Even before his death on September 14th, a mood of tribute surrounded Patrick Swayze. He sat with Barbara Walters and talked about dying with as much charm as he’d ever done anything, and all of a sudden there wasn’t a dog in Hollywood mean enough to bite him. I shan’t be the first. As much as anyone, I’d fallen in line with the myth that sheer geniality and stubborn will would keep Swayze alive even after his health had failed him. Because Swayze, it seemed, could overcome the limits of the human body.
Kenny Ortega, who choreographed Dirty Dancing and directs the High School Musical franchise, said that Swayze “did as much for dancing as any man of our generation.” As we say at Passover, Dayenu. If that were all he had done, it would have been enough for us. But he did much more. He brought film back in touch with the male form. Not with his People’s Sexiest Man Alive musculature—’nuff said—but through his virtuosic control of his physical self. Swayze’s ability to command his body was a rare gift that’s difficult to write about, or to make proper use of, as witnessed by his vastly uneven career.
Swayze’s turn at socially relevant drama—1992’s City of Joy—just didn’t work. He could not shed his unguardedly enthusiastic style to convincingly play a spiritually wayward doctor who finds purpose working in Calcutta. Ten minutes into the film, he unpacks his bags in an Indian hotel room. Swayze throws the pamphlets he got during his stay at an ashram into the trash, hissing with resignation: “Meditate on this.” Swayze was incredible at one-liners. The fondly remembered “No one puts Baby in a corner,” would have landed on a cutting room floor coming out of anyone else’s mouth and Roadhouse remains a cult favorite largely based on three words: “pain don’t hurt.” It’s no surprise Swayze made his Calcutta doctor sound ready for a shoot-out against evil monks. Still, the casting choice made sense in that Swayze always projected the morally serious earnestness that the true-life story of poverty and triumph in Calcutta would require.
Despite getting his first breaks in teen films of the 80s, Swayze played characters with adult responsibilities. In The Outsiders, he plays Darrel, Ponyboy’s oldest brother and guardian, who is determined to rescue Ponyboy from the cycle of juvenile delinquency that was consuming their family. In Red Dawn, Swayze trains, leads, and dies for a guerrilla resistance to a Communist invasion of Colorado—it doesn’t get more serious than that. Even in the 1984 hockey film Youngblood, he manages to convey good-natured lessons about responsibility to family, team, and the sport itself, telling the rookie Rob Lowe not to bother kicking the ass of the opposing player who sent Swayze to the hospital with possible brain injuries. “It’s not worth it,” he says.
Reprising a similar line in Dirty Dancing, Swayze pulls his fist back just before breaking the nose of Robbie, a sleazy yet inconsequential villain. “You’re not worth it, man,” he spits, “you’re not worth it.” Staring down a likely victim and backing off just before the fatal blow lands or shot is fired was Swayze’s signature. With his eyes expressing a mix of contempt and mercy, and his body quivering to stillness as he recoils from his own dangerous emotions, Swayze’s presence is always powerful and incalculably consequential. When instinct towards force escapes faster than he can pull back—as in The Outsiders, when Darrel, frustrated by his own fear and powerlessness knocks Ponyboy down—it sets tragedy into motion. When Swayze moves, it matters.
That is the secret of his allure. While most of the characters in Dirty Dancing are given unsentimental and natural dialogue, Johnny Castle is constructed through the gaze of Baby, and as such, talks like he’s in a romance novel. Yet, Johnny’s the most powerful character in the film, because Swayze never stops moving. Whether he’s fighting or refusing to fight, screwing or refusing to screw, dancing or dancing more (Patrick Swayze never refuses to dance), he’s always doing something. And when he gets to do something, Swayze’s captivating.
So captivating, in fact, that he turns Roadhouse into an eminently watchable film. The story makes no sense, and the script is unreadable, but as a man living the paradox of ending violence with violence, Swayze’s body gets to tell 100 stories about loss and pride. Only Ghost harnessed Swayze’s ecstatic physicality to a greater purpose.
Turning Patrick Swayze into a man without a body is just fucking brilliant. His struggle to make himself a physical presence, through force of will, manifests the loss of identity that death incarnates in unexpected ways. Because Swayze had already become synonymous with mastery of the body, it’s uniquely poignant to see him wonder what sort of man he can be when he’s no longer corporeal.
Swayze’s characters explored the challenge of being more than their bodies while still reveling in them. As a surfer [Point Break], hockey player, dance teacher, drag queen [To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar], his characters are continually defined by how others view them. In his most memorable love scenes, women undress him before he undresses them, which both suggests how objectified he became, and how much he genuinely seemed to respect women. Few leading men would let themselves be the pursued so often or so happily. When he spoofed his own persona on Saturday Night Live, as a wannabe Chippendales star in a dance-off audition with Chris Farley, Swayze was unexpectedly convincing—and funny. As Farley flew about the stage doing broad physical comedy, Swayze maintained the conceit that he was worried he wouldn’t be judged the sexier of the two.
That Swayze appeared to want and almost need to be seduced is a tremendous part of why, after he no longer captured leading man roles, he remains so fondly remembered. Yet, he wasn’t a purely erotic icon. His heartthrob persona always twinned with the older brother image he cultivated in his early films. Swayze came to stand for—or as—a protective voice of reason. Time and again, he was framed standing defiantly in a pose that said: “If you want to get to X, you’ll have to go through me.” And time and again, audiences came to conflate him with these comforting characters, a fact of which he was acutely aware.
In 2001, Donnie Darko played off audiences’ innate trust of the man. As Jim Cunningham, a pedophiliac self-help guru, Swayze hints at the danger of believing in a handsome man with blue eyes and good tai chi form who insists that if you trust him, you’ll be safe. While the film did not invigorate his career in any significant way, it showed the depths to which he understood the complexities of the persona he had created. Perhaps his grasp of his own image is why Swayze looms so much larger than his career would initially seem to warrant. And perhaps it’s why we felt so unduly entitled to watch his body slip away these past few months. Perhaps, also, it’s why he was so generous and let us.
In 2004, Swayze reprised his Johnny Castle character for a cameo in Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights. The film is unwatchable, but his performance is generous rather than embarrassing. Sportingly supportive to the ingénue, he exudes enough charm that any adult unlucky enough to be forced into watching the film would be happy to see him (especially when he dances). His performance was a thank you to audiences, essentially saying “this isn’t my bag anymore, but I’m glad I had my time in the sun and thanks y’all for liking me so much.” It’s very meta.
And in the end, so was Swayze. Despite all its critical acclaim, I’m skeptical that any reviewer watching A&E’s The Beast last year was able to apply any sort of objectivity to Swayze’s portrayal of a veteran FBI undercover agent with a dark past. I can only see it as performance art. The TV show used Swayze to explore one central question: how do the compromises we make when we’re young determine the people we become when we’re older? Swayze was forced to face the question himself as he attended to the ridiculous demands that dying in public subjected him to. Like so many of us, he wanted to work when he was sick. To do what he loved and was good at, while he could. I can’t imagine he really wanted to be asked on prime time whether he was scared to die, or have his weight reported monthly in People magazine.
But Swayze accepted it. He was as generous with his body in frailty as he was in vigor and that generosity is what made him a great star. Thank you, Patrick Swayze: stay gold.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.