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Down and 'Dirty'

Despite B-list stars, a sappy love story, and critical slams, audiences fell for Dirty Dancing 12 years ago.

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Even in hindsight it’s a tough sell: a low-budget, period musical about a Jewish family resort in the Catskills. Throw in a lack of big-name stars and a not very family-friendly title, and you’ve got a movie that by all rights should have been playing on late-night cable within weeks of its release. Instead, when Dirty Dancing premiered Aug. 21, 1987, it kicked off a heartfelt pop-cultural phenomenon that continues to resonate.

Coming on the heels of such distinctly ’80s musicals as Flashdance and Footloose, Dancing was an unabashedly sentimental coming-of-age tale about 17-year-old Frances ”Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey, with her old nose) and her romance with roguish dance instructor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). Set in the summer of ’63, the loosely autobiographical tale by screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein reveled in its sweetly nostalgic sensibility, evoking ”the last moments of innocence for this country,” as Law & Order’s Jerry Orbach, who played Baby’s benevolent father, puts it. ”Right before JFK got shot and all hell broke loose.”

The picture was almost universally dismissed by critics. (New York magazine’s David Denby called it ”overripe” and ”runny around the edges.”) Still, audiences responded to what Swayze calls ”the standards that it seemed to hold — simple things about integrity and falling in love.” Dancing grossed $63 million at the box office, and the soundtrack, featuring both the Swayze-crooned ”She’s Like the Wind” (which hit No. 3 on the pop charts) and the Grammy and Oscar-winning ”(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” sold over 20 million copies worldwide. The film even inspired a number of spin-off franchises, including a successful live concert tour the following year, and a short-lived 1988 CBS series.

”What blows me away now,” says Swayze, ”is its longevity.” More than a decade after its release, echoes of Dancing can still be heard. A 10th-anniversary commemorative re-release two years ago generated a new flurry of interest (most notably from Late Night host and Dancing devotee Conan O’Brien, who staged readings of ”key scenes” on his show). Just last month, RCA released a new digitally remastered version of the soundtrack. And in the pilot for ABC’s upcoming series Wasteland, two of the show’s leads recreate the Dancing scene in which Grey and Swayze erotically lip synch ”Love Is Strange.” The movie endures, notes publicist Harry Clein, who mounted the original PR campaign for the movie, because ”the film created its own mythology.”

Or perhaps there’s a simpler reason. Watching the movie, says Dancing choreographer Kenny Ortega, you can feel the exuberance of the filmmakers. ”None of us wanted to stop making that film,” says Ortega. ”We had the time of our lives.”