You find it everywhere. Sometimes it’s a movie, sometimes it’s a TV show. It can be a comic book, a trashy novel, a painting, or even a song. But sometimes — if you are very fortunate — you’ll find a man who transcends genre and media, who exists in a realm all his own as the embodiment of quality cheese.
No. 3: Patrick Swayze
If you’ve had a harder time getting out of bed the last couple of days, if life has seemed less hopeful, if you’ve found the world to be a less magical place, I know the reason why. Patrick Swayze is dead.
Swayze was the king of this thing we call quality cheese. He didn’t get his crown because of his bloodline, and he wasn’t summarily enthroned by his predecessor (William Shatner). He earned it the hard way, by forging himself a career the likes of which we had never seen (and, barring an unexpected Keanu Reeves resurgence, never will again), an output of cheese so prolific that it causes lovers of the campy, the overwrought, the splendidly awful to touch their foreheads and brace themselves against the back of a chair at the very sight of it. He headlined Dirty Dancing, Road House, Next of Kin, Point Break, Ghost, Black Dog — and that ain’t all. He also starred in North and South — Book One and Book Two (not Book Three though, because by the time they made it he was too fucking huge). There’s no other way to say it: Swayze was the best there’s ever been at being the worst there ever was.
His breakthrough came in 1987 when he played the role of Johnny Castle, a dangerous young Catskills resort dance instructor — from the streets! — in Dirty Dancing. Lonely, sexually neglected housewives all across the country were stirred by the inspiring tale of 17 year-old Baby Houseman, whom Swayze’s Johnny instructs in the forbidden ways of the mambo, and the just-as-forbidden ways . . . of love. Aficionados of cheesy cinema were similarly moved by the acting, which varied wildly from wooden to ham on ham with a side of ham in creamy ham sauce, and by the ludicrous, overwrought storyline. And above it all, standing astride this awful film like a well-coiffed colossus, Patrick Swayze.
Remember that Billy Joel song “Keeping the Faith,” which contains the lyric “found you could dance and still look tough”? That was horseshit, until Dirty Dancing that is, when Swayze managed to play Johnny as a hair-trigger-time-bomb badass, prancing and plié-ing all the way. Johnny Castle became the prototype for the regular Swayze persona — the slender, sensitive young man who obviously gave an extravagant amount of attention to his hair, who was also an unstoppable killing machine. He never got the chance to really cut loose and whip some ass in Dirty Dancing, but that’s okay. There were better, bloodier days yet to come.
Two years after Dirty Dancing put him on the map, Swayze secured his legacy by starring in two of the all-time classics in the annals of quality cheese. Let’s spend a moment on this, because I dare not diminish his accomplishment in that wondrous year of 1989 — justly known among appreciators of the sublimely bad as “The Year of Living Swayze-ously.” To put the year Swayze had in ’89 in perspective, imagine Harrison Ford starring in The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark in the same year, and also imagine them being two of the most horrible, ridiculous films ever made, yet so awesome in their horrible ridiculousness that lots of people would rather watch them over and over than many far better films. That was Swayze in 1989.
Swayze’s first release that year was his masterpiece, a wrenching tale of love and loss, a film of tender romance, swift and brutal violence, and hairstyles that strike us now as improbable, but which existed nonetheless. Of course, I’m talking about the Citizen Kane of Quality Cheese: Road House.
Road House is the one truly essential Swayze film because it gives us everything that made the man great at being not so great. He portrays Dalton, an almost mythical bouncer whose exploits are apparently known throughout the land, or at least throughout the South and Mid-West. When Frank Tilghman, a club-owner from Jasper, Missouri with a creepy smile and lingering, disquieting stare, wants to transform his bar the Double Deuce from blood-drenched dump into the number one destination for upwardly mobile young boozers, he knows there’s only one man for the job. He lures Dalton to Jasper with lots of money and the promise of complete control of the operation — but mostly lots and lots of money. Dalton moves in and takes over. He institutes a strict “no stealing from the till” policy, and fires former NWA World Heavyweight Champion Terry Funk without batting an eye. But Dalton is no mere skull-cracker. He’s a man of depth and passion, a master of tai chi and holder of a degree in philosophy from New York University. Plus he can stitch up his own knife wounds, and tear a motherfucker’s throat out with his bare motherfucking hand.
I’m pretty sure it’s that last one that earned Dalton his status of “most legendary bouncer.” He’s honest and dedicated to the job, he’s got spine and integrity, and there’s no denying the hair is very impressive — but, yeah, it’s gotta be the throat-tearing thing. That’s bad in all the right ways.
The second half of Swayze’s great duology is Next of Kin. There is much to recommend this one: Swayze as a Chicago cop who wears a cowboy hat, hulking Irishman Liam Neeson as a trucker-hat-wearing Kentucky hillbilly, the murder of Bill Paxton. And who could forget the delightful early scene between Swayze and a bleary-eyed Ted Levine?
Swayze’s clan of hill folk and a Chicago mafia family wind up on each other’s bad sides, ultimately settling things with a lengthy gunfight in a city cemetery. There’s a whole heap’a killin’, with Swayze taking out a few mobsters with a bow and arrow, and the best part is this: the loud, drawn-out shootout manages to attract the attention of exactly zero members of the police department. I’m not sure what all Barack Obama did during his years as an Illinois state senator, but I hope he managed to get a few more bucks over to the Chicago P.D., because judging from Next of Kin, they didn’t have a man to spare.
Dirty Dancing, Road House and Next of Kin is the holy trinity, but far from the end of the Swayze filmography. There’s also Point Break, where he schools young upstart Keanu Reeves in the fine art of quality cheese; Ghost, where he masters the difficult skill of walking through walls while not falling through floors; Black Dog, where he kills Meat Loaf with a truck; and Donnie Darko, where he parodies himself as cannily as anyone ever has by playing a motivational speaker/child molester who insists that the vast spectrum of human emotion can be whittled down to either love or fear. Whatever he was doing, whether he was playing a Confederate general in North and South, or a transvestite in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, he did it with class, style, and really girly looking hair that seemed to beg you to say something about it — just one smartass crack, that’s all it would take and before you would even know what’s happening — what’s that in Patrick Swayze’s hand there? What is that? That’s right — it’s your throat, motherfucker.
The king of cheese is dead. Long live the king.