Screen Savor: Dirty Dancing Turns 30, Watermelon Woman, 20

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Patrick Swayze lifts Jennifer Grey in "Dirty Dancing" (Lionsgate)

As unexpected hit movies go, few can compare to “Dirty Dancing”(Lionsgate), newly reissued in a 30th (!) anniversary Blu-ray+DVD+Digital HD edition. The film’s novel subject matter, cast of relative newcomers, vintage soundtrack, uplifting theme song and groundbreaking choreography, Patrick Swayze’s body and Jennifer Grey’s original nose, all combined to make it a success.

Set in the summer of 1963, before Kennedy was assassinated and the Beatles arrived, Peace Corp-bound Frances aka Baby (Grey), her older sister Lisa (Jane Brucker), and their father Jake (Jerry Orbach) and mother Marjorie (Kelly Bishop) head to Kellerman’s Catskills resort for a vacation. Baby, who has always been a “daddy’s girl” is about to get her first taste of rebellion.

As Baby explores the grounds of the resort, she learns many new things. She overhears resort operator Max (Jack Weston) instruct the male staff to “show the daughters a good time, even the dogs”. She stumbles on the staff quarters and gets her first glimpse of “dirty dancing” because she helped a staff member carry watermelon into a dance party. It is there that she comes face to face with dance instructor and resident stud Johnny (Swayze).

Then the drama begins to unfold. There’s “knocked up” dancer Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) and her botched abortion. Also in the mix are the mingling of the classes, the end of innocence, antagonistic siblings and easily disappointed parents, selfless acts and learning to stand up for yourself.

The late gay director Emile Ardolino (“Sister Act”) knew exactly how to make his camera fall in love with Swayze, thereby leading the audience to do the same.  “Dirty Dancing” is a cinematic descendant of “American Graffiti” and “Flashdance,” all set against the backdrop of an era coming to an end. The Blu-ray+DVD+Digital HD contains more than six hours of extras.

“The Watermelon Woman” (First Run Features), by African-American lesbian filmmaker Cheryl Dunye, is also celebrating an anniversary, its 20th. The main character Cheryl  (Dunye) is a Philadelphia-based lesbian wannabe-filmmaker who makes ends meets by operating a videography business with Tamara (Valarie Walker). Cheryl also works in a video store.

She wants to make a film about the untold stories of black women and has been watching movies from the `30s and `40s with black actresses, including Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers, in them. Obsessed with the character of Elsie in a movie called ”Plantation Memories” identified only as ‘The Watermelon Woman.’ Cheryl goes on a personal and creative mission to discover her true identity.

Many people are part of Cheryl’s quest. The aforementioned Tamara, who provides the comic relief, unsuccessfully tries fixing Cheryl up on dates. Additionally, there’s new store employee Annie (Shelley Olivier), race films collector Lee (Brian Freeman), flirty video store customer Diana (Guinevere Turner) with whom Cheryl becomes romantically linked, and Cheryl’s mother Irene (Irene Dunye) also appears.

However, it’s Irene’s stone butch friend Shirley (Ira Jeffries) who knows the most about Fae Richards, the true identity of The Watermelon Woman, including that Fae was a “Sapphic sister.” Watch for lesbian author Sarah Schulman as an archivist at C.L.I.T. (Center for Lesbian Info & Technology) and lesbian musician Toshi Reagon as a street busker. The DVD includes the bonus short film ”Black Is Blue.” Both movies score a B-.


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