Hello everyone and welcome back to Movie Monday. Here’s to a new week.
Today I am talking about Dirty Dancing. Did any of you guess the movie? On my Instagram (@katelovesliterature), I said that I chose the picture of the lake for a reason. Well in Dirty Dancing, Baby and Johnny practice their iconic lift in the water because the best place to practice lifts is in the water. It was a vague enough hint but I didn’t want to make it too obvious.
I also asked people on my Instagram stories to let me know what movies they consider to be classic movies because I love hearing other people’s opinions and funnily enough, someone’s answer was Dirty Dancing and I think it would be fair to say that lots of people consider this to be a classic movie.
Let’s dive into #moviemonday.
Dirty Dancing was released in Ireland in 1987 and the movie was directed by Emile Ardolino.
This movie follows Baby (Frances) Houseman as she goes on summer vacation with her parents and her sister. It is the summer of 1963 and Baby and her family are off to Kellerman’s, an upscale resort in the Catskills.
At Kellerman’s Baby meets Johnny Castle the dancer. At first it appears that the two have absolutely nothing in common but when Baby is the only person who can step in and be Johnny’s dance partner at a gig he cannot miss, the two begin spending more and more time together. As rehearsals go on, the two talk and bond and they learn that they may just like each other after all. In fact, it is more than just liking each other and this summer is life-changing for Baby in more ways than one.
Baby Houseman is our main protagonist. Baby is young and naive and when the movie begins we learn that she is getting ready to head off to college in the fall so this summer vacation is likely one of the last she will have with her sister and her parents. Baby idolises her father and Doctor Houseman dotes on her in return. He is her hero, she looks up to him, she wants to be like him. Baby is very smart and very kind. She wants to change the world but before this summer at Kellerman’s, it is clear that she lived a sheltered life and it is here where she learns about the problems that people face and the unfairness in the world and most importantly, she learns about who she is as a person and who she wants to be. Her worldview is altered at Kellerman’s but this is something that I will discuss more in the themes section of my discussion.
Johnny Castle is our male lead. He is a dancer. He is part of the working-class staff at Kellerman’s. Johnny is kind and hardworking but he also far more cynical than Baby. He knows how the world works. He has faced unfairness before and he will again as the movie goes on. He is a talented dancer and a fantastic teacher even though in the beginning he was a bit gruff. As the movie goes on, Johnny becomes more and more impressed by Baby and she also changes his worldview – again I will discuss this more when I discuss themes.
Penny is a very important character and while Baby and Johnny are our lead couple, and it is mostly Baby who has a maturity arc, her arc would not be able to happen without Penny as it is Penny who sets the plot in motion. Early on in the movie, it is revealed that Penny is pregnant and she is unable to afford to have the baby. She and Johnny are extremely worried because the only time she can get to a doctor is on the same night as their gig in another hotel, a gig they cannot miss because if they do then they will lose their salary and they will not get booked again for the following summer. There is no one else who can fill in for Penny which is why Baby is the one to do it. Penny is hardworking and like Johnny, she is looked down upon because she is part of the working-class staff. Penny is cynical and like Johnny, she is all too aware of the unfairness in the world. Penny has had an upbringing that was the opposite to Baby’s. Penny has been fending for herself since the age of sixteen and so she cannot lose her job. She is a very talented dancer, she used to be a rockette, and she also helps to get Baby ready for the important performance.
Jake Houseman is Baby’s father and he is also key to the story. Jake is a doctor and he is Baby’s hero. He is a kind father, he seems to be a calm and loving man, and it is clear that he dotes on Baby. He is proud of her and he trusts her. This is made clear when he gives her the money she asks for ($250) even though she cannot tell him what it is for. The father/daughter relationship between Jake and Baby is a key part of this story and again, I will elaborate more on this in themes.
We have a selection of ensemble characters, Baby’s mother, her sister Lisa, Robbie the waiter, Max the owner of Kellerman’s and Neil his grandson. While all of the characters contribute to the story, I would suggest that the most important characters are Baby, Johnny, Doctor Houseman, and Penny because these four are the four corners of the plot and it is these four characters that allow the movie’s themes to play out. So let’s discuss themes because Dirty Dancing touches on some very important ones.
