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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Roger Ebert Panned Dirty Dancing

When the movie Dirty Dancing opened, critic Roger Ebert's review (August 21, 1987) was mostly negative.

... The movie makes some kind of a half-hearted attempt to rip off West Side Story by making the girl Jewish and the boy Italian - or Irish, I forget.

It doesn't much matter, since the movie itself never, ever uses the word "Jewish" or says out loud what obviously is the main point of the plot: the family's opposition to a Gentile boyfriend of low social status. I guess people who care about such things are supposed to be able to read between the lines, and the great unwashed masses of American moviegoers are condemned to think the old man doesn't like Swayze's dirty dancing.

This might have been a decent movie if it had allowed itself to be about anything. The performances are good. Swayze is a great dancer, and Grey, who is appealing, also is a great dancer. But the filmmakers rely so heavily on cliches, on stock characters in old situations, that it's as if they never really had any confidence in their performers.

This movie could have been about the subjects it pussyfoots around so coyly. It could have found a big scene a little more original than the heroine stepping in for the injured star. It could have made the obnoxious owner's son less of a one-dimensional s.o.b. But the movie plays like one long, sad, compromise; it places packaging ahead of ambition. Where did I get that idea? I dunno. Maybe from the title.

Ebert did like the performances of Grey and Swayze, especially their dancing, but he dismissed Dirty Dancing's story as a cliched variation of two types of previous stories:

  • Stories in which a young couple's love is hindered by ethnic taboos or parental conflicts. West Side Story, Romeo and Juliette and Fiddler on the Roof are examples of such stories.

  • Stories in which an ambitious understudy gets an opportunity to play the main role in a theater performance when the star cannot perform because of an illness, injury or other misfortune. This was the story in, for example, several Busby Berkley movies during the 1930s and in the popular Broadway play 42nd Street.

Ebert's did make an interesting observation about Dirty Dancing perhaps being inspired to some extent by previous stories of those two types but he was wrong to dismiss this movie as a cliched, trite failure. The story in Dirty Dancing is quite novel, contemporary and rich.

With regard to the West Side Story example, the Jewish taboo against falling in love with and marrying Gentiles indeed is part of the Dirty Dancing story, but this element is so subtle that probably most of the audience ramains completely unaware of its presence in the movie. Ebert criticizes that very subtlety, but in fact the taboo was subtle in a modern Jewish family such as the Housemans.

With regard to the 42nd Street example, Baby Houseman does substitute for an established star, but Baby has no aspirations to become a professional dancer. Baby's situation and motives are quite complicated. She even tries to keep her substitute performance secret from her own family, and the entire situation complicates her relationship with her father and sister.

Ebert's review of Dirty Dancing failed because he tried to fit this movie into patterns of many other movies he had seen instead of appreciating the stories many subtleties and novelties.


  1. Spot on analysis. I love the movie Dirty Dancing because, although it could have easily been just another insipid dance movie, it actually has a lot of rich subtext in the story without overreaching and straying from the main plot. In addition to the class/ethnicity issues, there is also a lot of subtle stuff about the attitudes toward women. Women are expected to be superficial and pretty and major in typical women's subjects like English, but Baby defies these stereotypes without making it an in-your-face political issue.

    I also find it's rather direct, yet apoliticized handling of abortion novel. I cannot think of many movies that feature abortion so centrally in their plots and do so in a non-preachy way.

    I think Ebert missed a lot of the nuances of the movie by pegging it as just another cliche.