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Viewer Guide: “Dirty Dancing” and “Emperor”

April 20, 2022 | Richard Peña


Dirty Dancing (1987).

This week’s double feature begins with Dirty Dancing, the coming-of-age romantic drama directed by Emile Ardolino. 

An enormous sleeper hit of 1987, Dirty Dancing takes a nostalgic trip back to the summer of 1963, before the seismic events of the decade would finally end the Eisenhower conservatism of the 1950s. Jennifer Grey stars as Frances Houseman, better known by her nickname “Baby,” a teenager joining her family for a summer vacation at Kellerman’s resort hotel in the Catskills. Upon arriving, Baby quickly becomes bored by the obligatory social routine of her parents, played by Jerry Orbach and Kelly Bishop; furthermore, sibling frictions have arisen with her older sister Lisa, played by Jane Brucker. Baby also strives to avoid the romantic interest of Neil Kellerman, played by Lonny Price, the son of the hotel’s owner—and her father’s good friend—Max Kellerman, played by Jack Weston. As Baby looks for other ways to amuse herself, her wandering gaze falls upon Johnny Castle, one of the hotel’s summer dance instructors, played by Patrick Swayze, whose smooth moves have the ladies’ heads turning. One night, Baby stumbles upon an afterhours hotel staff party where “dirty dancing” is happening with wild abandon to the latest rhythm & blues hits. Awestruck by Johnny and his dance partner Penny, played by Cynthia Rhodes, Baby is ready for a new kind of dance instruction—one that eventually becomes a true life lesson.  

Dirty Dancing screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein was inspired to write her script based on her own experience as a self-described “teenage mambo queen.” Director Emile Ardolino had never directed a feature film before, but as one of the founding producers of channel 13’s “Dance in America” series, Ardolino had an expert understanding of how to capture choreographer Kenny Ortega’s dance numbers on screen. For the role of Johnny, Ardolino was determined to cast a strong dancer who could also act, and knew of Patrick Swayze’s training with the Joffrey Ballet; however, Swayze’s resume initially arrived with a “no dancing” caveat due to a prior knee injury. Swayze changed his mind after reading the script, but then Jennifer Grey was reportedly reluctant to work with him again after the pair experienced frictions while shooting Red Dawn in 1984. Regardless, Grey and Swayze’s chemistry in their screen test together was undeniable, and Swayze’s frustration with Grey’s dance amateurism worked in the film’s favor as Johnny tries to give Baby a crash course in ballroom dancing. Upon screening the film, studio executives were convinced it would be a box office disaster, yet instead once again the public knew better: Dirty Dancing proved to be a resounding hit, and was the first film to sell over one million copies on home video. In addition, the movie’s soundtrack went platinum eleven times over, with the finale theme song “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” winning the Oscar for Best Original Song.


Emperor (2012).

This week’s double feature continues with Emperor, a 2012 World War II drama directed by Peter Webber. 

A fictionalized account of actual events, Emperor stars Matthew Fox as Brigadier General Bonner Fellers, a member the U.S. Army’s Allied Occupation Force of Japan headed by General Douglas MacArthur, played by Tommy Lee Jones. MacArthur’s contingent arrives in the rubble of Tokyo in late August 1945, just two weeks after Emperor Hirohito’s unconditional surrender has finally put an end to World War II. Having spent time in Japan, Fellers is tasked with arresting the leadership surrounding the Emperor who are now classified as war criminals, with his number one target being former Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. But soon after Tojo and his subordinates have been detained, MacArthur’s mission is changed: the U.S. Justice Department removes Emperor Hirohito from its “protected” list, and gives MacArthur ten days to determine the Emperor’s guilt or innocence in the War. Was he in fact a God-like figurehead floating above it all, or actively directing Japanese military aggression? Realizing the complexity of the situation, MacArthur assigns Fellers with finding the truth—and proof—of the Emperor’s involvement. Owing to his knowledge of the country, Fellers seems like the best man for the job; however, his past involvement with Japan contains an intimate secret—a college romance with a Japanese woman named Aya Shimada, played by Eriko Hatsune. While helping plan for Japan’s future, Fellers must have to come to terms with his own Japanese past.

Emperor premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. British director Peter Webber’s first feature film was the 2003 period drama Girl With a Pearl Earring, followed by Hannibal Rising in 2007. With Emperor, Webber returned to a historically inspired narrative, with some generous artistic license. In reality, General Bonner Fellers was 49 years old and married at the time of his participation in the U.S. Occupation of Japan, and although the romance between Fellers and Aya was a fictionalized embellishment, it actually was inspired by Fellers’ lifelong friendship with a Japanese woman he had met at college. The postscript titles state that Fellers was “demoted” to colonel in 1946, but in fact so were 211 other Generals as part of the U.S. Army’s planned reduction of “temporary” wartime appointments. In 1948, Fellers’ title was restored to Brigadier General after his retirement from the army. In 1971, Fellers was honored by Emperor Hirohito in recognition of his contributions to promoting friendship between Japan and the United States. 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.  

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