I love it when someone who has never seen Dirty Dancing says what they think the movie is about. Many people say it is a chick-flick or a rom-com and I suppose in some ways it is however, I would argue Dirty Dancing is actually a coming of age story because one of the movie’s key themes is the idea of becoming your own person with your own ideas and beliefs.
This movie touches on many important things, abortion, classism, sexism, hypocrisy, and individuality.
At Kellerman’s there is a class divide. There are the guests and the staff, of course this will happen at any resort but among the staff, there is another divide – the waiters and the dancers.
The waiters at Kellerman’s are students from Ivy League universities. Robbie is one of them. Max, the owner, tells these waiters that they are the best, they are good, intelligent, respectable young men and they are given orders to romance the daughters who come to stay.
The dancers on the other hand are told not to even look at the guests unless it is to provide dancing lessons. Johnny is not an Ivy League student who is choosing to do some summer work to earn a few extra dollars, he is depending on this income as it is the only one he has.
Robbie is considered to be a ‘better’ man than Johnny simply because of his college status however it is Robbie who is an arrogant, rude man. He tells Baby that ‘some people count and some people don’t’ and he is of the opinion that people like Johnny and Penny don’t count.
Robbie is the father of Penny’s baby but he claims that it could be anyone and you ‘never know with a girl like that.’ Robbie used Penny and he did not care what happened to her, he also knew that he would be able to walk away because people would most likely believe him over her.
Baby’s father even likes Robbie, he thinks he is an upstanding young man and before he learns the truth about him, he even gives him money towards college. Robbie appears to be the type of young man that Doctor Houseman would like his daughters to date, he is handsome and well-groomed. He knows how to charm parents and of course, he goes to an Ivy League college. He is like Doctor Houseman, or so we are lead to believe.
Johnny is always facing preconceived opinions and if we are being honest, his attitude likely does not help but the issue is that people already assume the worst of him and so therefore, he is always on the defensive but this only fuels people’s negative opinions of him. It is a classic case of people judging a book by its cover or in this case, by its status and background.
Baby spends a lot of time with Johnny, and as she gets to know him as a person, she learns that he is not like how others perceive him to be. He is used by the rich, older woman at Kellerman’s. They pay him to sleep with them and they treat him as nothing more than a shiny toy but Johnny needs the money so he puts up with it. He is not a perfect character, I don’t think anyone in this movie is but there are many instances where it is clear that Johnny knows about the real world and he knows what he can and cannot do – a great example is when Neil, who knows nothing about dancing, wants to dictate the last dance of the season. Baby is disappointed when Johnny allows Neil to be rude to him instead of telling Neil his ideas but Johnny knows that in order to keep the job that he needs, he has to do things Neil’s way.
Another important instance is when Baby’s father assumes that Johnny is responsible for Penny. He assumes that Johnny is the father of Penny’s baby and he is disgusted that Johnny would leave her to a false doctor. Johnny is not surprised by Doctor Houseman’s assumptions and he is so used to people thinking the worst of him that he does not bother to correct him – In that moment, Penny is more important and that brings us to a key point in the movie – Penny’s abortion.
Something that I love about Dirty Dancing is the way the movie handles Penny’s abortion. It is not debated. There is no big scene in which Penny has to defend or justify her choice. At no point does Baby, Johnny, or Doctor Houseman look down on or treat Penny badly because of her decision. It is Penny’s choice and Penny’s choice alone. The doctor she goes to see turns out to not be a real doctor and Penny is left gravely injured which causes Baby to rush and get her father to assist her. This movie came out in 1987 and yet I cannot think of a more relevant time to discuss this scene because of certain things that are happening in certain parts of the world. I’ll say this – banning abortion does not stop abortion. Banning abortion only stops safe abortions. If someone is desperate, they will find a way and back-alley abortions will rise and they can have extremely dangerous results – as shown in this scene.
Baby’s exposure to classism and unfairness causes her to reevaluate her upbringing and her opinion of her father and this theme of maturity and individuality is key to the movie.
