Friday, January 22, 2010

Film Friday: Strictly Ballroom (1992)

Written by Ayn Rand, Strictly Ballroom is one of my favorite romantic movie. Ok, I’m kidding, it wasn’t written by Ayn Rand, though it could have been. I’ll bet no one has ever told you that before!

** spoiler alert **

Strictly Ballroom began life as a play written by Baz Luhrmann and Andrew Bovell. In 1992, Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) made it into a movie. . . his first. With a wry sense of humor, a sharp wit, and a flare for the ridiculous, Luhrmann turned what would have been just an another low-budget ugly duckling tale into a worldwide sensation that continues to appear on "best of" lists today. And in the process, he gave us one of the better romantic movies of the last couple decades.

Strictly Ballroom is the story of Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio), and his struggle against the powers that be. Scott has been dreaming of winning the Pan Pacific Grand Prix ballroom dancing championship since he was six years old. Under the guidance of his über stage-mother Shirley (who never managed to win the Grand Prix herself), Scott has become the champion dancer of Kendall’s Dance Academy. Les Kendall is Shirley’s ex-dance partner. Scott's father, we're told, doesn't dance and is withdrawn into his own world.

As the story opens, we learn that all is not well with Scott. Scott is a talented dancer, but feels trapped by the regimented rules of ballroom dancing. He wishes to dance his own moves (steps). But this doesn’t suit the powers that be, specifically Australian Dancing Federal Chairman Barry Fife. Fife warns Scott that he cannot use his own steps: “there will be no new steps!” But Scott ignores him and thereby sets into motion a chain of events that will shake the Grand Prix world to its very foundations.

When Scott first displays his new steps, the powers that be instantly turn on Scott. He's disqualified from the event and threatened with further disqualification. His dance partner Liz, unable to stand the strain of living on the edge of propriety, leaves Scott so she can dance with his biggest competitor, Ken Railings. Scott’s mother lays a heavy guilt trip on him, as she very visibly suffers a near nervous breakdown trying to reign Scott in and find him a new partner. But Scott will not be bowed. He wants to dance his own steps. All he needs is a partner.

Enter Fran. Fran (Tara Morice) is a shy Spanish girl with bad skin, glasses and a horrible fashion sense. She’s only a beginner dancer, but when Scott loses Liz, Fran asks to dance with him. Scott at first scoffs at the notion he would dance with a mere beginner, but he soon becomes intrigued when he learns she too has invented her own moves. Soon Scott sets about teaching her to dance, so she can become his partner.

This leads to the usual ugly duckling scenes, as Fran is made more attractive, as misunderstandings and insecurities interfere in their relationship, and as Scott learns he doesn’t know everything. Indeed, some of the best scenes in the movie come after Scott meets Fran’s father and grandmother and discovers they too are dancers: “Show me your Paso Doble!”

All the while, Scott’s mother and the rest of the powers that be try to shut him down, to separate him from Fran and to make him dance with Tina Sparkle -- a former Grand Prix winner. They even try to drive Fran away. But Scott will not listen, as he is falling for Fran. As an aside, the scene where Scott’s mother finally realizes what Scott is up to -- when she and everyone else catch Scott and Fran dancing behind a stage curtain, is probably my favorite dance in any film.

With Scott slipping out of their grasp, the powers that be turn up the heat on Scott. A decision is made to tell Scott his father was destroyed by his own selfish desires to dance his own steps. . . a decision that remains a powerful wedge between Scott’s father and Scott’s mother to this very day. But this is all a dirty lie, meant to cover up a shocking betrayal. At the same time, plans are put into place to guarantee Scott cannot win, no matter what he does. But why would this group of glitterati go to such lengths to stop Scott from dancing new moves? Why is he such a risk to them? Because they can’t do these steps, and that means they can’t teach these steps. And that means they lose their power and their jobs. In the words of Chairman Barry Fife: “If you can’t dance a step, you can’t teach it, and if you can’t teach it, we might as well all pack up and go home.”

Now there’s one more thing you need to know. This whole movie is satire. That's right. The Pan Pacific Grand Prix, the event that tears these people apart, is nothing more than a local, amateur dancing competition. That’s it. This makes lines like the following from Barry Fife wonderfully absurd: “Let's not forget, that a Pan Pacific Champion becomes a hero, a guiding light to all dancers, someone who'll set the right example.” Moreover, the characters are wonderfully drawn. Les Kendell sprouts malapropisms every time he speaks. Shirley is so tan she's become orange. Fife plays the heavy from behind a shockingly bad toupee. Ken Railings, the evil competitor, is an alcoholic hot tub salesman. Even Doug Hastings, the henpecked father, has a terrible secret (and a great dance scene). And the cast of dancers are painted and feathered to the absurd.

Many compare this move to Dirty Dancing, but the two really are very different. Whereas Dirty Dancing was entirely serious, Strictly Ballroom is thoroughly tongue in cheek. I also must say the choreography in Strictly Ballroom is superior. Dirty Dancing was very typical Hollywood. It was designed to be flashy and, where it was meant to be sexy, it was obvious and oversexed. The dancing in Strictly Ballroom, by comparison, showed tremendous technical skill. You felt like you were peeking in on dancers testing their limits in private, as compared to Dirty Dancing which felt staged. And unlike the over-sexed Dirty Dancing, I would describe the dances between Fran and Scott as intimate and sensual. Dirty Dancing strikes me as the kind of dancing that would be fun to watch, but Strictly Ballroom strikes me as the kind of dancing you wished you could do.

