I was 12 when Dirty Dancing was released on video in the UK on October 16, 1987. During the summer holidays of 1988, when I was nearly 13 and just four years younger than Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman, together with my cousins Dolly and Teddy, I watched that film 30 times. At least.
If you don’t know Dirty Dancing, it’s an American romantic drama dance film. Here’s the trailer – treat yourself. It stars Jennifer Grey (a non-dancer) as Houseman, a young woman who falls in love with dance instructor Johnny Castle (played by Patrick Swayze) at a holiday resort. He teaches her to dance, she teaches him so much more…
The film was an unexpected and huge success, the first to sell 1 million copies for home video. I was a dancer and a teenage girl and I could not get enough of it. I was devoted to Baby and wore my cut-off jeans until they were threadbare. And of course, I was madly, madly, madly in love with the super sexy, ultra-masculine, tender-hearted, truly beautiful dancer that was Castle.
When I fall hard for a character be it Del Boy (not romantically, obvs) or the cast of Friends, I generally don’t watch the actors in anything else. I flinched when Jennifer Grey appeared in Friends. I don’t like to spoil the illusion. I was all about Johnny Castle and didn’t become a fan of Swayze’s, waiting for his next film. (I did see Ghost in 1990. Who didn’t? Totally gorgeous.)
But then, somehow, in 1994, I saw Swayze and his wife dance a duet to Whitney Houston’s All The Man That I Need at the World Music Awards. Oh! If you love Swayze, dance and Whitney, this is pure heaven. It was delicious, it was the type of dancing that I was doing at the time AND Patrick was dancing with his wife! Lisa Niemi.
I must have been caught unawares because I didn’t record it at the time and have only just (thanks to the brilliance of YouTube) watched it again 26 years later. But I never forgot how Lisa Niemi moved or what she wore – a silver silky dress. She was like mercury, or smoke – fluid, ethereal, divine. Patrick was everything I wanted him to be and their relationship, their love and their connection was heart-stopping. Different to seeing him with Baby and deeply affecting but in a different way. I didn’t know he had married a dancer. I didn’t even know he was a trained dancer. But now I knew and I read in a newspaper report that had a studio where they danced together! And they had dogs! Bliss!
Patrick Swayze died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, aged 57. I had last watched Dirty Dancing at my hen-do sleepover when I got married in July, 2008. I was so heartbroken that it took me another eight years to watch Dirty Dancing, knowing that Johnny Castle was gone. I still can’t believe it.
Then last year, during a charity shop rummage, I found Patrick and Lisa’s memoir, written when they knew he was dying, published in 2009, and called, of course, The Time Of My Life. I read it last autumn. People can be a bit sniffy about celebrity memoirs. (Probably when the celebrity hasn’t done that much.) But if I like the celebrity, I enjoy their memoirs, and love to learn more about their life, how they became successful and the challenges they overcame. And as I was about to learn, Patrick Swayze was so much more than “just” a celebrity, and so much more than “just” Johnny Castle.
If you love Patrick Swayze, you’ll love this book. I learned about his masculine but gentle and soulful cowboy-father, Jesse, and his perfectionist dance-teacher mother, Patsy. Jesse, known as Buddy, gave Patrick his passion for horses and for the outdoors. He told his son never to start a fight but always to finish it. Patsy was crazy about Patrick and pushed her son hard, ensuring that he became not only a beautiful dancer, but a person rife with insecurities and the sense that he was never quite good enough. A true dance matriarch to anyone who knows one.
When Lisa wanted to join Patsy’s Texas dance school, Patsy saw her potential and taught her for free. Patrick also spotted Lisa and was crazy about her from the get-go. She was shy, focused on her dancing but liked him too.
