Food for Cinema Thought: Patrick Swayze, Arbiter of Masculinity

A few nights ago I caught part of one of my favorite movies, Point Break, on TV. As I watched a few of the scenes, I was reminded of just how much I have enjoyed Patrick Swayze’s movies over the years. (Today would actually have been his 62nd birthday.) In three of his most famous characters – dance instructor Johnny Castle, surfer/bank robber Bodhi, sophisticated drag queen Vida Boheme – the Texas-born Swayze inhabits three different and complex forms of masculinity, redefining audience concepts of what a leading man could be like in the 80s and 90s.

Dirty Dancing (1987, dir. Emile Ardolino) – In this beloved dance movie set at a Catskills resort in the summer of 1963, Swayze’s rebellious character, Johnny Castle, has a defensive tough-guy swagger (and a leather jacket to match) when he’s around authority figures, but when he’s called on to dance, Swayze’s years of learning ballet and other formal dance training paid off. The film’s final, triumphant dance scene, to the anachronistically 80s pop song “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” allows Swayze to show off his dance moves and also to sweetly bring Johnny and “Baby” (Jennifer Grey) back together. The tough guy can be tender too.

Point Break (1991, dir. Kathryn Bigelow) – The skydiving scene in Point Break is one of the film’s most memorable moments, truly befitting the “100% Pure Adrenaline” idea used in the dialogue and the poster’s tagline. Flying through the California sky is the ultimate rush for these thrill-seekers. And I doubt that anyone has ever looked more graceful doing backflips in the air than Swayze.

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995, dir. Beeban Kidron) – The opening credits of this comedy are designed to show the transition from what the moviegoer is used to seeing of Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes as muscular action heroes and heterosexual he-men into the glamorous drag queen characters Vida Boheme and Noxeema Jackson. The makeup, wigs and dresses create the physical foundation for sides of these actors that not been seen before in their previous roles. The fact that Patrick Swayze could go from playing bad boys to a classy lady shows the range he had.

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