Monday, September 21, 2009
For the Boys: Patrick Swayze and Joel McHale
Then, like the dorky bespectacled boy BFF in a classic teencom, I realized what I really wanted was right in front of me all along: a recently-departed dancer-turned-actor who was not only lusted after but respected in 80's nostalgia AND cult circles, and a cable comedian coming into his own while remaining sheepishly humble about his well-earned success.
The former: Patrick Swayze. The latter: Joel McHale. The blog post: 5 reasons why I love them both.
1. They won me over from a place of utter skepticism. I didn't see Dirty Dancing when it first came out--I was in second grade, and my mom closely monitored what I watched. Though she did concede to renting it and letting me watch the electrifying final number, she drew the line at the entire movie--and with good reason, looking back, as the abortion subplot is definitely not something I'd want my (hypothetical) seven-year-old to ask me questions about. Then, when I was fifteen, I was at a lock-in, mourning the fact that my former best friend was hanging with his ditzy girl of the moment instead of me. Someone popped in Dirty Dancing, and I was hooked. Not just for the excellent daddy-daughter/good girl-bad boy drama, not just for the politically active teenage girl lead (far from a bland ingenue), not just for the sweet moves. But Swayze. DAMN. Whether he was swiveling his hips, comforting his pal Penny, or yelling at Baby not to put her heel down, he made Johnny Castle pop off the screen as more than just a droolworthy rebel, but a hard-knock guy who also became a better person that fateful summer of '63.
My first reaction to Joel McHale was, "Ugh, who's this frat boy?" Though I could appreciate Aisha Tyler and Greg Kinnear, I was first and foremost loyal to John "Skunkboy" Henson, host of The Show Formerly Known as Talk Soup. I even attended a live taping of Talk Soup in Chicago ten years ago. (In case you recall that historic airing: NO, that was not me making out with my boyfriend in the audience because we correctly assumed it would get us camera time.) So I wasn't immediately enamored of Joel's preppy appearance and dry delivery. (It probably didn't help that TS was relaunched as The Soup when I was in law school, when I wasn't much enamored of anything. It's an understatement to say that I wasn't the most pleasant lady to be around back then.) Until one day when my sister was visiting and on TV, Joel introduced the Clip of the Week: a truly terrible boob-grabbing moment between Pamela Anderson and Carmen Electra on the abysmal Foxcom Stacked. I turned to my sister, sighed and said, "And they canceled Arrested Development." EXACTLY ONE MILLISECOND LATER, Joel looked at the camera, sighed and said, "And they canceled Arrested Development." Color me a superfan.
2. They stay(ed) classy. Granted, I don't know what goes on behind closed doors. That said, I don't ever remember hearing about Patrick Swayze getting a case of road rage, partying with 15-year-olds, or whaling on some unsuspecting fan for requesting an autograph. (I have heard that he didn't like the line "Nobody puts Baby in a corner" and would only utter it once, but honestly, I can't really blame the guy. Come on, it's far from the best moment in the movie but it's quoted all. the. time.) But he just seemed . . . good. He worked hard. He stayed out of trouble. He loved his dance teacher mom, and even teamed up with her for a dance video in the late eighties (which my mom ordered from the Avon catalog). He stayed married to Lisa Niemi, a fellow dancer in his age range, his whole adult life. I'm sure he wasn't 100% perfect, but who is?
Regarding Mr. McHale, he eats stupid celebrities for breakfast, lunch and dinner on The Soup, and we adore him for saying what we're all thinking in funny, well-chosen words. But he also knows that famous people are humans too, and there are occasions where skewering just isn't appropriate. Like many others my age and otherwise, I was devastated by the sudden death of Heath Ledger, a genuine talent whose personal darkness got the best of him much too early. A few days later, it was Friday and I wondered what, if anything, Joel would say to mark the occasion (especially since the tabloids were rearing their monstrous heads, threatening to release a video of Heath in an altered state and badgering poor Michelle Williams). The episode passed without any mention, until the very end, when Joel's smirky countenance turned serious and a little angry. He said something to this effect: "And one last thing. Heath Ledger passed away this week, and in all the years we've been doing this show, we've never had cause to mention him. So stop digging for dirt, weasels. A talented, decent guy is gone, and our thoughts go to those who knew him." He then smiled and said, "See you next week," amid cheers from the crew. Now that's a good guy.
