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Screen » Film

A Film That Almost Wasn't

What would the world be without Dirty Dancing?



Nobody puts baby in a corner! The same can be said for the actual film "Dirty Dancing," which was never intended—or remotely expected—to be a blockbuster cultural icon. Yet, the movie introduced a new term to the world, grandly mirrored the same loss-of-innocence of one Jewish-American girl to that of America in 1963, had a soundtrack that went double platinum, was the first movie to sell 1 million videotapes (which in 2013 numbers would be like 100 billion YouTube viewings!) and has had more girlfriends than I can count on one hand pillow-talk-telling me that their first "tinglings" were discovered somewhere in the emotional vicinity of Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing.

All of which is to say: Yes, it is a great movie. (Is it uncouth to tell Roger Ebert to screw himself for giving the movie a thumbs down for its "idiot plot"?)

Originally slated to go straight to video, the film really never was meant to be more than a middling production, a textured but otherwise sweet semi-autobiographical story. The film certainly didn't have the makings of success: Although director Emile Ardolino had won an Oscar for his 1983 documentary, He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin', he had never directed a feature film. And the studio, a now-defunct subsidiary of MGM, only dished out $5 million for production—about one third the cost of most Hollywood films at the time—and allocated a truncated shooting time of six weeks.

And the actors? Fuhgetabot'it!

Neither of the leads was a box office draw at the time. Swayze had completed The Outsiders three years earlier, and had teamed up again with C. Thomas Howell to star in Red Dawn (to be shown during Swayze Summer on Aug. 21). And Jennifer Grey, the daughter of the magnetic actor Joel Grey (Cabaret), was heir to theatrical talent but otherwise had skinny little in her résumé to stand on. And, the two together? They hated each other—a palatable aversion that brought production to tires-burning halts. But that chemistry is what director Ardolino captures like lightning in a bottle.

Although often dismissed as '80s camp, Dirty Dancing has a serious and well-managed subplot about a botched abortion as the catalyst for a young teenager coming-of-age and deepening her respect for her father. Sure, laugh at the stilted dialogue and overly earnest hairdos, but also give thanks to the Hollywood gods that the movie ever even found the light of day, especially considering that after the first screening one MGM executive recommended "Burn the negative and collect the insurance." Join us for the second installment in Swayze Summer.

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