So how does Ayn Rand fit into this? I doubt Luhrmann had Rand in mind when he wrote this, but he’s absolutely picked up every element of The Fountainhead. Scott, like Roark, is a true talent, a savant. He's also unorthodox, seeing a better way. But the powers that be, a group of certified professionals who lack talent but who are the gatekeepers to Scott’s dream by virtue of their being deigned to be the best by their fellows, are desperate to stop him despite his talent (or because of it). They see him as a threat to their way of life. His talent exposes the lack of theirs, and they would rather society be deprived of what he can achieve than have their own deficiencies laid bare. Thus, they try to sway him, they try to threaten him, they even co-opt those closest to him. Yet, in the end, Scott, like Roark, decides he would rather see his dream destroyed and lose the Gran Prix than sacrifice his principles. In this way, Strictly Ballroom is The Fountainhead only with the 14 hour ending speech by Roark replaced succinctly by Scott with: “Fran, I wanna dance with you!” (and with fewer explosions).

Maybe this is why Strictly Ballroom resonates so well? Maybe this is why Strictly Ballroom is so much more than your typical ugly duckling movie? Perhaps, it's the Randian message of defeating the oppression of the mediocre, of letting the savants set their own standards, that drives this movie home? After all, we can all relate to having been frustrated by people who lacked our vision. Or maybe, we just liked the music?

And while you’re pondering that. . . show me your Paso Doble!

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17 comments:

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: Sonofagun! I wondered if anybody else saw the movie that way. Besides being absolutely hilarious, and having some tremendous dance scenes, it had a double message. Don't take yourself too seriously (the competition organizers), and give it your best regardless of what others think (for the two main characters).

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I think like all really good stories, it's multi-layered and you can enjoy it on many levels.

I do wonder if Luhrmann had any thoughts about The Fountainhead or if he just shares Rand's views?

ScottDS said...

When I attended FSU (ten years ago), one of the film classes I took involved a weekly film viewing and discussion. This was one of the films we watched but, unfortunately, I don't remember a thing about it. Obviously, I'll have to watch it again.

I do however love satire of local competitions (Drop Dead Gorgeous is one of my guilty pleasure films and makes mincemeat of small town beauty pageants).

I wish I had more to contribute this time around. :-)

Writer X said...

I LOVED this movie. Your comparison to DIRTY DANCING is on the money, too--fun to watch vs. dancing you'd actually like to try. I think the writing and the acting made the whole story so believable and endearing. I must say, though, I did not know it was written by Ayn Rand until your post. I always thought Luhrmann wrote it.

After reading this, now I want to watch it again. Thanks, Andrew!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Go watch the movie and then add something. . . we'll wait! ;-)

Seriously, you can always add a comment to an old thread.

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome Writer X! This is one of my favorite movies. I'm glad you agree about the comparison to Dirty Dancing -- many people lump the two together but I think they really are very different. Strictly Ballroom, despite the satire angle strikes me as much more real than Dirty Dancing. I have an easier time seeing Fran and Scott continuing than I do Swayze and Grey.

You didn't know it was written by Rand?! It's one of her three "big" books -- The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and Strictly Ballroom. ;-)

Tennessee Jed said...

I am somewhat amazed and ashamed (o.k. not ashamed) that I never saw this movie. What I can say is I watch Dancing with the Stars with my wife and actually love that show. I realize it is not even close to being a real competition, but to watch the professional dancers is a real joy and to watch the improvement of some of the stars (Ozzie Osbourne's daughter comes to mind) is amazing. They are truly world class athletes. Certainly I have enjoyed some of Baz Luhrman's other work including Moulin Rouge.

I have seen the Fountainhead numerous times and will now screen 'Strictly' with your comments in mind. While there is much to admire about Ayne Rand's philosophy, I found her writing to be ponderous at best.

My next movie, however, is probably going to be 'That Evening Sun' with Hal Holbrook. It may turn out to be another liberal shill movie, but since it was shot locally, I pretty much have to check it out.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I'm a big fan of Hal Holbrook -- love his movies. Though I haven't seen That Evening Sun.

I think you'll like Strictly Ballroom. It's a very fun movie, with a great cast, some wonderful acting and some great dancing. But don't take it too seriously. I think the principles of The Fountainhead are in this movie, but it's not a political or philosophical movie, so don't expect any moralizing or lenghty discussions of philosophy.

Monica said...

This is one of the movies I grew up on, and my entire family still quotes it. After reading your analysis, I feel much more justified in loving it as much as I do:)

AndrewPrice said...

Monica, I'm glad you enjoyed the review. It's a great movie to love! It gives all the right messages -- plus, it's just plain fun.

I have often used several of its quotes when dealing with people who've seen the movie. My favorite is -- "show me your Paso Doble," which works in many circumstances! LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

FYI, after writing this, I decided to investigate to see if anyone else had drawn the connection between The Fountainhead and Strictly Ballroom.

Interstingly, the Rand Institute makes the same connection! Who knew!

MegaTroll said...

Cool movie. Interesting connection to The Fountainhead. I think you have a really good point.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely love this movie - it's one of my favorites. I have loaned it to a few friends, but unfortunately they don't quite get it. Great review, by the way!

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, Thanks! I'm glad you liked the review. I loved this movie too. It's just perfect on so many levels -- from the sense of humor to the fun story to the fantastic dancing.

Maybe your friends will come around? :-)

Sung Young said...

This was an awesome article on Strictly Ballroom!

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks!

Dave said...

Nice, thanks. I sometimes wonder why many reviewers/critics just don't seem to think this movie is that great and mark it down, its wondrous fun and sheer joy on many levels. Maybe they just don't get the satire. But lets not let a bad egg rot the whole barrel eh?

Anyway I love it, it's one of my favourite movies.

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