Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Necessary Survival of Swayze

Over the past 30 years, America has been shaped by Patrick Wayne Swayze.

He stopped the Russians from taking over our nation. He battled the Socs with Ponyboy. He protected Dean Youngblood. He made pottery wheels erotic and ascended into heaven. He surfed with Johnny Utah. He took Baby out of the corner.

And, yes, he cleaned up The Double Deuce before cleaning up Jasper, Missouri.

Unfortunately, in January of 2008, Swayze was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. According to some estimates, this disease only allows 5% of its afflicted to survive for up to five years, as most die three to six months after diagnosis. Current reports—as recently as March 5th in a Reuters article—suggest that Swayze has a great chance of survival, as he has "a limited amount of the disease" and seems to be "responding well" to treatments. As he continues to attempt a recovery from this ailment, Farrell Street can only hope and pray Mr. Swayze continues to improve.

If he passes on, we'll have to mourn a man whose career was made by turning ridiculous script premises into cultural iconography.

Whether Swayze did this on purpose is unknown. I'm not sure if anyone can say he spent any morning thumbing through a script and said to his agent, "So they want me to play an extreme surfer who robs banks dressed as an ex-President? That sounds like Oscar gold!" I don't know if, one night, he sipped a beer and suggested, "I like the idea of playing the country's greatest bouncer, but can we give him a philosophy degree from NYU?"

No one knows what the hell was going through his head when he took these roles, but he mastered each one of them and made them household references, so good that most showcases are mainstays on basic cable and shown almost daily.

When was the last time you heard one of your sister's drunken friends say "Nobody puts baby in a corner" out loud, greeted by screeching laughter between sips of vodka tonics? Last weekend?

When was the last time you flipped on your television and either "Red Dawn" or "Road House" wasn't on F/X or Spike? Never.

Consider the following performance tricks turned by Mr. Swayze:

-In "Dirty Dancing," Swayze played Johnny Castle, the street-wise dance instructor at Kellerman's vacation resort in the Catskills, circa 1962. Johnny specializes in the mambo and the cha-cha, teaching old goats and prude teenagers to sway to gentle rhythms so he can put a little money in his pocket.

Emasculating, right? Wrong.

Swayze turns Castle into a leather jacket-wearing, beer-slugging, window-breaking, ass-kicking dance aficionado who conducts sweaty, late night dance parties to fuel the sexual revolt of underpaid camp dishwashers and busboys against the uptight culture of 1950s America. When not leading this uprising, he's punching preppy waiters, driving a hard Chevy, and luring the ordinary yet strangely attractive Baby under his sheets to the sounds of soul legend, Otis Redding.

Anyone else takes on this role, this movie goes down faster than "Waterworld." With Swayze at the controls, Jennifer Grey earns enough money for an eventual nose job, money is stuffed in one of The Righteous Brothers pockets, and this ridiculous movie becomes an American classic.

-In "Ghost," Swayze plays Sam Wheat, an investment banker who's killed in a botched mugging, but is enabled to communicate from the dead with his widow through a shifty, female con artist.

Ridiculous, Hall of Shame, "only Dane Cook would do this movie" terrible, right? Negative.

Before Swayze's Sam gets shot in an alley, he romantically ravages his attractive wife, Molly (Demi Moore in her prime) while at a pottery wheel, inspiring men everywhere to take ceramics classes. After he's accidentally killed, Sam spends his time in the Great Beyond plotting ways to claim revenge against his killer (Willie Lopez) and his duplicitous best friend (Carl Bruner), who arranged the mugging to get lucrative bank account numbers from Sam. If that's not enough, after Sam is dead, Carl tries to seduce a grieving Molly with the old "I spilled wine on my shirt so I have to take it off" move. Any other actor playing Sam would have suggested Carl and the killer find their hell-bound eternal reward quick.

But not Swayze.

While Sam uses Whoopi Goldberg's Oda Mae Brown to communicate with his wife, he also uses her to wipe out Carl's stolen bank accounts, driving his ex-friend crazy before orchestrating his "accidental" death with a large shard of glass. As for the killer, Sam sees that he gets conveniently crushed between a car and a bus.

Once again, with Swayze manning this seemingly moribund ship, success is found. "Ghost" went on to compete for a Best Picture Oscar, Goldberg earned a Best Supporting Actress statuette, and, this time, BOTH Righteous Brothers found loads of new money in their pockets.

-And last, but certainly not least, "Road House." Swayze plays James Dalton, one of the best two bouncers in America, depending on who you ask. After the undersized Dalton takes a job cleaning up a Missouri brawler bar called The Double Deuce for a reported annual salary somewhere north of $150K (plus $5000 up front), he finds himself working with the Jeff Healey Band, wooing a local doctor, doing topless tai chi in a barn, and unintentionally leading a town uprising against local high-roller and tyrant, Brad Wesley.

Um, what? The drunken ramblings of a late night game of "Can you top this?" stupidity?

Nope. Swayze gold.

In the span of 114 glorious minutes, Swayze's Dalton fires half of the Deuce staff, breaks up stock room sex, and puts an unruly patron's head through a tabletop with one hand. He drinks black coffee, takes multiple knife wounds, and spots a shimmering, one-inch boot knife from 30 feet away. At maybe 5-9, he routinely fights one-on-three, which is never preceded by him eating a meal and is always followed by multiple cigarettes. After uniting with America's other greatest bouncer, Wade Garrett, Dalton cleans up the bar and raises the ire of the local toughs to meteoric levels before scoring Jasper, Missouri's hottest doctor, who he somehow convinces back to his minimalist barn squalor for the greatest Otis Redding, brick wall-assisted love scene in film history. After Wesley and his men try to restore local order through property destruction, Swayze's Dalton rips one of their throats out with his right hand.

Not enough? Well, after Wesley's men match Dalton by stabbing Wade to death, Dalton decides to use that same knife to stab his Mercedes' accelerator and sensationally ghost ride the vehicle onto Wesley's compound--as a distraction. Once safely on Wesley's land and wearing a karate shirt, he kills each of his henchmen with a variety of tai chi, pocket knives, and bare hands before waiting for the townsmen to shoot Wesley dead with an assortment of hunting rifles. Finally, with Jasper and The Double Deuce safe, Swayze's Dalton goes for a naked dip in a clandestine swimming hole with his girl.

The end.

The script for "Road House" might have been written as the result of a lost bar wager. Its dialogue, premise, and acting are all possibly among the top 10 most ridiculous in their respective categories. If anyone else were cast to play James Dalton, the philosopher cooler with a majestic mullet, lines like "You're too stupid to have a good time" wouldn't have made it into the male lexicon. Without Patrick Swayze, "Road House" would have been "Road House 2."

But, with him? Simply the greatest guy movie of all time.

Patrick Swayze has made a career of turning legible lemons into visual lemonade, turning terribly contrived scenes into classic cinema. Right now, some studio executive is sitting in a boardroom of suits, pitching an idea he believes will make money but will ultimately be the next batch of box office poison. There will be a litany of these meetings, leaving the film-going public with nothing to choose from but movies like "Good Luck Chuck" and "The Hottie and The Nottie." But, with Swayze, there's still hope.

We need him to guide this next generation in an art only he can teach. We need him to instruct actors on how to own the screen, despite laughable dialogue and suffocating jeans or sweatpants. In these times of loathsome artistic duplication, we need a true movie original, one who invented masculine dancing, stage jumping, and the sexual move known simply as, "The Swayze."

With absolute sincerity, please get well, Patrick. The world needs you around.

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