Patrick moved to New York City in 1975 – the year I was born! This was another tick for me as I studied dance there in the 90s. He became a professional ballet dancer. Learning this enlightened me as to why his technique was so incredible but appeared effortless. He suffered sickening knee problems, constantly having to have it drained of fluid countless times (an old football injury) but played Danny Zuko in Grease on Broadway. The story moves on to his marriage to Lisa, how they took up carpentry to pay the bills (!), their move to Hollywood and of course the making of Dirty Dancing – gripping – and the bonkers aftermath*. Swayze’s film career is so interesting and his work ethic is off the chart. The story of his time on The Outsiders with C Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon and Tom Cruise is jaw-dropping. He took risks that would have given studio executives sleepless nights, was fearless in every way and intensely physical, preferring real fights to choreographed ones (he had a stuntman to jump out of those planes in Point Break but then had those scenes re-shot, doing it himself). Everyone he worked with fell in love with him but he had to push hard. Being a heartthrob, he struggled to get the more serious roles he craved. He writes about his problems with alcohol, which began after his father died, and he and Lisa’s marriage problems which occurred as a result. He writes about his cancer diagnosis and facing death. He worked right to the end, having chemotherapy on the weekend so he could film TV series The Beast on weekdays. Lisa directed one of the episodes. She was his absolute constant.
A week ago, I watched a Paramount documentary called I Am Patrick Swayze that was released last summer, 31 years on from my summer of Dirty Dancing. Again, it was so revealing, with extensive input from Lisa, who is just a wonderful person and so open and emotional. She shares more about Patrick’s mother who, it turns out, had beaten her son to the point where Jesse Swayze eventually snapped and threatened to leave if she did it again. This was something Patrick hadn’t, quite understandably, been able to write about in his memoir. Lisa is candid about Patrick’s alcoholism. In the documentary, he talks about the demons he has running around inside him, “I’ve done everything I can, thinking I’m gonna get rid of them. I don’t know if it ever will.” I was sad to know the extent of his suffering on both counts, but grateful to understand more about someone who means so much to me.
There are heart wrenching interviews with Patrick’s brother, Don, who adored his apparently invincible big brother. As well as Rob Lowe, “Patrick performed like he had something to prove,” and Sam Elliot, who loved Patrick very much. Jennifer Grey talks about their time working together, which was not always easy. Demi Moore says he was very physical but had a deep inner life. “I do remember (him having) to work extremely hard to counter the perception of him being a hunky guy or just his physicality,” she says. “He needed to work harder to be taken seriously.”Swayze’s agent, Nicole David speaks of how he was frustrated that people didn’t take him seriously. I was one of those people myself but as a result of the memoir and this documentary I have a new understanding of Patrick’s discipline, dedication and drive and, of course, his demons. I am going to watch all his films, especially City Of Joy, of which he was especially proud, had to fight to be cast in, but which was not well received.
I’m also going to watch Skatetown USA, which I didn’t know about until I saw the documentary. In his first film, Swayze, a competitive roller skater (of course) plays Ace, a bad boy skater who throws his gum into the crowd and rubs his naked torso with a leather belt that he then whips about. Enjoy this scene – I know I did. As the first comment says, “I’m not sure how I got here, but I regret nothing.” AMEN. (Incidentally Swayze did his own skating but is not credited.)
Skatetown USA looks cheesy as hell but in the clips I saw, Johnny Castle looks absolutely bloody gorgeous, and as if he and Johnny Castle will live forever.
Which I guess they will.
While checking my dates for this blog, I read something terribly sad. “On August 5, 1987, (Jennifer) Grey suffered severe whiplash in a car collision in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, while vacationing with actor Matthew Broderick, whom she had begun dating in semi-secrecy during the filming of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The crash, the event through which their relationship became public, occurred when Broderick, at the wheel of a rented BMW, crossed into the wrong lane and collided head-on with a Volvo driven by a local mother and daughter, Margaret Doherty, 63, and Anna Gallagher, 28, who were killed instantly. Broderick was convicted of careless driving and fined $175. Dirty Dancing was released a few weeks after the collision, catapulting Grey to fame. But she has said that her grief and survivor’s guilt over the crash prevented her from enjoying the film’s success, and led her to withdraw from acting for some time.” Wikipedia.
How tragic for those two women. And how strange to think that while the world was going crazy for Dirty Dancing, their families were suffering unimaginably, and Jennifer was in such a dark place.