The father/daughter relationship is very complex and Baby goes through a very difficult journey in this movie because the view she has of her father changes. He was once her hero and she viewed him through rose-tinted glasses and as this movie plays out, Baby sees that her father is not perfect and in fact, she does not like everything he does. She does not agree with everything he does and as she changes and develops her own opinions and begins to break away from the mould, he becomes colder with her. He does not like the changes, he struggles with them, he wants her to stay away from Johnny, he feels that the girl he trusted, the girl who was just like him is changing.
Baby is changing but it is not a bad thing. One of the key scenes in this movie is when Baby confronts her father. He tells her that she is not the person he thought she was and she responds by saying that he isn’t either. She tells him that he taught her to be good and kind to everyone and he always said that everyone deserves a fair shake but Baby tells him that she has learned he did not mean everyone, he meant people who are just like him.
This conversation cause Doctor Houseman to cry. He is forced to look into the mirror. He must accept that in some ways, he has been a hypocrite, and he must also accept that his daughter, his baby, is no longer a little girl. She is a young woman and she will speak her mind and she will have her own opinions and sometimes they will be different from his and that has to be okay.
It is a new chapter when a father must accept that his little girl has become a woman. The dynamic changes. It is also very hard when a daughter learns that her hero is not perfect. It is a difficult time but I believe that it is a time that everyone goes through and Baby goes through it in this movie, she has that experience where the rose-tinted view gets muddied and she matures because of it. This is why I would say this is a coming of age movie because Baby’s mindset changes from daddy’s girl to independent young woman who can accept her father is not perfect but loves him anyway.
Dirty Dancing is a fast-paced movie. The Houseman family arrive at Kellerman’s and immediately Max the owner begins to breakdown the rules to the staff – this sets up our internal class divide and Baby seeing Johnny dance and clearly being attracted to him lets the audience know that Baby and Johnny are going to be love interests.
There is a lot of exposition done in the first half an hour. We are aware of the issues among staff, we see that Baby looks up to her father, we learn that Penny is pregnant and needs someone to fill in. This issue is what sets our plot into motion and we move from set-up to action.
Baby learning to dance is when the action begins. There are a few montages in this movie which function as a way to move time along, we see her improving, and we see that her and Johnny are getting along better. There are a few moments when the pace slows down and this allows Baby and Johnny to bond – for example the scene in the water where they practice the lift, and it is quite realistic I think because Baby does not magically become this amazing dancer, the goal is simply to get her decent enough to pull off one dance reasonably well and this is achieved.
I also really like that the performance at the hotel is just that – it is decent. It is not amazing, and there are some bumps but they get through it and they save Penny and Johnny’s employment. I feel this was a smart move because the goal – getting through that gig- has been achieved but also there is something left for the finale, the iconic lift.
I would say that this movie is top heavy because a lot happens in the introduction and then the action is filled with dancing, learning, and bonding but then we get a quick and busy climax. There are a lot of moving pieces in this movie and we know at some point that everything will come to a boil eventually and of course it does.
Everything spills over, a rich lady sees Johnny and Baby together, Johnny gets accused of stealing and of course everyone just assumes he is guilty but Baby knows he is innocent. She has to decide whether or not to speak up because doing so reveals their relationship and then her putting herself out there and arguing with her father seems pointless because Johnny is proved to be innocent but he still has to leave because of his relationship with Baby and for the first time, she learns how unfair life can be even though she did the right thing. It is a hard lesson and she learns it quite close to the end of the movie but Johnny has learned too. He becomes less cynical because no one has ever put themselves out like that for him before. So while Baby’s world-view changes, so does Johnny’s and the final scene is the final dance and it is filled with revelations because everyone’s growth can be clearly seen in this final scene which makes for a very, very satisfying finale. ‘No one puts Baby in a corner!’. No spoilers though – go watch the movie.
Dirty Dancing is a great movie. The story is compelling, moving, funny, and heartfelt. I feel that this movie, while it touches on some very important themes and issues, is also relatable because I think everyone can relate to the idea of coming of age and realising that things are not always as they seem. The characters are engaging, the cast is fantastic, and of course, this movie is set to a classic score. Who could forget the song ‘Time Of My Life?’ – I’m still humming it.
So this has been Movie Monday. I hope you enjoyed it. Have you seen Dirty Dancing? What do you think? Would you consider it a classic movie? Let me know.