I wouldn’t call it the time of my life, but Dirty Dancing was definitely part of my youth.
OK, well, I was 24 when it came out in 1987. But looking back, it feels like a part of my formative years. Probably all those summers spent in the Catskills growing up…. Wait a minute, that wasn’t me! I’ve never been to the Borscht Belt in my life. But I have seen that movie a dozen times or more. It starts to feel like real life.
Lionsgate announced they have greenlighted a Dirty Dancing sequel starring Jennifer Grey to be released more than 33 years after the original. Several much-loved characters have elected not to join the project, namely Patrick Swayze, who’s dead; Jerry Orbach, who’s dead; and Grey’s original nose – not dead, but long forgotten.
I started this as a love letter to the movie, I swear I did, but I have a hard time not making jokes about dead people and nose jobs. It’s a condition, I’m working through it.
Before I switch gears and get to the non-snarky stuff, do yourself a favor and listen to this John Mulaney bit about Law and Order and Jerry Orbach. It shows why he’s one of the best comic minds – not just comics – out there today.
I have mixed feelings about a reboot. First of all, no disrespect to Jennifer Grey, she’s lovely, but she’s not the same person since Dancing and Ferris Buehler and Red Dawn. Case in point, Elisabeth Shue was adorable in Karate Kid and yummy in Cocktail, but have you seen her in The Boys? She’s still a wonderful actress and she’s worked way more than Jennifer has in the years following the Golden Era, but, you know, it’s important to blaze new trails. No one wants to see a Something About Mary sequel in 30 years with Cameron Diaz playing Magda, know what I mean?
I’ll let that sink in. I dare you to un-see it.
With apologies to David Letterman, I thought I would offer the top 10 reasons Dirty Dancing is awesome:
- It was written by Eleanor Bergstein, and it was AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL! She was Baby! How messed up is that? Also, she’s listed as a producer on the upcoming sequel.
- Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze worked together in Red Dawn and disliked each other intensely. Grey initially didn’t want to accept the part because Swayze was confirmed as the male lead.
- The original cut of the movie had Jennifer Grey naked during the lovemaking scene. Test audiences reacted poorly, and the studio took the nudity out. Ouch. After which Jen got a nose job, which is hands-down the weirdest reaction to someone telling you, “Put on a damn shirt!” that I have ever heard of.
- The film was made by a home video company (Vestron) that had decided to become a Hollywood studio. Dirty Dancing was their first theatrical release.
- Dirty Dancing was made for $5 million 1987 dollars. It took in $218 million at the box office. (It’s also the first home video to sell a million copies.)
- While upholding his image as a dancer, the absolute pinnacle of grace and physical fitness, Patrick Swayze smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, struggled with alcoholism and, during filming, wore a girdle to look younger and…tighter.
- Swayze was 35 years old, playing a 20-something. Grey was 27, playing a 17-year-old.
- At least once a week, my wife or I find a reason to say, “I carried a watermelon.”
- Both of Baby’s "parents" were Broadway stars: Baby's mother, played by Kelly Bishop, won a Tony for originating the role of Sheila in A Chorus Line. Jerry Orbach was also a Tony-award-winner, and was nominated for Best Actor when he originated the role of Billy Flynn in Chicago.
And the number one reason Dirty Dancing is awesome…
Most people didn’t realize a theme of the movie was anti-Semitism. The Housemans, Baby’s family, were absolutely Jewish. Kellerman’s was modeled after a resort in the Catskills called Grossinger’s, one of several famous retreats in New York state that catered to Jewish families. Max, the owner, spouts Yiddish at one point, and Wayne Knight, pre-Seinfeld (Newman!), is clearly channeling the style of standup that was born in these resorts. The “Borscht Belt” came into existence because, even into the 1960s (and beyond) many of the “nice” hotels and resorts would not accept Jewish guests.
Accordingly, the main plot of the movie – the romance between Baby and Johnny Castle – isn’t just a tale of star-crossed lovers from different socioeconomic classes. Johnny is clearly not Jewish; the character was written as Italian but that had to change when Swayze was cast. The discrimination of the day cut both ways: Johnny was goyim, and no more welcome as a serious love interest in a conservative Jewish family than Jewish families were welcome at ritzy resorts like The Greenbriar in West Virginia.
That explains further the father’s interest in Robbie, the douchebag waiter played by Max Cantor. In the film Robbie is Jewish (his last name is Gould), an Ivy League student and aspiring physician, which is Baby’s father’s profession. In the Fifties and Sixties, that spelled pedigree in Jewish American homes.
Sadly – not to mention ironically – Max Cantor died of a heroin overdose at age 32, more likely a fate Dr. Houseman would have predicted for Johnny. Swayze, by comparison, died of pancreatic cancer at age 57.
The screenwriter, Eleanor Bergstein, was quoted as saying Dirty Dancing was a Jewish movie, "if you know what you're looking at."
Funny to think of diversity and inclusion being an issue back in 1963, when Dirty Dancing is set, isn’t it? We recall everything as so much simpler and more squeaky-clean then. The movie, face it, is charming. Even though it predates the Civil Rights movement. Even though it portrays Johnny’s pal Penny getting an illegal abortion, a decade before Roe v. Wade. There’s another thing people tend to forget, like the Mandela Effect.
Which brings us full-circle. How do you do Dirty Dancing in today’s environment? Is anything charming anymore? How do you have a coming-of-age movie in the time of Tik Tok? You couldn’t even have a screen romance between a 17-year-old and a 25-year-old without an “R” rating. The dancing they called dirty then is tame now, and the contemporary equivalent is basically foreplay.
I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m not saying Jennifer Grey can’t add value to the production. I’m just wondering aloud if there’s anything about the story that could be reasonably salvaged, a thread to pull through, that wouldn’t seem painfully anachronistic or hollow.
I’m also not saying I wouldn’t watch. But I would definitely wait for it to come to cable.