3. Masculinity redefined. Don't get me wrong: I love the Seth Rogens and Jason Segels of the world. Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall are two of my favorite films of the past few years, skillfully combining gross-out humor, heart, and coming of age as the doofy slacker learns to be a man with the help of a cute, together chick. The thing about Swayze and McHale, though? When it comes to being a man, they're already there. In a culture where pot-smoking job-shunning manboys are revered, it's reassuring to switch on the TV or pop in a DVD and watch a guy who needs no guidance from a pouty-lipped stunner who's way hotter than he deserves.
No one could say dancing is sissy after watching the Swayze. Watch one scene of Dirty Dancing and you can see the guy's life-long ballet training emanating from each beautiful muscle. That choreography is much more than grinding, y'all--I mean, during the final dance, Swayze executes a friggin' double tour (two turns in midair) and in tight pants to boot. Scrappy, graceful, and clearly adored the women in his life--that's a real man. And Joel elevates snark to a place that's swift, quick and clever. I'm not just talking about The Soup, but Community--how many half-hour sitcoms discuss moral relativism in the pilot? I know he didn't write it, but the guy knows his shit when it comes to choosing scripts. No Transformers for him, thank you very much! Okay, he had a small part as a loan officer in Spider-Man 2, but everyone has to start somewhere. (Besides, you know who else was in Spider-Man 2? Alfred Molina. And y'all KNOW how I love me some Molina.)
4. Genuinely good at their jobs. Neither Swayze or McHale have ever fallen victim to the one-trick pony-ism that infiltrates Hollywood these days. From a young age, Swayze trained as a dancer under his single mother Patsy, and like another fave actor/lust object of mine, Rainn Wilson, Joel boasts an M.F.A. in Acting. I'm perpetually in awe of beautifully trained dancers and actors, but neither dude stopped there. Even though his career choices weren't always Oscar-caliber (yes, I know some people love Point Break; I, however, am not one of those people), you cannot deny that Patrick Swayze had some acting chops. Johnny Castle wasn't just a kickass hoofer and bad boy Baby deflower-er--he was a street-smart survivor, a loyal friend, and an open admirer of Baby's courage and willingness to go the distance for the underdog. A lesser actor couldn't have brought all those nuances to the screen in less than two hours. Speaking of nuance, Patrick brought on the smarm fifteen years later as a sleazy motivational speaker in Donnie Darko--his character was delightfully despicable throughout the film, and yet I couldn't fight the lump in my throat when a single shot of Swayze blubbering as "Mad World" played in the background surfaced at the end of the film. Plus, in a culture where straight dudes often BALK at going gay on screen, Patrick took it one step further and was utterly fabulous as Miss Vida Boheme in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. You go, girl (boy).
On The Soup, Joel is a master of cadence and gesture. He doesn't just spout witty remarks, he dissects them as only a true actor can. With a quirked eyebrow, a dry tone, or a gleeful yelp, he voices the absurd zeitgeist that is reality TV--and he's right there with the bemused public. He doesn't stand above us, smug and removed like Craig Kilborn in the pre-Jon Stewart Daily Show days. No, Joel's right there with us in the D-list trenches--he watches this crap too! And like the rest of us, he sort of hates himself for it, but realizes that the best thing to do is laugh at the ridiculosity. And for that, I lurve him.
5. *wolf whistle* Oh, whatever. I'm a red-blooded female, and I like my menz attractive. Even in his fifties, Patrick brought the hotness--what is it about dancers that makes them age so damn well? I can't really think of any exceptions. I mean, have you seen Barishnikov? Hell, even George Balanchine wasn't terrible looking till his very last days. It's interesting--dancers strain their bodies to utter breaking points and many are known to flirt with toxic chemicals (nicotine, steroids, silicone). Yet each and every one of them carries a youthful maturity into their twilight years.
Joel may not possess the Swayze features that transcended multiple bad hairdos, but his wide smile, pointy nose, and spiky hair, combined with sharp wit, translates to an adorable package. Not to mention that he can wear the heck out of a sport coat and jeans. Yum yum.
So Patrick, I wish you an eternity of boogie-ing in that Big Dance Hall in the Sky. Save a turn for me, eh? And Joel, may your snappy star continue to rise. A bazillion pop culture vultures and TV junkies are pulling for you.