Patrick Swayze, who died a year ago today, had "incredible masculinity, real guy energy," said the choreographer of Dirty Dancing. His brother said he taught him to be a man. But Swayze's version of masculinity was always more complex.
Swayze had a Texan cowboy father and a ballet dancer mother, and was a ballet dancer himself, and a football player. He was, said his wife, "an unusual man in the ballet world," because he was so "masculine," but he also had "grace and line and ability." When they moved to LA, Swayze was cast in his first role, in Skatetown.
Even in the disco cheesiness, it was about his body, hurtling out to the rink, tightening his belt, shirtless but for a vest. He'd resisted being typecast as a dancer in Hollywood, his wife says in a tribute video on the Dirty Dancing Keepsake DVD, because dancers couldn't act, or dancers were dumb. He never seemed dumb.
So it took some convincing to get him to do Dirty Dancing. That film's screenwriter, Eleanor Bergstein, said that the characteristics that made people love Johnny Castle, that he was "brilliantly charismatic and sexual on the outside but incredibly earnest and decent on the inside were also present in Patrick." She has also said that she loved that he was part Native American and that his "hooded" eyes emphasized his "Otherness." Somehow all of of this combined to mean that despite the muscles and the strength and the football past, he never seemed like a bully. There was always so much generosity.
"My brother exuded this male sexuality that was so powerful," says the younger Swayze in the video. It's an awkward line, but the word "male" comes up again and again when people talk about Patrick. In his public persona, it never was restrictive or normative — maybe because he was a dancer made famous by a movie about dance, and being a man or a woman in dance is both rigid and creative.
Here he is talking movingly about what dance meant to him in the film — keying into rhythms, communicating with your partner without words. (His appeal was never particularly verbal, sexy voice notwithstanding). In the ballet he grew up with, and the sweaty basement dancing and Latin ballroom of the movie, gender roles are proscribed and are rarely transgressed. And yet in the latter two, one injects creativity, some ineffable part of yourself, into that structure. In the partner dances, even though the man leads, he is both giving and taking.
After Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze made choices that showed that his idea of manhood was malleable, even playful. There were the fight scenes of Road House, sure, but there was also plying his charisma into Point Break, a Kathryn Bigelow movie so patently homoerotic that it really did not take much effort to meld it into Point Brokeback, as seen here.
(Heath Ledger: The dance-free Patrick Swayze of his generation?) There was Ghost, in which he played a man whose life was unfinished partly because he had refused to say anything more than "ditto" when his partner told him she loved him.
And then there was To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar, an imperfect film that saw Swayze full-throatedly embracing a drag transformation, his body joyfully put to another use. For him, playfulness was never campy or ironic, even in a low-grade camp movie. There was always a certain optimism, an innocence even.
Mel Gibson "briefly flirted with" the idea of playing this part, which Swayze earned with a 30-minute monologue about how he'd been bullied as a young ballet dancer in Texas. Really, it's the only contrast you need to think about all the ways one can be "manly" in our society, and why Swayze's own way was so much richer.
His bravado in dealing with pain represented another form of archetypal masculinity, one in which you are expected to suffer without complaint. In this scene from Road House, Swayze says, "Pain don't hurt." It's a saying his brother recalls Swayze using since he completely snapped his knee, broke it backwards in a football injury in high school. After every dance performance he had to have his knee drained of fluid. When he jumped off the stage in the climactic scene in Dirty Dancing, he did it one take and had to be carried off the soundstage. When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and began dying in front of America's eyes, he repeated several times, "My entire motto in life is, get off yo' ass and jam, baby." It was true until the end, and we were the luckier for it.