Obituary: Emile Ardolino
Saturday 04 December 1993
EMILE ARDOLINO was on the verge of becoming known as a film director synonymous with big- screen musicals, and was identified with a genre that had not been seen in Hollywood for at least 50 years, since the heyday of Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly at MGM.
Ardolino had a unique understanding of rhythm and dance. His international screen success Dirty Dancing (1987), choreographed by Kenny Ortega, was the biggest grossing independently made American movie ever.
Dirty Dancing, despite its awkward title, was a moving film about two characters from dissimilar backgrounds meeting at a Catskills holiday resort in the pre-Beatles days of 1963: the Jewish Princess-to- be Jennifer Grey and the wild Johnny Castle, dressed all in black from the wrong side of the tracks, incarnated by Patrick Swayze, who find both contentment by dancing together.
It is at the climax of Dirty Dancing that Ardolino's direction is most assured, as Swayze returns to Grey to make the last dance their own and swoops down with her, to Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes singing '(I've Had) The Time of My Life'. The Dirty Dancing album became the biggest-selling film soundtrack.
Ardolino was born in New York, on the very doorstep of the Broadway musical. He claimed to have seen the original production of Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne's Gypsy over 25 times, and later, after the success of Dirty Dancing, expressed a desire to direct screen versions of Evita and Dream Girls.
Ardolino studied English, speech, and theatre studies, and also danced under Matt Mattox. Performances in student productions led to his touring professionally, as Boy in The Fantasticks. He then took film courses at both City and Columbia Universities, in New York, and managed to secure a job as camera grip on Brian de Palma's independently made film The Wedding Party (1969). In 1967, with Gardner Compton, he had set up Compton- Ardolino films, working as film editor, director and producer, and won an Obie award for creating the film sequences in the notorious multi- media version of Oh Calcutta]
Ardolino's first love was always dance, and he eventually produced and / or directed 28 programmes in the Peabody Award-winning television series Dance in America, which began in 1985 and included three of the finest of all television interpretations of dance: The Spellbound Child, which won a Director's Guild of America Award in 1981, Choreography by Balanchine, IV which won an Emmy Award in 1979, and Nureyev and the Joffrey Ballet in a Tribute to Nijinsky, which received both DGA and Emmy nominations.
For Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre, Ardolino directed a version of Rumpelstiltskin in 1983. Additionally, Ardolino directed several Joseph Papp productions for television, all of which were extremely highly regarded, most notably NBC's Alice at the Palace (1982), with Meryl Streep, ABC's A Midsummer Night's Dream with William Hurt, and The Dance and The Railroad starring John Lone.
Other highlights in a television career which embraced over 50 productions and 17 Emmy Award nominations include: the American Playhouse production The Rise and Rise of Daniel Rocket with Tom Hulce; Baryshnikov at the White House and Leonard Bernstein's Mass from the Kennedy Centre.
In 1984 Ardolino won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, plus two Emmy Awards, for a study of the dancer Jacques d'Amboise and 1,000 of his young students, an exhilarating work called He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin' (1983).
The wit, style and control of cinematic elements demonstrated in the d'Ambroise documentary led the producer Lynda Gottlieb to offer Ardolino the direction of Dirty Dancing; it was the beginning of a remarkable career of, alas, only five features.
Chances Are (1989), which followed, was an extremely cleverly worked-out tale, where Cybill Shepherd, devoted to her dead husband, is surprised to discover his spirit restored in the body of Robert Downey, Junr. It was tricky stuff to direct, but charmingly achieved.
Ardolino then tackled another seemingly intractable subject, Disney's Three Men And A Little Lady (1990), the sequel to Three Men and a Baby (1987), an American version of a French hit movie. Ardolino turned the sequel into a huge success, the highest grossing film at the box office in the UK in 1991.
But Ardolino's most popular success was to be his next film for Disney, a cross between Brother Rat and Some Like It Hot, (Bette Midler was originally intended to star in it). Under Ardolino's direction, Sister Act (1992), which cost dollars 18m to make, took over dollars 200m at the box office: Whoopi Goldberg is the gangster's moll hiding out in a convent; Harvey Keitel, the gangster; and Maggie Smith the Mother Superior. Ardolino knew exactly how to handle such a film. With its choreography by Lester Wilson, Sister Act was a screen musical, and the moments when the nuns perform 'My Guy' and 'I Will Follow Him' are pure serendipity.
Dawn Steel at Columbia gave Ardolino non-exclusive carte blanche to develop projects. His last film, which opened for Thanksgiving in the United States, was George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, starring Macaulay Culkin as the Nutcracker. Ardolino had achieved the box office clout to make a film combining Balanchine and Tchaikovsky - and in Hollywood that is no mean feat. His life and career came full-circle with his final production: a television version of Gypsy starring Bette Midler, which will be broadcast in the United States this month on CBS.
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