The passing of Patrick Swayze wasn’t a surprise — his struggle with pancreatic cancer had been reported on for some while — and given his irritation with some of the earlier tabloid stories claiming he had already passed on, it’s actually a blessing to learn via his publicist only the barest details: that his family was with him, and that the ending was peaceful. This is as it should be, when something so unavoidably sad has to be faced.
What’s fascinating to see already in the first couple of hours after the news broke is the range of reactions, and the realization that, on top of anything and everything else, Swayze owned not merely one signature role but several, all in different ways. As my friend Alfred said over on ILX after the news broke, “He seemed like a genuinely good guy, moderately awed by his level of fame — a decent actor who knew his limitations.” Later Scott Seward noted something fun:
my fave swayze moments in no particular order:
the outsiders (bloody greasers)
uncommon valor (bloody big muddy mia revenge)
road house (homoerotic bloodfighting)
next of kin (bloody hillbilly revenge)
steel dawn (bloody post-apocalyptic murder gangs)
youngblood (bloody hockey fights)
red dawn (greatest bloody russian movie ever made)
point break (bloody zen surf robbers)
On the one hand a ridiculously funny commonality between the films, on the other hand, think of all the roles in question — sure, Swayze also ties them all together, but is there that much in each and every one of those roles that does that otherwise? Some actors play the same character over and over, but Swayze — whether by intent, luck, or some combination thereof — didn’t do that at all.
After all, consider Scott’s list, and then think of what isn’t on it — Dirty Dancing, Ghost, City of Joy, To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything. Hell, even consider what are almost his bookend roles now, Donnie Darko and, stepping back to a movie I’d never even heard before tonight, Skatetown USA — and now that I have heard of it and seen these clips:
Basically, new favorite movie time, right there.
As Alfred notes, a large part of what made Swayze such an interesting, enjoyable figure is the fact that he seemed to easily roll with his fame, no easy thing to do given everything that had gone on in his life — the LA Times obituary discusses the drinking problem that affected him during his most famous years, not to mention the tragedy of his sister’s suicide.
As a counterexample, consider someone like Bruce Willis, whose own huge burst of fame neatly paralleled Swayze’s but who only ever seemed to end up playing himself time and again during that time, the smug wisecracking asshole, and who in real life seemed to only be a smug wisecracking asshole as well. He could have NEVER let his hair down enough (literally) to make fun of his own image so perfectly as Swayze did here:
And given Willis’s own horribly lumpish attempts at a singing career, it says something that while Swayze wasn’t about to tour arenas, his own late eighties hit riding the Dirty Dancing soundtrack connection is actually not that bad, slick state-of-the-art production that goes down smoothly, mannered vocals and all:
But to return back to my key point — it’s amazing to see so many friends/commenters/random folks jump to not one key role or phrase, but several. Sure, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” might be the one above all else, but for every Dirty Dancing mention out there I’m seeing a Point Break one, for every Ghost mention there’s an Outsiders one. There’s a whole host of idiot right wing commenters that are honestly going to tear up over the fact that the guy who shouted “WOLVERINES!” in Red Dawn is gone, while the Donnie Darko worshippers are having their own say. Hell, I’m pretty sure I first remember him from North and South on TV, having fun in Civil War drag and all a decade before breaking out the actual drag for To Wong Foo. A hell of a random range of fellow actors, directors, screenwriters, styles — the resume of a working actor, but the resume of a working actor with movies people actually watched and remembered, and he was a big part of it in the end.
As the post title indicates, it’s the goofy-ass genius of Road House that’s my own touchstone — Phil Freeman solved the whole conundrum of what made this movie so relentlessly fascinating a while back when he said that what it really is is a fantasy like The Lord of the Rings. Which may sound ridiculous on first blush, but nails it — there’s good and evil (hell, there’s even yin and yang fat guys), troubled townsfolk, vicious henchmen, a grizzled old companion who of course has to die at some point (Sam Elliott has kinda played that role ever since then, but to his credit does it well each time), and of course Our Hero, every feather in his hair styled just so, possessed of seemingly supernatural abilities to get through it all despite the fact that he takes more beatings than entire armies. Like the man says:
It’s hilarious beyond description and it hits every beat just right, it has its cake and eats it too. It’s no wonder that this film in particular became an obsession of the MST3K crowd, especially Mike Nelson, who debuted RiffTrax with a solo take on Road House, and who wrote this slice of genius for a 1991 episode (broadcast, logically, around Christmas):
To end on two points — first, an ILX anecdote from another poster, that captures what Alfred was saying about Swayze’s ability to keep his head on straight and take it all as it came:
I was working at the hotel he stayed at when they were filming North & South Pt 2 in Natchez. He liked to hang out at the hotel bar, but inevitably would have to bail when the groupies started gathering around him. I’d seen him around for a few days, and he already knew about the service elevator by the time I happened to be walking through the lobby and met him coming the other way fast.
“Hey buddy, can you help me a minute?”
“Sure, what’s up?”
“Can you take me up to seven in the service elevator?”
“Sure, no problem.”
On the way up, he says “There were a couple of girls in the bar I had to get away from.”
“haha, glad to help.”
Silence while I concentrate on stopping the (manual) elevator flush with the 7th floor.
“Thanks…here you go.”
“‘Preciate it, buddy.”
And lastly, again via the LA Times obit, the man himself, from a few years back:
When asked in 2004 what he did in his spare time, he told The Times that he didn’t have any — being a rancher, wildlife conservationist and actor-director-producer kept him busy.
“I feel like I wasted time with stardom back in the ’80s,” Swayze said. “Now I want it all. I want to do as much as I can.”
The right attitude to always have. And he did more than most. RIP sir.