Wednesday, 5 March 2008

A Few Words On Patrick Swayze

News is emerging that Patrick Swayze has pancreatic cancer and will be dead in a matter of weeks. Is it symptomatic of today’s modern blah blah world that when I first heard this, about an hour ago, I thought it was a bizarrely unfunny internet rumour? Nonetheless, assuming even the National Enquirer wouldn’t run with this story unless it was pretty sure, it seems to be true.

What an odd celebrity Swayze is. He is quite substantially famous and seems to have been for some considerable time. His level of fame equals that of far more talented, successful and prolific actors. Since his breakthrough in The Outsiders (1983), he’s appeared in 31 films, or a decidedly non-whopping 1.24 a year. Of those only two, Dirty Dancing (1987) and Ghost (1990) could be said to be solid commercial successes, although some of the others have cultish appeal. Perhaps most curious of all, after establishing himself as at least a moderate box office draw with those pictures and a charismatic, even likeable action-movie presence in Point Break (1991), he made only eight movies in the next decade, and among those were such gems as Father Hood, Tall Tale, Black Dog, Letters From A Killer and Forever Lulu. Five pounds to anyone who can prove they saw any of those. (Note: you will not receive five pounds)

So (a) how did he remain famous, and (b) why and how did he translate burgeoning movie success into a career thrown away on duds and non-starters? I suppose the answer to (a) rests largely with Dirty Dancing and its perennial popularity among teenage girls (and former teenage girls), a new generation of whom was introduced to the timeless story by the recent stage adaptation. Naturally, I affect to disdain and despise the movie, but I do have a certain respect for its simple appeal and capacity to tap into the wish-fulfilment fantasy of its audience. Some people have taken their love for the movie too far, of course, but if I were Swayze I’d be looking back on Dirty Dancing’s success with fondness and a certain pride.

Answering (b) proves more difficult. Could it have been his drinking? It’s hardly likely that that would have stopped anyone employing him, considering how many other actors maintain a career while in the grip of addiction. At one point he claimed to have “turned against Hollywood”, an interesting interpretation of the direction his career had taken. Presumably it was being “completely fed up with that Hollywood blockbuster mentality” that led him to take second-banana roles in minor British films. I’m sure he prefers things that way. Or it could be that he was just too ’80s to survive in movies much beyond that decade, his tough-guy chin and immovable quiff made obsolete by the grungey, floppy-haired skinny boys that succeeded him. (Surely no coincidence that his best role came when both chin and quiff were obscured, as Zen surfer Bodhi in Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break. But – oh, sweet irony! – his floppy-haired co-star went on to be a much bigger star. Although mainly when he had very short hair. What am I saying again?)

Or perhaps there’s a more old-fashioned reason: he just isn’t all that talented. It seems ridiculous today that such a thing could prevent someone being famous, but for Swayze it seems to be true. Can there be any other reason why, after the huge home-video smash Dirty Dancing, the Oscar®-winning, mum-seducing, $500m triumph of Ghost and the genuine spiritual experience that was Point Break, the best follow-up he could produce was Father Hood? Nobody wanted to put him in their movies. Before long he was taking roles in quirky films whose quirk factor was only increased by his presence, the sign of an actor who knows his limitations.

It’s unlikely that Swayze would have undergone a late-career boost; although he received generous critical notices for his role in Donnie Darko, it didn’t herald a glut of high-profile roles (despite reports he turned down a crapload of money to star in Dirty Dancing 2). I guess no-one was convinced that playing an earnest aw-shucks ostensible nice guy hiding a shameful secret was much of a stretch for him.

It feels strange to say this of a man who is only in his mid-50s and still (just about) working, but he probably won’t be missed by his fans. His career has existed largely on video and DVD for the past 20 years – on several million worn-out copies of the same movie, that is, not in a Steven Seagal way – and no-one is eagerly awaiting his next project or keen to hear what he has to say about global warming or Amy Winehouse. It’s possible that – again assuming the story is true – the inevitable macabre media frenzy will rekindle his fleeting popularity and trigger a re-evaluation of his career.

Ah, forget it.

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