I was 16 when Dirty Dancing came out. I had just started driving — to the point where, the first time I went to see it with my friend, Erin, we didn't get to see it because I locked my keys in the car at the theater with the car running. I was young; I was the target demographic. Somebody was always trying to put me in a corner. Sixteen feels like that.
So it may be an accident of timing that I was disproportionately attached to Patrick Swayze, whose death, while not at all unexpected, hits surprisingly hard. I could say I admired the way he kept working even after he was diagnosed with cancer, which is true. Or that I admired the fact that unlike a lot of famous actors, he stayed married to the same lady from 1975 until today, which is also true. Or that I admired the sense of humor about himself that he demonstrated in a famous sketch on Saturday Night Live where he and Chris Farley played aspiring Chippendale dancers — that's true, too.
But while those things are true, much of it is the amiable and easy familiarity of a good movie star. Between Ghost and Dirty Dancing, the guy made films I have seen a preposterous number of times. Not usually giving my full attention, never studying them like I would with really serious movies, but with a cup of tea on the first really cold day in November, with a plaid wool blanket, or late at night when something worrisome is happening and sleep is oddly elusive. One should be so lucky as to find Dirty Dancing on television.
People forget that Ghost was nominated for Best Picture. It hasn't aged well, all that business with the little white lights leading Swayze ultimately into a cornfield and the lumpy shadows coming to carry the bad guys into their undesirable hereafter. It's hokey and it's overwrought, and the potter's-wheel love scene has been parodied so many times that trying to appreciate its romantic swoon is like trying to watch Charlton Heston yell "Soylent Green is people!" and take it seriously.
But Ghost is also oddly lovely in places — tragic and weepy and utterly Hollywood in every way. It doesn't have a trace of irony; it's just an unapologetic romantic melodrama, and when you've seen enough dumb-guy comedies, and psychopath thrillers, and horrifying attempts at boy-girl banter, it certainly seems like there are worse things to aspire to.
Actors who die with a closet full of awards have achieved one thing, but actors who leave behind that odd feeling that something has happened to someone who has kept you company have achieved something different. Making things that are beloved certainly isn't everything, but it is something, and Swayze made things that were beloved broadly and without cynicism.
Dirty Dancing will be on ABC Family on Saturday night. Ghost will be on Lifetime on Saturday afternoon. You might plan to make some tea.