“Dirty Dancing” is one of those movies, like “Rocky,” whose real-life journey mirrors that of its heroes.
Nobody expected much from Baby (Jennifer Grey) or Johnny (Patrick Swayze), and nobody expected much from “Dirty Dancing.”
Here was yet another frothy, nostalgia-drenched teen movie in a decade drowning in them. It followed an idealistic young woman in 1963 who, while vacationing with her well-to-do family at a summer resort, falls for a working-class dance instructor and the lascivious liberty of the moves he teaches.
The film’s studio, the now-defunct Vestron Pictures, thought it had a flop on its hands. The plan was to bury the movie, putting it in theaters for a weekend before dumping it on home video, where its kind belonged. Grey herself later said everyone involved thought they were making a film no one would ever see.
Upon the movie’s theatrical release in August 1987, even Roger Ebert — a critic who was susceptible to feel-good stories — hated the film. In his one-star review of “Dirty Dancing,” he called it “a tired and relentlessly predictable story of love between kids from different backgrounds.”
You might say everyone tried to put this sweet little movie in the corner (sorry).
But then a funny thing happened. People loved it — especially, but not entirely, female moviegoers — and they made it one of the biggest sleeper hits in movie history.
“Dirty Dancing,” which cost $6 million to make, grossed $214 million worldwide (more than $460 million adjusted for inflation). The soundtrack — which paired a mix of ’60s hits like The Ronettes “Be My Baby” to the Oscar-winning ’80s smash “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” — went on to become one of the best-selling albums of all time, selling 32 million copies. (The only two soundtracks to top it are those of “The Bodyguard” and “Saturday Night Fever.”)
“Dirty Dancing” also became the first film to sell more than a million copies on home video.
The tiny little film nobody expected much of has inspired a successful stage musical, a rotten movie prequel and an even fouler TV remake. The famous lift of the film’s finale has been re-created countless times, sometimes successfully: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in “Crazy, Stupid, Love”; and sometimes not: the British couple who recently knocked themselves unconscious while practicing the move.
But any attempts to capitalize on the original’s appeal have never wholly recaptured that special something that made “Dirty Dancing” such a bolt-from-the-blue classic. Thirty years later, the film feels as fresh and winning as it did the day it defied everyone’s expectations.