With the writers’ strike hopefully at close-to-resolution point in the US, we’ll still be showing solidarity by focusing on screenwriters in the Unsung Auteurs column. Delineating the true flashpoint reason for the enormous success of the much-loved 1987 dance romance movie Dirty Dancing is not easy. Was it the flammable chemistry of Jennifer Grey and the late Patrick Swayze? Was it the dance choreography of the legendary Kenny Ortega? Was it the rock-solid direction of Emile Ardolino, who would never really top it, unless you think Sister Act is that good? Was it Patrick Swayze’s hit ballad “She’s Like The Wind”? Or was it Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’ smash hit toe-tapper “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life”? Who knows, right?
But when the accolades are being handed around for this unforgettable slice of 1960s-via-the-1980s nostalgia, one name rarely included in the mix is that of screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, who based the film on her own experiences. Dirty Dancing is, of course, the story of “good Jewish girl” Frances “Baby” Houseman (the excellent Jennifer Grey), who holidays with her parents at a resort in The Catskill Mountains, where she falls in love with bad boy dance instructor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze at his sizzling, charismatic best), much to the chagrin of just about everybody around her. Though famed for its heated romance, Dirty Dancing also touches upon issues like abortion, civil rights, class conflict and racism.
“I used to go to the Catskills with my parents when I was a little girl,” Eleanor Bergstein told The Greenwich International Film Festival. “While they played golf – it was the only place women were allowed to tee off early in the morning along with the men and my mother was a champion golfer – I hit the dance studios. I pressed my ten-year-old nose against the glass windows and finally got to go inside. Every other night, there was a champagne contest at the hotel, and I danced the mambo and the cha chas with the professionals and always won. My parents drank the champagne. I think it was the idea of this little girl in her ruffled dress doing these sultry dances with such determination, that brought the house down each night. Then in high school I dirty danced in basements with the street kids in my class. My parents were okay as long as I kept my grades up and was going on to college.”
Bergstein’s familiarity with her subject is so voluble that it gives Dirty Dancing a real sense of verisimilitude, despite its obvious romantic flights of fancy and slightly anachronistic feel. Bergstein also has a very keen and obvious empathy for her characters, who are all far richer than expected in a dance-themed movie, with Baby’s father (brilliantly played by the late, great Jerry Orbach), in particular, so much more than he likely would have been in any other interpretation of a story such as this. It is unquestionably Eleanor Bergstein’s screenplay that gives Dirty Dancing so much of the charm, sentiment and emotional honesty that it is now so soundly loved for.
Eleanor Bergstein, however, has several other strings to her bow. She penned the 1973 novel Advancing Paul Newman (about women involved with the US anti-war movement of the 1960s), and also wrote the screenplay for the largely forgotten 1980 romantic comedy It’s My Turn, which starred Jill Clayburgh and Michael Douglas. Though a rare-for-the-time female-led film (Girlfriends director Claudia Weill is at the helm), It’s My Turn is rarely discussed today despite its front-and-centre feminist themes and strong female lead in Jill Clayburgh, who specialised in exactly that. After Dirty Dancing, Bergstein wrote and directed the little seen 1995 dance-themed drama Let It Be Me, starring Campbell Scott and Jennifer Beals, and has been involved with all of the subsequent iterations of Dirty Dancing, including the 2017 TV movie musical and the upcoming, in-development TV series.
“We had no hope of any impact of anything at all,” Eleanor Bergstein told The Greenwich International Film Festival. “We were told repeatedly, even by our studio producers, that it was a movie that would go straight to video bins after a few days in the theatre. It was our wonderful audiences who kept it in the theatre and still keep it alive after all these years…by now, a number of generations. I had little hope that anyone would see the movie and even less hope that it would influence anyone…but just in case, I put in the things that were important to me. Just in case…”
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs William W. Norton, Helen Childress, Bill Lancaster, Lucinda Coxon, Ernest Tidyman, Shauna Cross, Troy Kennedy Martin, Kelly Marcel, Alan Sharp, Leslie Dixon, Jeremy Podeswa, Ferd & Beverly Sebastian, Anthony Page, Julie Gavras, Ted Post, Sarah Jacobson, Anton Corbijn, Gillian Robespierre, Brandon Cronenberg, Laszlo Nemes, Ayelat Menahemi, Ivan Tors, Amanda King & Fabio Cavadini, Cathy Henkel, Colin Higgins, Paul McGuigan, Rose Bosch, Dan Gilroy, Tanya Wexler, Clio Barnard, Robert Aldrich, Maya Forbes, Steven Kastrissios, Talya Lavie, Michael Rowe, Rebecca Cremona, Stephen Hopkins, Tony Bill, Sarah Gavron, Martin Davidson, Fran Rubel Kuzui, Elliot Silverstein, Liz Garbus, Victor Fleming, Barbara Peeters, Robert Benton, Lynn Shelton, Tom Gries, Randa Haines, Leslie H. Martinson, Nancy Kelly, Paul Newman, Brett Haley, Lynne Ramsay, Vernon Zimmerman, Lisa Cholodenko, Robert Greenwald, Phyllida Lloyd, Milton Katselas, Karyn Kusama, Seijun Suzuki, Albert Pyun, Cherie Nowlan, Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher ,Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.