TWO ATTEMPTS AT SOCIAL COMMENT HIT THE MARK

Having recently wished in print for a few neatly scaled American movies with some sense of social comment, in much the same vein as "Wish You Were Here" or "Rita, Sue and Bob, Too!" or "Withnail and I," we suddenly have two. "No Way Out" has a seamy backstage sense of Washington today among its plot convolutions, and "Dirty Dancing" is a look at the still-optimistic early '60s and may be the decade's most arousing movie-with-dancing but is something more besides.

"No Way Out" director Roger Donaldson presumably had a larger budget to work with than any of the other four film makers, yet it isn't production values but a preciseness of observation and dialogue that carries us up to and through its astonishing endings. (Carries some of us, I should say; it's about "endings" that reviewers seem to turn rabidly to one side or another.)

The tone and pace of his opening scenes signal offhandedly that we're seeing the real thing. We meet Kevin Costner's lieutenant commander, in Navy dress uniform with slabs of medals, at an inaugural-night celebration, which is his first run-in with Sean Young (America's one good chance to fill the Kay Kendall void). Breathtakingly lovely, her position as a behind-the-scenes, or between-the-sheets, Washington insider has given her a slightly sardonic view of such grandiose functions as inaugural balls: As the Secret Service frisks her electronically at the doorway, she drawls: "Good thing it isn't a bull-bleep detector or no one would get in."

Minutes later, after the furor of a presidential visit complete with "Hail to the Chief," the emcee is waxing unctuous about the next four years. Onstage with him, a pair of black entertainers begin to writhe in hokey Las Vegas style, a performance with all the sincerity of Sammy Davis Jr. on late-night TV. "We have a potential nausea situation building up," Young deadpans, and the two escape to explore the enormous attraction each has felt from the first instant.

Those two scenes are honeycombed with incident and crosscurrents: We've seen the intelligence and swift irascibility of Gene Hackman's secretary of Defense and the puppy-loyal watchdog quality of his aide, played by Will Patton (alas, overplayed--the only evidence of that in the film). And between the adeptness of writer Robert Garland, who adapted this radically from Kenneth Fearing's 1940s novel, "The Big Clock," and Donaldson's savvy, sinewy direction, we've had a sense of being around the real Washington, one of palship and deals and connections and vendettas that's been ours for the seeing all through the Iran- contra hearings.

A vital plot point turns on plans for a "phantom submarine," pet project of the senator played by Howard Duff, and the target of Hackman's Defense secretary, who considers it one of the Hill's major boondoggles. The sub is supposedly undetectable by Soviet sonar; Hackman snorts derisively that since it's the size of several large office buildings, they wouldn't need sonar--it would make a vast lump in the ocean. (When the movie was first written, back in 1975, the scene was a reference to Robert MacNamara and the B-70 bomber; although its release just as Irangate subsides makes "No Way Out" seem eerily prescient, the film has been a long time aborning.)

Another sequence takes place at an embassy reception, where guests in dinner dress seem unstartled to be entertained in a paneled drawing room by Maori dancers in body paint, making fearsome, tongue-waggling grimaces. The guests' unblinking aplomb at this moment of cultural crossed wires--in which, you suspect, Washington abounds--is terribly funny and slyly acute.

The point about all this swiftly sketched detail is that we need it to go along with the later stretches of the plot, but it has been so well placed, and documented with such a feeling of veracity that we're in the mood to go willingly wherever the script wants us.

"Dirty Dancing" does just the same thing. Set in 1963, only months before J.F.K.'s assassination, in the summer of the "I Have a Dream" speech, its screenwriter, Eleanor Bergstein, has called this period "the last summer of liberalism." It coincides with the last summer of innocence--of every kind--of the film's narrator, Frances Houseman, at 17 still answering to "Baby," a peculiarity she says "it didn't occur to me to mind." (She's played superbly by Jennifer Grey, daughter of Joel Grey and granddaughter of Mickey Katz, who might come to her role with a little extra understanding of this milieu than most actresses.)

On the surface and here at a Grossinger's-like Catskills resort, it was a halcyon time, perhaps--to paraphrase Tennessee Williams--our country's last summer of ascendancy. The pinpoint clarity with which Bergstein and director Emile Ardolino re-create that time and those idealistic young people, lets us feel "that must be exactly how it was."

It's in resort owner Jack Weston, greeting guests expansively with "Welcome to my mountain." Or the waiters, recruited from Harvard or Yale, to dance attendance on these families and, not incidentally, their daughters--"whether they're dogs or not." Or the stratified above- and-below-stairs worlds of the guests and the help; the guests being tutored in the merengue, the help writhing raunchily to the "dirty dancing" of Bronx basements.

There's such precision to this observation that by the last act, when we must make a leap of faith over a particularly sticky plot point involving a stolen wallet, we may be willing to let this whopper by with a shrug. (It may also be that "Dirty Dancing" has the feel of a contemporary musical where dance and action are a seamless whole--one accepts fairly outlandish plot points in musicals all the time.)

But besides its rich script, "Dirty Dancing" marks an astonishingly assured feature film debut by Emile Ardolino. Best known for his Academy Award-winning documentary about Jacques d'Amboise, "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin'," Ardolino was, more crucially, producer or director of 28 of the "Dance in America" programs on PBS. Dancers are his native turf. What he understands, unerringly, is how dancing can make us feel --and with sinuous camera work and details of editing, as an arm goes down a bare side, or curves possessively over a hip, he puts us shiveringly in his dancer's shoes.

Ardolino seems to have a hidden agenda to his dance scenes: to show us, with love and pride, the real, not the "Flashdance" world of dancers. This time it's not the rarefied domain of ballet, but the blue-collar gypsies at the other end of dance's caste system, ex-Arthur Murray instructors and former Rockettes, to whom Catskills summer jobs are a life-and-death matter. This is "Saturday Night Fever" with even more of a social conscience and even more of a sensual connection. There's also something about the vocation of teaching in "Dirty Dancing," its continuity, the no-nonsense way of dancers with one another, dead serious about the details of work and technique.

We've felt this rush of affection before, from Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, Herbert Ross and Stanley Donen--Ardolino is by no means alone. Yet his immediacy, his choices in cast and choreographer, his real film sense mark him as a strong, fresh presence and make "Dirty Dancing" a movie with the power to move all of us.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°