Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Patrick Swayze

Monday, September 14, 2009

Patrick Swayze

I never saw Patrick Swayze in his breakout role in Dirty Dancing (1987), which seemed to dog him for the rest of his career. But I'm sure it was a great example of the stunning physicality and grace he seemed to bring to each of his performances. That grace helped elevate what could have been a silly role in a B-movie—the spectral Sam Wheat in Ghost (1990)—to one with which the romantic in all of us could identify. My first exposure to the sweet, yet volatile, actor was in Coppola's underrated classic The Outsiders (1983), where he brought a gravitas to the role of oldest brother Darrel that helped set an example for the rest of the cast, mostly made up of then unknown Brat Packers like Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, and a young goofball by the name of Tom Cruise. Swayze would again be the anchor amongst his younger cohorts—Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Grey and others—in the right-wing Soviet invasion fantasy, Red Dawn (1984), where his horrified reaction to the thought of executing a friend who betrayed him ran counter to the movie's sensibilities, and generously provided a scene-stealing moment for fellow actor Howell. Because that was just the kind of actor he was. He'd take the backseat if he knew a fellow performer had a shot at stealing the show. How else can one explain his receding from view on a now legendary Saturday Night Live sketch, where Swayze—an athletic dancer—competes with the obese late comedian, Chris Farley, for a slot as a Chippendale dancer, and Farley wins the slot. However, Swayze was not above taking the spotlight when the situation called for it. As Southerner Orry Main in TV's Civil War miniseries, North and South (1985) and its sequel, he ran circles around his co-star James Read, who wrongly decided to underplay the part of his former best friend and Northerner, George Hazard. And he shone in an episode of Spielberg's Amazing Stories called "Life on Death Row" (1986), where—years before Stephen King wrote The Green Mile—he played a convicted murderer on Death Row who miraculously acquires the power to heal. All of this, Swayze accomplished before he hit it big with Dirty Dancing... which I did not see. Yes, Swayze had plenty of misfires after that, as many actors do in pursuit of the next big hit. Road House, Next of Kin, City of Joy are all... forgettable. But if there's one part that demonstrated that there was a powerful actor in there whose depths had not truly been plumbed, it was his role as the surfing philosopher/bank robber Bodhi in Point Break (1991). It even sounds funny when describing it. But Kathryn Bigelow's marvelous genre mash-up of surf movie by way of crime thriller is deservedly a cult classic, and it afforded Swayze his best chance yet to exhibit both his intensity as an actor and his physical ability. Instead of using a stunt double, he ended up doing all of the skydiving and most of the surfing himself. He never again had another part that quite harnessed his unique brand of energy in that way again. But as his determination to keep acting (in the daily grind of a TV series no less) while he fought with pancreatic cancer over the final years of his life demonstrated, and his near-40-year-long romance with wife Lisa Niemi attested, the man walked it like he talked it in his personal life also. Patrick Swayze died today at the age of 57. Recommended Films - The Outsiders, Red Dawn, Ghost, Point Break


Adam Zanzie said...

One Swayze vehicle I enjoyed (in my childhood) was Black Dog (1998). If you're in the mood for a fun, ludicrous action flick, it's recommended. Meat Loaf Aday and Randy Travis co-starred.

I wish Swayze had chosen his projects better, but I'm thankful that he at least got to work with Coppola and Milius.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Nice thoughts here, Tony. I too agree with what you say about Point Break and Swayze's performance as Bodhi. I have to say that I actually love Road's a great drive-in action movie made the way they don't make them anymore. It's gratutious and ridiculous -- the way action movies like that should be. Plus, I think he and Sam Elliot are having a lot of fun in the movie playing super cool bad asses.

It's sad that Swayze never got out from under the shadow of Dirty Dancing. I love Red Dawn, and two recent performances that are sometime overlooked are his supporting role in Donnie Darko, and the starring role in a minor film Green Dragon...both showed a range of emotions that were rarely on display because of the lack of quality in the roles he was offered.

Ratnakar Sadasyula said...

Apart from Ghost, Point Break, liked his supporting act in Donnie Darko, as the celebrity self help speaker, with whom Donnie has a tiff.

He was pretty good in Ghost, showcasing his comic side especially in the scenes with Whoopie Goldberg.


cb on bonanzle said...

Another talented star gone. May he rest in peace and may his death be an inspiration in finding a cure for pancreatic cancer. As he said earlier this year "I want to last until they find a cure, which means I'd better get a fire under it."

Unknown said...

Yeah, POINT BREAK is probably my fave film of his. He really committed to the pulpy material all the way and really stole the film away from the "star" Keanu Reeves -- not too hard considering his stiff acting style, but it plays well off of Swayze's philosophical surfer/bank robber. And you can just see in many of the scenes it looks like Swayze's having a total blast with the role, getting to do all those crazy physical stunts. It's interesting to see this film kinda getting rediscovered. It has been on cable TV all summer and I've watched it countless times and each time I enjoy it more and more and that's because of Swayze's top notch performance.

Richard Bellamy said...

I have watched Red Dawn many times. When I first saw it, I expected it to be a shoot-em'-up with a happy ending. When it turned into a serious examination of the effects of violence, and when Swayze delivered his powerful performance as Jed, I was pleased and amazed.