The secret history of ‘Dirty Dancing’ and why it’s still topical

[As published in the Austin American-Statesman, Nov. 9, 2014.]

More often than not, movies that not only become massive hits, but endure through the decades as iconic cultural snapshots of their era — think “Star Wars,” “Rocky,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” — begin their lives as small projects with limited, or even nonexistent, expectations. So it was with a low-budget romantic drama released in the summer of 1987, set in a resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains in the summer of ’63, with a cast short on big names and a director who had previously only filmed documentaries. Upon viewing the movie, one of the producers spouted, “Burn the negative and take the insurance.”

Hundreds of millions in box office and home-video sales and a multi-platinum soundtrack album later, the movie spawned a stage musical that’s toured Australia, Europe and North America in the past decade and hits Bass Concert Hall on Tuesday. And if you’ve read this far, face it: You know you want to go.

We speak, of course, of “Dirty Dancing.” No, it’s not the greatest movie ever made. Call it a cheesy, guilty-pleasure chick flick if you like; anachronisms and plot holes abound if you look closely, and some of the acting doesn’t exactly call to mind Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis. But none of that matters when you’ve got Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in their career-defining roles as working-class dance instructor Johnny Castle and idealistic, sheltered 17-year-old doctor’s daughter Frances “Baby” Houseman, and those steamy dance scenes where the fumes from actors playing hormone-soaked adolescents and twentysomethings practically come off the screen. (Spoiler alert: If you don’t know the story, plot points are discussed ahead.)

But keep looking closely and you’ll notice real social commentary sneaking in amid all the grinding and secret trysts. Few movies have used a hazardous illegal abortion as a central plot point, or depict class distinctions in the USA with such matter-of-fact astringency. Take Robbie, the self-serving young waiter about to enter med school who got Johnny’s dance partner Penny pregnant but doesn’t care, dismissing her as he flashes an Ayn Rand novel in Baby’s face (he doesn’t fare well).

Meant to evoke an end-of-an-era feel — for America’s innocence before JFK’s assassination, even for childhood itself — 27 years after its release, “Dirty Dancing” now delivers a heady dose of ’80s nostalgia to boot. We recently spoke by phone with the ultimate “Dirty Dancing” insider: Eleanor Bergstein, the screenwriter and co-producer behind the original movie and creator of the stage production.

Bergstein, a doctor’s daughter who grew up in Brooklyn, was called “Baby” until she was 21 and vacationed in the Catskills with her family, where she participated in spicy mambo competitions from age 13 on. While in college, she became an instructor in an Arthur Murray dance studio. But don’t ask her if “Dirty Dancing” is autobiographical: She’s a novelist and screenwriter, after all.

“You use something from every part of your life,” she says. “That’s why I say when people think I’m Baby, there’s as much Johnny in me as Baby.”

Bergstein says that before the film was released, “We expected nothing but total disgrace and humiliation. Partly because when it was finished, everybody hated it. Nobody had any hope for this movie at all.”

Just as Grey wasn’t a typical leading lady, “Dirty Dancing” differed from previous popular movies fueled by dance rhythms, particularly “Flashdance” and “Footloose,” which Bergstein calls “crazy fantasies which had no reality base in mind.”

The movie undoubtedly has a huge female fan base and appeals so much to preteens that it’s sometimes called “’Star Wars’ for girls.” Mention this to Bergstein, though, and she’ll bristle a bit and relate one anecdote after another to prove that “Dancing” has a sizable male following. She’ll talk about the field hands in Tuscany who joyfully tossed their hats into the air when Baby’s father snatched the money away from Robbie at the end, and the scores of Australian truck drivers who apparently travel with a copy of the movie in a portable DVD player and watch it at every rest stop.

Because the stage show is longer than the movie, Bergstein added new material, some about the ’60s civil rights movement and some about the illegal abortion. She notes how few movies since “Dirty Dancing” have dealt with the topic at all.

“In the last 25 years,” she says, “most of the movies, even the cutting-edge things like ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Juno’ and ‘Knocked Up,’ always end up with the girl not having the abortion, but having her baby. And she doesn’t end up, of course, in a shelter or with the baby in some terrible shape. She gets married and lives on Central Park West, and it’s all very nice. Somehow, in some very subtle way, it stopped being in the national conversation.

“So many things happened then: Young men going across the world to fight in a war that they didn’t believe in, young blacks going down to a Freedom March being thrown into swamps and killed in the street, so many things. Believe me, I have no joy in saying, ‘Look at that, it’s a topical show.’ I just feel, ‘Oh my God, I thought some of these battles had been fought, and here they are back again.’ That’s very sad.”

We’re a long way from “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”


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