Unsung Auteurs: Eleanor Bergstein

September 28, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of creatives who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, who penned Dirty Dancing and It’s My Turn.

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.

Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing.

“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.

Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing.

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 ChildressBill LancasterLucinda CoxonErnest TidymanShauna CrossTroy Kennedy MartinKelly MarcelAlan SharpLeslie DixonJeremy PodeswaFerd & Beverly SebastianAnthony PageJulie GavrasTed PostSarah JacobsonAnton CorbijnGillian RobespierreBrandon CronenbergLaszlo NemesAyelat MenahemiIvan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom Gries, Randa HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy Kelly, Paul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne Ramsay, Vernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher ,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.