career of Patrick Swayze began in an unusual place. It was an episode of the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 featuring the film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Aboard the Satellite of Love, Crow T. Robot and the gang perform a new holiday standard, “(Let’s Have) A Patrick Swayze Christmas”. With lyrics like “It’s my way or the highway / this Christmas at my bar / I’ll have to smash your kneecaps if / you bastards touch my car”, the song is a list of everything you expect the protagonist of Road House would do. As the song implies, Swayze was a man’s man. King of a certain brand of machismo that women wanted and men wanted to be.
However, the action-oriented persona of Patrick Swayze isn’t what makes him such a unique actor. Throughout his career, he imbued each tough guy character he played with a complex range of emotions. He was actively surfacing the hypersensitivities hiding behind traditional displays of masculinity.
Just look at one of his first meaty roles in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders. He’s the leader of a gang, but Swayze ditches any greaser mentality. Instead, he plays the mindset of a brother trying desperately to keep his family together after their parent’s death. Something similar happens in Red Dawn. He’s a nationalistic character with brass balls, but he doesn’t heavily lean into stereotypes of John Wayne-style machismo. After a shocking betrayal, Swayze’s character Jed orders the execution of one of his fellow survivors. Rather than play the scene with cold, dead eyes, Swayze emphasizes Jed’s anxiety and anguish over his decision.
His approach to masculine characters is perfectly realized in a movie that was a big departure from his past performances: Dirty Dancing.
In the film, Swayze plays Johnny Castle, a dance instructor at a summer resort in the Catskills in 1963. He’s confident and headstrong but unsure of who he really is beyond his womanizing swagger. His life changes after meeting Baby (Jennifer Grey), a resort guest. Their relationship blossoms after Baby has to fill in for Johnny’s dance partner, Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), who needs an abortion.
The abortion subplot is one way writer Eleanor Bergstein layered nuanced, progressive themes into this blithe dance movie. Dirty Dancing is set in a time when the United States was on the cusp of societal change. Bergstein uses this evolutionary moment to subtly reinforce progressive themes, like the fact that women deserve access to safe healthcare when making decisions over their own bodies.
There’s another progressive theme Bergstein includes that is central to Swayze’s performance. It’s one that deconstructs stereotypes that society traditionally places on men. Johnny has an external tough guy intensity thanks to Swayze’s imposing presence. But Swayze layers Johnny with positive representations of masculinity, subverting the era’s rigid interpretations of manhood.
Take, for instance, when Johnny meets Baby for the first time. Though Swayze is initially brusque in wondering what a guest is doing among the staff, he doesn’t play Johnny as clinging to a masculine desire for control. He immediately switches gears and greets Baby’s innocence with kindness. After ushering her onto the dance floor, he shows her a few steps, so she feels included and accepted.
Later in the film, rather than castigating Baby for going to her father for help with the abortion, Johnny admits his admiration for her courage and even urges her never to lose that part of herself. It’s an unexpected degree of warmth that Swayze plays with simple sincerity. His character’s frustration with Baby may grow as their big dance draws near, but Swayze never loses the grace Johnny shows her in their first moment together. It’s an authentic earnestness that may appear incongruous with his surface-level bad boy demeanor but is integral to why the audience falls so hard for Swayze’s Johnny. He’s just not like the other guys.
Of course, the other reason he’s not like the other guys is that Swayze is an accomplished dancer. Traditionally men haven’t always been encouraged to be lyrically expressive with their bodies. However, throughout the mid-20th century, superstars like Gene Kelly, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Gregory Hines helped change the perception of the sportsmanlike athleticism that male dancers possess. Swayze carries that torch in Dirty Dancing, showing that, yes, action heroes can be balletic too.
What’s so impressive about Swayze, beyond his ability to emphasize the magnetism of Kenny Ortega’s (Newsies) choreography, is that he does it with such incredible form. You can see it in his opening dance with Penny. Even though these are partner dances, the training Swayze received at the Joffrey Ballet is right there on screen. You can really see it in his arm movements (or Port de Bras if you’re from the ballet world.) As his legs shuffle along under him, his upper body retains a graceful, effortless poise as he’s swept up in the music and the movement. Instantly, Swayze proves–both to us and the crowd at the dance–the virile elegance that every male dancer embodies.
Between Red Dawn, Road House, and Point Break, Patrick Swayze solidified himself as a real man’s-man of the 1980s and early 1990s Hollywood. He was so effective at massacring Russians and ripping out esophagi that it can be easy to forget the graceful masculinity that he sewed into so many characters he played. He never fell into the trap of creating one-dimensional representations of what it means to be a man. This is why Johnny Castle in Dirty Dancing is perhaps the greatest showcase of his talents. It combined his strengths as a gifted dancer and as a powerful actor who was constantly needling into the emotional complexities of his masculine characters in ways that are still surprising today.