Patrick Swayze: 1952-2009

"Nobody puts Baby in the corner."

How many young girls (and older women, and many men as well) swooned when that rough-hewn handsome yet sensitive, yet beautifully graceful Patrick Swayze stood up for the awkward,  nerdy Jennifer Grey in the admittedly cheesy but now classic Dirty Dancing? Legions. Legions. I remember sitting on the school bus in 1987, wondering what these girls were excitedly yammering on about like middle-aged housewives -- a 1960s-era story of the mismatched but eventual love between a Catskills dance instructor/bad boy and a sweet, smart but insecure vacationing teenager? OK. When I finally got around to seeing the movie later, I thought, wow, kind of cornpone, and ..."She's like the wind?"

But there was something -- a definite "it" quality that spiked directly into the world's romantic fantasy jugular. But for me, that "it" was Swayze himself. He was the movie. He could dance. And was, perhaps, one the last tough guy dancers who could reveal his significant talent without worrying about being feminized by it. In many ways, and through many pictures, Patrick Swayze is the perfect example of pre-1990s irony. It's not funny he can dance -- it's goddamn lovely he can dance.

His dancing was not only erotic swagger; he brought the heart and soul and heat and sexuality and even a wounded vulnerability to his part (and the music, particularly the Otis Redding, helped). Much like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, this was a man, not a little boy, not Zac Efron, but a man, dancing with such impressive athleticism and grace that, no matter what you thought of the movie itself, you could not take your eyes off of him.

Born in 1952 in Houston, this rough-around-the-edges Road House toughie was actually (and perhaps, not surprisingly) the son of a choreographer/dancer mother, who influenced young Swayze toward dance. Rounding out his abilities nicely, he took up ice skating, classical ballet, gymnastics and acting. But it's the dancing that stuck, so, in 1972, he completed his formal dance training in New York at the Harkness and Joffrey ballet schools.

But, in spite of his training, it wasn't the dancing that gave him his Hollywood breakthrough. It was the movie in which I first saw him: Francis Ford Coppola's lovingly made, bad boy teen melodrama The Outsiders, in which he played Darrel -- the older, greaser brother and concerned surrogate parent for his troubled Tulsan siblings Ponyboy (C. Thomas Howell) and Sodapop (Rob Lowe). Lecturing his brothers with a rugged, likable and stern quality (he had that kind of face), this somewhat odd looking yet severely handsome man could rumble, carry heavy artillery and fight. And we knew it especially in works like the spectacular Red Dawn, Youngblood and his acclaimed Civil War TV miniseries North and South. He was well on his way to becoming a huge star. Who even knew this guy was a dancer? By 1987, everyone.

And then, there was the absurdly entertaining Road House.  Though considered trash by those who should know better, the picture is another  un-ironic tale (and truly, one of the last serious good ol' boy type movies) that finds Swayze's bar "cooler" taking on crazy drunks, a hot blonde and a town run by a ridiculously, yet hilariously neofascist Ben Gazzara.  Road House has since (and deservedly) become a cult classic and it's rather surprising, refreshingly shocking line ("I used to fu** guys like you in prison") spat to Swayze,  is among Road House fanatics just as famous as that "Baby in the corner" business. Or "Ditto." (I personally like the simplicity of "left boot" but I love watching people excel at their job).

But back to "ditto" -- the enormously successful Ghost would provide Swayze a colossal hit. The movie was nominated for Best Picture, Goldberg won Best Supporting Actress, and Demi's pixie haircut became as famous as "the Farrah" or "the Rachel." It seems like Swayze was left out of the accolades, which is a shame. Among all of the picture's sappy "Unchained Melody," pottery wheel spinning eroticism, it was Swayze who provided the picture's emotional weight. Carrying the universal understanding of sadness, love and regret -- and in particular, the regret of not saying those things we should have said to loved ones, he was the film's center. No matter how schmaltzy the movie was, Swayze always seemed real to me. 

And he had range. After Ghost, a tanned and coiffed Swayze starred in Kathryn Bigelow's undeniably entertaining Point Break, playing the guru villain opposite Keanu Reeves. And watch it again. It's so giddily entertaining and he's so yes, magical here, that you're sad movies like this, really, don't exist anymore. Again, Irony. Oh the irony of movies these days.  Not that Swayze didn't allow self humor -- he did. But he also, wonderfully, memorably played it straight. God bless him for that.

After a riding accident in which he fell from a horse and broke both of his legs -- not good for an actor, and especially a dancer -- his career was on hold for a while. He was depressed. He was reportedly drinking (and would stop). I have to think that his bouts with darkness were always in him, making him a lot more interesting than he was given credit for. I loved that Richard Kelly recognized his varied sides and so brilliantly cast him as a motivational speaker/secret pedophile in 2000's Donnie Darko. What a bold move for Swayze. And what a complicated performance. He plays it as a joke at first (that scale of fear and love), and then becomes a monster, and then, an oddly heartbreaking human being  -- and in one brief moment.  During a beautifully filmed sequence set to Gary Jules' cover of Tears for Fears' "Mad World," he conveys such intense anguish it's hard to not gasp by how intensely moving he is.

And his face, his tough yet pleading face, filled with such mysterious need that, combined with his body, a body that understood dance, made him a unique, underrated creature. He may have become typecast as a kind of cheesy relic of the 1980s, but, really, he was so much more than that. He had a great career, certainly, but it could have been greater. Had he'd been allowed to stretch, been allowed to express his natural poignancy (think of that oddly touching Chippendale's comedy sketch with Chris Farley), and been allowed (or able) or to extend his dancing, Swayze could have soared even higher.  Since early dance training may have caused Swayze to fight against any labels of "sissy," he exuded a touching empathy while looking like a guy you'd want on your side in a bar fight. 

Ah, I'll state the obvious here, but it's damn sad. Quite simply, I liked him. And I'd love for him to come back, if only for one moment, and even just to say that one corny line: "Ditto." Or better yet and without one trace of irony, "Left boot."

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