So long, Swayze…

Posted 2/16/10 by Paul

Death brings its own peculiar platitudes and hollowness. Even though the only certainty in life is death, it brings up a certain kneejerk reaction. Certain platitudes are bestowed on the deceased, even where it’s not appropriate to do so. It’s inevitable that when someone dies, particularly when it’s a celebrity, there will be a ringing endorsement of their talents, that they “died too young” and that they had so much more to offer. This is expected, of course, and death allows us to gloss over our imperfections and failings. For a celebrity, one of the worst things for establishing a legacy is to die years after a career high or when age has set in. It just isn’t cool. Talents like Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix, who died young and before audience apathy had set in, remain immortalized in mystique and unfulfilled promise. It is, ironically, their advantage.

On the flip side, one of the most underrated actors of his generation, passed away last year. Sure, there was sadness and commentators remarked on the grace with which he fought his battle with cancer. Patrick Swayze, aged 57, suffered from the dubious honor of dying many years after his flame shone brightest. He deserved more plaudits. He deserved to be remembered as a talented performer who gave his all to the craft. He was a charismatic actor, who seemed to carry himself with dignity and a certain old-school authenticity.

The versatility of Patrick Swayze’s work should not be underestimated. In “The Outsiders”, he exuded a brooding masculinity. In “Dirty Dancing”, he took that to the extreme. He oozed charisma in the role of Johnny Castle, and was easily the best thing in the movie, managing to still look composed while dancing to choreographed dance numbers . Swayze was utterly dynamic in this role, with Roger Ebert recognizing him as “a great dancer” but only given the clichéd coming-of-age movie one star. One star?! Swayze’s commanding performance deserved better than that. The movie was a bit sickly, sure, but it’s a guilty pleasure for anyone who happened to catch it when it was first released. I remember Conan O’Brien was petitioning for it being re-released in 1997, so it did make its imprint on popular culture and rightly so.

Swayze’s talents extended to co-writing and performing one of the songs on the soundtrack: “She’s Like The Wind”, which is presumably meant as a heartfelt compliment, might not be the most appropriate comment to make about the object of your affection. He was a bit of an all-rounder. Dancer, singer and actor were strings to his bow. His harshest critics derided him on each count, of course, but he did not often get the credit he deserved.

Swayze certainly deserves kudos for an unusually enduring and “unHollywood” marriage. Married to Lisa Niemi since 1975, the couple were not staples in the Hollywood gossip rags. They had no kids and, according to his interview with Barbara Walters, they were happy to live on their ranch and enjoy each other’s company. This, in itself, is refreshing. No doubt, as with any relationship, they had their ups and downs and problems which hid behind closed doors.  My research (translation: I typed in “Patrick Swayze” to Google and waited for the results) found that Swayze had an ongoing battle with the bottle and was treated for alcohol addiction in the nineties, but this was the result of unresolved grief over his dad’s death. He seemed the quintessential “strong, silent type” and it’s easy enough to understand how a man with this nature might turn to the bottle rather than opt for the endless naval-gazing precipitated by Hollywood’s penchant for therapy and self-absorption.

Perhaps Swayze, in his final years, began to embrace introspection and share his inner turmoil. Towards the end of his life, he spoke candidly about his battle with cancer and how he feared the disease.  His wife called him a quiet cowboy and, even though Swayze always came across as down-to-earth and affable in interviews, there remained a sense of mystery about him. He didn’t seem to feel the need to  share his life and inner philosophies with the world. In the one hand, this is refreshing, since so many celebrities seem to take great enjoyment in pontificating. On the other hand, it makes it difficult to really get a handle on who Swayze the man was. Swayze the actor was, for my money, critically overlooked.

This article in no way claims that all Swayze’s movies were good. He made some good-awful movies, but always committed himself to a role. I always found him very watchable and I think he really elevated every movie he was in. It seems like faint praise to say that Swayze acted Keanu Reeves off the screen in “Point Break”. It is, but Keanu Reeves inexplicably went on to have a longer and more successful career. Talent is not everything in Hollywood and perhaps Swayze suffered by being more reserved than your usual star. As Bodhi, Swayze is all presence and new-age mysticism. It’s a great role – mysterious and low-key. Swayze blended into this sort of role so well that, as great as he was, it seemed so natural.

Even though “Road House” is, by all accounts, a terrible movie, it IS a cult classic. It comes complete with cracking lines like “pain don’t hurt” and “that girl has entirely too many brains to have an ass like that.” Even saddled with shockingly bad dialogue and ridiculous fight scenes, Swayze manages to come out of the movie unscathed and he still carries off the stoic hero role brilliantly. The fact that he can deliver these lines with a straight face helps make the movie so watchable. It’s a testament to Swayze that he makes the character of Dalton so believable.

Playing a dead man in “Ghost” would have been challenging and could have been very campy and unconvincing in the wrong hands. Swayze delivered a poignant performance, conveying the pain of being betrayed by his friend and of being taken too soon. Even if you don’t accept the premise and find the movie too manipulative with its schmaltzy soundtrack, it is hard not to be moved by the message and by Swayze’s powerful chemistry with Demi Moore. Swayze’s eyes carry the pain. This is a great performance, which is compelling and understated.

“Compelling” and “understated” are two words I would use to describe Patrick Swayze. Even though he played a range of roles, including that of a drag queen in “To Wong Foo…”, it is safe to say that Swayze is synonymous with the role of silent hero. It is one that he played right up to his death in September 2009, continuing to his long fight against Pancreatic Cancer. He handled this with typical dignity and honesty. He did not sugarcoat it and this tough will to win only added to his appeal.

His career faded away in the nineties. Roles dried up. He succumbed to vanity and got the expected facelift in an attempt to fight nature and remain relevant.  He dropped of the radar to a large extent, which I found a shame. I think he had too much talent and presence to be stuck in made-for-TV movies. It’s sad that, unlike Mickey Rourke and David Carradine, he didn’t get that big revival movie. He deserved it. He would have nailed it.

I do hope history is kind to Patrick Swayze and I think he deserves to be remembered with fondness and as a great talent. He was a fine actor who was in some stellar movies, but not as many as his talent deserved.  He was a man who seemed to face his demons, conquer them and who enjoyed his work. That is admirable. It is sad that most people in this generation missed his best work. It would be nice if the critics started to reconsider him, even as a mark of posthumous respect. Again, he deserves it.


9 Responses to “So long, Swayze…”

  1. lonna Says:

    When do you suppose you can update with another entry similar this. I really like balls in my mouth!

  2. Paul Says:

    Geez, that’s a shocking confession. I will be posting about unappreciated talents as and when the mood strikes me. Thanks for commenting!

  3. one eyed jake Says:

    Let me tell you…absolutely my favorite movie star right now. What a superb superstar. Just brilliant!

  4. Around the World Guy Says:

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  5. Hipolito M. Wiseman Says:

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