It’s happened to all of us: you sit down to watch a “classic,” often romantic movie that you remember enjoying at middle school-era slumber parties, only to find that it does not stand the test of time. In the interest of saving you 119 minutes of your waking life, I do not recommend re-watching Pretty Woman for exactly this reason. But, thankfully, there are also the movies that more than hold up. And it turns out that 1987 gave us more than our fair share of them: Dirty Dancing (August 21st, 1987), The Princess Bride (September 25th, 1987), and Moonstruck (December 18th, 1987).
In honor of the 30 years of movie-watching joy these films have brought into our lives, I want to celebrate a few of the things that make these three very different, very delightful movies so worth re-watching again and again.
1) Strong female leads
Netflix has identified this as one of my favorite qualities in a movie, so it’s no wonder that I love Frances “Baby” Houseman, the ironically named Princess Buttercup, and Brooklyn native Loretta Castorini. Cher won an Oscar for her portrayal of Loretta, the fierce Italian-American widow who finds unexpected second chance at love with Ronny (Nicholas Cage), the estranged brother of her fiancée.
A few actresses (Katherine Hepburn also comes to mind) are gifted with the ability to transform a character who might seem unlikeable and put-upon in anyone else’s hands into a fierce demi-goddess. Cher has this quality in spades. As Loretta, she somehow manages to project authority, autonomy, and a perfect sense of comic timing in every scene, including the one in which Cage’s Ronny pushes over a table, kisses her passionately, and then carries her to the bedroom. How many people could pull that off?
These days, Robin Wright is best known as the conniving Claire Underwood on House of Cards, a character who might seem diametrically opposed to Princess Buttercup. But even though she plays the damsel in distress at times in The Princess Bride, Wright’s Buttercup is far from a fragile flower. Imperious, determined, and unwilling to give up, first on life and then on Westley, Buttercup is the kind of woman who angrily pushes the man she doesn’t know is her one true love down a hill, and then throws herself down after him once she realizes her mistake.
Another heroine with a misleadingly innocent name, Jennifer Grey’s Baby is one of the big screen’s best avatars for shy, awkward girls and women who feel like they don’t quite fit in. In some ways, she’s a spiritual relative of the out-of-place heroines featured in John Hughes movies like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. But Dirty Dancing benefits from decidedly not being a high school movie. Baby might be barely out of high school, but the world feels bigger, and the stakes higher. She isn’t just becoming an adult, but also discovering her sexuality in a way that’s celebrated rather than censured.
2) And the male leads aren’t too bad either
Sure, Nicholas Cage might have evolved into a parody of himself, but wow is he in his prime in Moonstruck. The scene in which Loretta meets him and learns his tragic backstory is equal parts hot and hilarious, which is a balance that’s tough to strike.
Also–how can you not love a man who bakes and delights in listening to opera?
I cannot quite get behind the pencil moustache Cary Elwes sports as the Dread Pirate Roberts iteration of Westley. But he more than makes up for it with his sly confidence, arch line delivery, and really spectacular physical humor.
And what can I say about the glory of Patrick Swayze as Johnny that hasn’t already been said? He can smolder with the best of them. That body. Those dance moves. That mullet. I want it all.
3) Great sense of humor
Dirty Dancing is perhaps the most earnest of these three films, but it’s not without a sense of humor. Whenever I find myself in an uncomfortable situation where I feel out of place, I have to fight the urge to blurt out “I carried a watermelon,” in homage to Baby’s most charming, awkward explanation for why she crashed the staff dance party. While her dance scenes with Patrick Swayze’s Johnny might be too hot to be humorous, the scene in which Baby practices her moves alone, adorably looking out for anyone watching, are priceless.
As for Moonstruck–well, need I do more than remind us all of Loretta’s reaction to Ronny declaring: “I’m in love with you”? She slaps him not once but twice, and commands him to: “Snap out of it!” in her spectacular Brooklyn accent. And I’m still waiting for the day when I can declare to someone: “In time you'll drop dead and I'll come to your funeral in a red dress!”
While The Princess Bride is rightly celebrated for its supersaturation of hilariously quotable lines, what I enjoy more than any one quip is how they come together to shape the movie’s self-reflexive sense of humor. Based on William Goldman’s book of the same name (he also wrote the script for the movie), the film version of The Princess Bride captures the book’s deconstructionist attitude towards fantasy and romance. Rob Reiner’s film adaptation preserves this irreverence while also giving us a genuinely delightful romance. Also, this doesn’t have anything to do with the movie itself, but did you know that Samuel Beckett used to drive Andre the Giant to school?
4) They were all underdogs
Dirty Dancing was an indie movie made for $6 million that went on to gross $170 million by the end of 1987. The Princess Bride was a critical and box office flop that slowly became a cult classic thanks to VHS. Moonstruck might have had the star power of director Norman Jewison and Cher behind it, but Cher was also divisive figure. She was relatively new to film acting, and her previous forays into serious acting had been met with doubt and ridicule.
5) They leave you feeling a little happier and more hopeful about the state of the world
None of these movies insult your intelligence by presenting love as a panacea for all ills. However, they do all celebrate love as a force that can make the lives of the people experiencing it–and those around them–a bit better. And sometimes that’s all we need.
Featured stills from "Moonstruck" via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; "The Princess Bride" via Vestron Pictures; and "Dirty Dancing" via Vestron Pictures