When you take a broad look at the career of Patrick Swayze, you find mediocrity abound: Three Wishes, Tall Tale, City of Joy, Too Wong Foo, Black Dog, not exactly titles waiting for consideration on the AFI’s next list of greatest whatever. Swayze didn’t find much success after his brief period of late 80s and early 90s superstardom, and disappeared into the ether at a certain point in the late 90s, only popping up in smaller films or voice-over roles in animated pictures.
I would profess this as a crying shame, but I honestly never thought much of dude as an actor. His stardom largely came out of the dark impulse in our culture that values surface over substance, a nice mug and a handsome bod over the talent of the true artist. At a certain point, Swayze was pure eye candy there to be consumed by the public, sex appeal incarnate. His disappearance into relative obscurity after his star had faded was really the logical conclusion to a career that had seen an array of poor choices and faulty gambles. No redemption really seemed to be necessary and Swayze didn’t seem to pursue it actively, prefering instead the peaceful milieu of family life.
So what is the loss that we mourn? Well, for one thing, I never thought of Swayze as anything less than a class act. Though he had the world by the balls, you can’t remember hearing the stories of public brawls and off camera histrionics that are so common with many of today’s mega-stars. What else? Well, he did take Baby out of the corner.
The loss that we mourn is the loss of a little bit of each of our childhoods, and it has been a tough summer for that. John Hughes, Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and now Swayze. All names from a bygone era who shaped our pop cultural awareness in a significant way, and they have now all left us. We may not remember Swayze the way we remember Marlon Brando or Paul Newman, but he still had a hand in shaping popular consciousness and sporting some nice game as he did it.
I’ve seen Dirty Dancing more times than I care to admit. It started out on begrudging terms as the film my sister would insist on renting upon visits to the video store. Later on, it became a movie that was impossible not to catch on cable. It was the quintessential case of a film growing on you against your better judgment, but it got to the point where you could literally skip the rest of the movie and only watch the final dance sequence, where Baby gets swept off her feet by Swayze’s Johnny Castle, and still feel like you witnessed something raw and exciting.
Ghost is still a romantic cornerstone of our culture, and Swayze had a rough job on that movie, having to play a character that no one else could acknowledge, something that scared quite a few lead actors from taking the part. Though we remember the film for Whoopi Goldberg as the crazy psychic or as the start of Demi Moore’s brief hold on superstardom, Swayze really was the glue that kept it together, the beating heart of an intensely poignant story about love surviving across the bounds of life and death. Though it bogs down in the conventions of a thriller plot at a certain point, Swayze is never less than convincing as a romantic lead. And he gifted audiences with one of the great tearjerker goodbye scenes in movie history as his angelic visage farewells a tearful Moore and passes into the great beyond at the end of film. Hard not to get choked up by that.
But, of course, I saved the best for last. Point Break kind of changed my life and continues to do so. It is one of my all time favorite movies. People hate on this movie for being bad, but to me it is never less than thoroughly involving. Swayze is a big part of it as Bodhi, the bank robbing surfer obsessed with finding the ultimate adrenaline rush, bringing him face to face with undercover FBI man Keanu Reeves. It would have been easy to get lost in the story’s ridiculousness, but Swayze plays it straight and believes in the character. When the two leads battle it out on a rainy Australian beach at the end of the film, you can’t help but hope that Swayze’s character gets away just a little bit. When a magnanimous Reeves unlocks his cuffs and lets Bodhi paddle away to his Kamikaze doom, you can’t help but feel that a giant is taking a willing fall–so intoxicated are we all by Bodhi’s spiritual exuberance and passion. It’s a sweet performance, and one that is well worth a watch on FX some time.
I wish there had been more high points in Swayze’s career, but I’m happy that the ones he provided us with were so significant. Dirty Dancing and Ghost are far from landmark achievements, but they are movies that everyone has seen and that some of us can recite line by line. When Johnny takes Baby’s hand, unless you are a terrible, terrible cynic, you can’t help but feel your romantic spirit leap just a little bit.