Icons / April 2019

Patrick Swayze: The Miracle Dude

Patrick Swayze combined macho swagger and fluid elegance in a unique way, and his acting style — a kind of artless sincerity — helped turn movies such as Dirty Dancing and Point Break into pop-culture classics. Yet what remains of Swayze’s life and work is more significant still: an unfashionable sense of joy.

Not long ago, I found myself, through no fault of my own, at the stage version of Dirty Dancing. As expected, the auditorium was oestrogen-heavy, and as the rough-diamond dance teacher, Johnny Castle, got to grips with the artless Frances Baby Houseman and helped her unleash her inner twerker, the women around me responded with shining eyes, flushed faces, and the occasional whooped exhortation (there may have been hen parties present). The deathless line Nobody puts Baby in the corner! was greeted with a tumultuous cheer, and the climactic mass singalong suggested that, yes, the punters had had the time of their lives, and they owed it all to whom? 

Lets not kid ourselves, my companion said, towelling herself down in the lobby afterwards. The guy playing Johnny was fine, but everyone in that audience had the image of Patrick Swayze in their minds eye. 

She was right, of course. The 1987 movie made Swayzes name as an actor who brought a kind of loopy intensity to unpromising B-movie material, elevating it into pop-culture immortality, whether it was Dirty Dancings hackneyed coming-of-age story or the bonkers F.B.I.-rookie-infiltrates-surf-dude-bank-heist-gang set-up of 1991s Point Break. It didnt hurt that hed studied at the Joffrey and Harkness ballet schools in New York before turning to acting, and exuded physical grace in all his roles, whether he was quick-stepping, brawling, or wave-riding. It also didnt hurt that, with his tousled coif, sharp cheekbones, nutritious demeanour, and penchant for denim jackets with rolled-up sleeves, he could have been the fourth member of the wholesome Nordic pop trio A-ha. But it was his ability to deliver ironic T-shirt-ready lines like Pain dont hurt (Road House, 1989) or Its not tragic to die doing what you love (Point Break) completely deadpan, without a trace of self-consciousness or a knowing wink, that was really winning. While his peers got tangled up in Method madness or phoned in their performances, Swayze exuded a kind of artless sincerity with every take. And in an era when most actors who rose to the bedroom-poster level of fame played either to the girls (Rob Lowe, Michael J. Fox) or the guys (Arnie, Stallone, et al), Swayzes appeal transcended gender. Women could fantasise about mambo-ing with him at the Sheldrake (and obviously still do), while men could imagine him as a clued-up, hard-knocked but Zenned-out big brother. People dont identify with victims, he once said in an interview with the Associated Press. They identify with people who have the world come down on their heads, and who fight to survive. 

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Stuart Husband