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Movie Reviews : FROM THE BAYOUS TO THE CATSKILLS : 'Dirty Dancing' Takes to the Screen With Some Smart and Funny Steps

August 21, 1987|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film CriticC

By being smart and funny, touching and unabashedly sensual, "Dirty Dancing" (selected theaters), a musical/love story set in the Catskills in the early '60s, is the sweet sleeper of a hot season.

It works with the kick that it does because writer Eleanor Bergstein and director Emile Ardolino know their milieu so well they can handle it in throwaway-perfect detail. And it especially works because from his first, incendiary title dance sequence, Ardolino, using every tool of film making, has an extraordinary ability to let us feel the exhilaration and the pure animal pleasure of dancing in perfect sync with a partner.

The "dirty dancers" here are young; their audience doesn't have to be to share their elation. In this movie we're encouraged to dream--no less than we did when Fred Astaire danced with Cyd Charisse or Gene Kelly with Leslie Caron--that their transports are ours. Because half the film's dances have to be learned by a faintly klutzy amateur, we learn with her, and her final burst of joy is ours too.

Jennifer Grey is that student, Frances (Baby) Houseman, bright, Peace Corps bound, cherished by her doctor-father (Jerry Orbach) who prides himself that in her shiny idealism they think alike. Take the subject of tragedy: To father and daughter Baby, what tragedy is not is having left behind a 12th pair of pumps for a three-week Catskills vacation. Tragedy is police dogs used in Birmingham. Older daughter Lisa (Jane Bruckner), and her conciliatory mother (Kelly Bishop) aren't quite so sure--it's Lisa's shoes in question.

Baby has the brains, Lisa has the beauty--it's one of those family givens, as immutable as the rules at Kellerman's, laid down by Mr. Kellerman himself (the imperishable Jack Weston). The guests come first; the waiters come from Yale or Harvard; the busboys and maids come from the Bronx or Brooklyn and the entertainment staff come from the fringes of show business and are absolutely not to be let anywhere near anyone's precious daughters.

The movie's dancing is also along strict caste lines, the mambo or merengue for above-stairs, their elegance painstakingly taught by the entertainment staff, ex-Arthur Murray teacher Johnny Castle (ex-Eliot Feld dancer/actor Patrick Swayze), former Rockette Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes), exhorting her ladies that "God wouldn't have given you maracas if he didn't want you to shaaaaaake them!"

In the help's quarters it's the smoldering exhibitionism of dirty dancing, imported from Bronx basements and a guaranteed cause of cardiac arrest for any parent who discovers his child grinding away in this fashion. It's into this absolutely off-limits, smoky scene that Baby blunders late one night, to find herself face to face with dozens of kids, barely more than her age, dancing with an intimacy and an insinuation that shocks and mesmerizes her. And it puts her eye to eye with Johnny, who gives her a taste of this undreamed-of physicality before he moves on to another partner, leaving her shaken and dazed.

The film makers use dirty dancing as a hint of what is almost palpably around the corner in the America of 1963, change of a radical, all-pervasive nature. They use Baby's growing involvement with Kellerman's have-nots, with the charismatic dancers who seem to have everything and haven't got carfare, and especially with the complicated Johnny, to shake the foundations of Baby's nice, simplistic liberal values.

The film is carried by the painful, growing awareness of Baby, Johnny and her father, each forced to give up some cherished prejudice about the other. Grey and Swayze are tough, thoughtful, lovely actors, and their teacher-pupil sequences absolutely soar. The Orbach-Grey moments are tear-stingingly poignant.

Because director Ardolino comes from a background in dance films (including "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin' "), he doesn't insult us with the impossible, too easily achieved. When Baby does her crucial exhibition, it's brave and it will pass but it isn't perfection; this is a director who knows the difference between a natural dancer and a created one and he won't blur the distinctions. At the other end of the spectrum, the Swayze/Rhodes dance numbers have that wonderful, showy mixture of pride and abandon that comes only with a lifetime of training.

"Dirty Dancing" is also a musical, one of the most significant fusions of drama and dance since "Saturday Night Fever"--and more involving. It has some the cliches of classic musicals: the untried girl who must go on for the pro; the wrong that can only be righted by a damning personal confession; the prideful, wrongly accused hero. And it has a finale that's the utmost test of the great Brackett and Wilder rule of movie making: Make an audience want something desperately . . . and then give it to them.

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