In Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze combined brawny physicality and feline grace in a way that made millions of women (and a lot of men) weak in the knees. That’s still a singular feat in American movies, where there has always been a schism between hoofers and jocks. Swayze behaved as if the divide never existed. His persona was fluid — and irony-free.
Because of Swayze’s physical immediacy, there was no tension between body and spirit: He was there. I think that’s what made his incorporeality so poignant in Ghost. He was of the Earth, at one with that pottery wheel. How bereft he looked without the substance of flesh. Only the poet of machismo-in-extremis Kathryn Bigelow could create a world, in Point Break, in which Swayze’s body wasn’t enough — in which his character had a jones for the big wave that would swallow him whole (and Keanu Reeves had a jones for him).
Why did his career lose steam? Yes, he could be stolid. But I think his loss of popularity had more to do with the movies themselves. The action and romance genres began to incorporate more self-reflexive ironies, more camp, and Swayze’s earnestness didn’t fit. He didn’t want to look like he was in on the joke. He wanted to act.
The one time I met Swayze was in 1984, when I interviewed John Milius on the release of his red-meat (but funereal) Cold War opus, Red Dawn. In my Village Voice pinko mode, I made some barbed reference to Eagle Scouts and Swayze said, “I was an Eagle Scout.” He didn’t add, “You girly-man,” which I appreciated. He was unapologetic about Milius’s militarism, which he saw as simply the need to be prepared, and in the face of his sincerity — as opposed to Milius’s fatuous liberal-baiting — it was difficult to argue. I ended up liking him a lot.
Pancreatic cancer is among nature’s swiftest killers, but Swayze made it fight for every cell. We’ll miss him. He was solid.