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What is a Swayze?
Is it a charming mambo chasse across a bourgeois resort ballroom? A wild, rolling wave gyrating against a trembling shore? An earnest heart open to the face God?
A Swayze is all of these things—plus the Tao Te Ching and the non-boring parts of the Kama Sutra—wrapped without body fat into something not capable of being duplicated in this realm. Even, I suspect, by Minnesotan Steven Grant Douglas, who is currently romanticalizing audiences Swayze-style at the Orpheum, as Sam Wheat in Ghost: The Musical. (The show runs until June 23.)
My humble, Gen-X fangirl ethos dictates that if anyone could capture comprehensive Swayziness and swirl it down to Earth again, it’s a Minnesota Red River Valley boy who majored in theatre and minored in dance in the outdoorsman’s paradise that is Duluth. That’s rad, Mr. Douglas, considering the real Swayze has similar worker-artist origins—raised in Texas by a draftsman and a dance instructor.
But Swayze’s are big pointe shoes/platform heels/steel-toed boots to fill, homeboy. Consider other contemporary Hollywood beefcake slices who’ve surfed some Swayziness but never ridden the wave all the way:
Justin Timberlake. Swayze’s defining physical characteristic is his status as a dancer first, working the Gene Kelly/Fred Astaire tradition. No one is that physical anymore. No one really was during Swayze’s heyday—his body awareness leaps out of his most popular work. (Point Break skydiving and surfing consultants marveled at how quickly Swayze became expert; it was the dance, he said.) Singer-songwriter-dancer-actor Timberlake is a dance-y man, too. In my mind, he’s as close as it comes to Swayze-fied physicality in a leading man today.
The fork in the J.T.-Swayze road comes in their emotional awareness of self. Swayze’s defining emotive quality is that he knows more than you. J.T. rocks that too. What J.T. doesn’t rock is gratitude for the journey. Swayze characters worked hard for their enlightenment, and they will teach you how. (Swayze talked often of his mother’s demanding perfectionism; his characters channel that.) Timberlake seems to have been born at Disney World as the king of Space Mountain. Swayze uses his power to seek a higher purpose and bring you along. J.T. is an object of desire and he plays with that. Their SNL sketches are perfect examples: Timberlake’s best SNL sketch is almost as good as Swayze’s legendary Chippendale’s audition. But when Swayze wins the audition, he cries out of gratefulness, gets the judges to admit that superchub Farley’s moves are better, and thanks Farley (in internal monologue, because Swayze has a soul) for “bringing out the best in him.” J.T. gives me his d*ck. It’s in a box. Because that’s what he's told me I want.
Zac Efron. He sings, he dances, his Hairspray performance makes me feel extra-largely loved (for once), but come on! Efron is a kid! His big vehicle so far is the High School Musical franchise. He's evolved since to the world view of a naughty frat boy. Swayze is a man. He was 34 when he dirty danced into our dreams. I’m curious to see how Efron develops, but right now he’s less a Swayze and more a Footlose-era Kevin Bacon, and if you don’t understand the difference, watch Kevin Bacon parody himself earlier this year.
Ryan Gosling. Well this is tough. Gosling did ballet. He was bullied as a kid. He comes from working class roots with a strong religious foundation. He found himself in performance. All that is seriously Swayze-fied backstory. And there’s a lot of sizzling Swayze sex appeal in The Notebook—you can almost imagine a young Swayze in the Gosling roll. (“There is no easy way,” Gosling says to the love of his life. Of course Swayze would agree.) In all his roles, Gosling brings the commitment to craft you also get from Swayze—they earnestly act the crap out of their stuff. And they both play protectors with their lion hearts roaring.
But Gosling lacks what Swayze had in spades—idealism. Swayze is looking at the stars. Gosling is looking at the room. He’s owning it, but he’s not taking you anywhere beyond it. He doesn’t have to. He’s Ryan Gosling. Swayze is a sharer. He seeks connections. He is warmly, humbly collective with the energy in his scenes. And though you may take this the wrong way, Gosling doesn’t have to share. Even in The Notebook. He’s just that good of an actor. (Sorry. Sorry! SORRY!)
Jared Leto. Oh, Leto works a dress, just like Swayze works a dress. (There’s that dancer’s body awareness again.) But Leto is dark. He best plays hustlers whose hustling is born out of deep existential longing to be loved. Requiem for a Dream? I. Can’t. Even. Swayze is never in the movie to show you the tragic. He shows you how to transform the tragic. Swayze loves. He doesn’t need to be loved. Leto has not yet played a character I can say that about.
Still, check out some of Leto’s performance in Prefontaine. There's the smell of a Swayze there.
James Franco. He’s working a Swayziness in the face—especially in that “The-world-it-hurts-me-so!” vulnerability around the eyes. But the rest is just too ironic. Swayze’s well of empathy is legendary: for women who’ve gotten abortions, for drunk men in cafés while on a date, for impetuous drag queens, even for his non-nemesis in Point Break, Johnny Utah, who’s participation in “that system that kills the human spirit” makes Swayze’s surfer Bodhi sad. Franco’s empathy well is as deep as his toilet water. Swayze’s earnestness makes me want to ride bareback on a horse with him and then “take a nap” in the barn. The only earnest bone in Franco’s body is you-know-where. It makes me want to shower. By myself. With a wire brush.
Chris Hemsworth. Hemsworth and Swayze both excel at playing protectors who walk close to God. Hemsworth is Thor, who, ummm, is an actual god. But this means Thor is looking down on us. Swayze is a man struggling to be closer to God. He is always looking up, often up at us/ our character proxies. Also: Swayze is built like a ninja. Hemsworth is built like a cement truck. No one would ever to say to a Hemsworth Dalton in Roadhouse, “I thought you would be bigger . . .?” They’d have to rewrite to, “You’re the exact size I imagined for a roadhouse bouncer!” Where’s the interesting characterization in that? Though Hemsworth did try to dance—emphasis on try.
What I'm trying to say, Mr. Douglas, is that you can mix some Swayze swagger into your secret sauce. But to be full-fledged Swayze is, in Swayze’s own words, “out of your league.” Nothing personal—Swayziness is out of all of our leagues.
But much respect to you for trying. Taking a play from the Swayze character rulebook, allow me to say, “Thank you”—for attempting to replicate the magical amalgam that is a Swayze performance. You will never out-Swayze a Swayze, but I believe you can ride a little piece of it toward that bright light that transcends even true love, and you will become a better person for it.
I will repurpose Bodhi’s/Swayze’s words from Point Break about surfing into meta-commentary on Swayziness, “[Being Swayze] is that place where you lose yourself and find yourself. [Being Swayze] lets us know just how small we really are.”
The love inside Swayze—you take it with you. I hope you have the time of your life.