Saturday, September 19, 2009

Patrick Swayze, 1952 - 2009

(I'm a little late with this. What can I say? Wife / life / home / kid / job - sometimes all of that stuff gets in the way.)

The only Patrick Swayze movie that I own is Point Break. I think I've seen all of Red Dawn by now, although I'm not completely sure of that, and I'm pretty sure I never sat down and watched it end-to-end. Ditto for Ghost. I've only seen chunks of both Road House and Dirty Dancing, although at least in the latter case it's mostly the more important stuff, the nobody-puts-Baby-in-the-corner stuff, and that's enough make me feel like I've seen the whole thing.

I don't have strong opinions on a lot of Swayze's filmography, but I do love Point Break. I love everything about it, really, even the stuff that unfolds after Keanu Reeves's Johnny Utah and Swayze's Bhodi know each other's secret identities and then they still act like they don't. I love it even though Keanu Reeves and Gary Busey look about as much like FBI agents as I do, which is to say not at all. I love the energy of it, the sheer delirious confounding implausibility of it all, even the cameo from Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers as a psycho surfer.

A big part of the reason that Point Break works so well, even though it really shouldn't, is Patrick Swayze's performance as Bhodi, the zen bank robbing surfer. As many others have noted in the wake of Swayze's death this week from pancreatic cancer, which he had been diagnosed with earlier this year, this performance in particular stands out in Swayze's career because of the actor's commitment to it, his apparent belief in this gloriously improbable character who really anchors the entire movie.

I happen to think Denzel Washington is the best actor of his generation. Now, I'm not going to suggest that Denzel Washington, a two-time Oscar winner, has that much in common with Patrick Swayze, except in one very crucial way: Washington never seems anything less than absolutely, postively, 100% invested in his performance, regardless of the movie, regardless of the role. From alcoholic Army Colonel to crooked narc to high-school football coach to time-traveling cop, Washington always, always seems committed. Now some his movies have been more successful than others, certainly, but I've never once seen Denzel Washington phone it in. A movie that he's in is going to have a certain quality just because he's in it, no matter what other factors may be working against it.

It sounds a little funny to call Patrick Swayze a great actor, but I'll tell you this: like Denzel Washington, he always seemed to believe. Even his goopiest roles, in Ghost and Dirty Dancing, resonate with a certain honesty and dignity that elevate the entire enterprise. You may not have liked his movies, but you couldn't honestly ridicule anything he ever did. He never seemed to give less than 100%, and he seemed to do so effortlessly. Those qualities have to be barometers of greatness - if they aren't, then nothing is. So, yeah - I know he didn't win many awards, but maybe Patrick Swayze was a great actor after all.

Time can be a great healer - distance and perspective can often shrink what once seemed huge. Someone who's fucked up as many times in life as I have has earned that knowledge for sure. But time can also be unforgiving, and when the curtain comes down, it's time to leave the stage whether or not you've finished saying what you want to say.

Patrick Swayze probably had more to say. He was only 57, well short of a full life. But what he did manage to get out there in this time moved people and will last long after his death, and that's a pretty damn good legacy. If you've got to go too young, you could do far worse than leaving behind a body of work that will continue to be watched and loved for many, many years to come.

I haven't watched Point Break in awhile, but I know this much: if it were on right now, I wouldn't turn it off.

Thanks, Patrick.

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