Not to go all Ferris Bueller on you, but life these days is pretty crazy, things moving so fast that it’s becoming tougher to take the time to look backwards. But at least it’s reassuring to know that there are some movies that can still touch our hearts no matter how old they are. Dirty Dancing has just turned 30, and the love story of Jennifer Grey’s Frances “Baby” Houseman and Patrick Swayze’s Johnny Castle remains as moving today as it was then.
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It was a small film that came out of nowhere and somehow managed to capture people’s imagination. In it, the time is 1963. Baby and her family have gone to the Catskills resort Kellerman’s for vacation before she becomes a part of the Peace Corps. But her life is transformed when she meets dance instructor Johnny Castle, who teaches her how to ~move~ so that he won't lose his salary after he loses his dance partner. Along the way, the two fall in love.
It sounds so simple and out of step with its own time, let alone today, but there is so much more to it than that. It’s about changes in life and the world; about discovering who you truly are and being true to yourself. It’s about the music. And the dancing.
In an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Jennifer was asked about the appeal of the film. She responded, “I think that people have a very, very tender spot for this movie. They project when everything was possible, when anything could happen. You know, am I daddy’s girl? Am I the bad boy’s girlfriend?” Beyond that, “I feel that when people get older, they come to realize how precious and fragile this life is. I think that you cannot be dancing and not be in joy. Joy flows when there’s dance.”
When you think of Dirty Dancing, you can’t help but feel joy, which is why we’re taking this 30th anniversary look back at the time of our lives.
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(Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures)
In 1979, she made her acting debut in a Dr. Pepper commercial. Five years later she appeared in the film Reckless, followed by 1984’s The Cotton Club (directed by The Godfather’s Francis Ford Coppola), and the war film Red Dawn. She really caught people’s attention two years later in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where she played the sister of Matthew Broderick’s title character.
(Photo Credit: Warner Bros)
Prior to Dirty Dancing, Patrick gained attention in a number of films, including Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders (1983), Red Dawn (1984), Uncommon Valor (where he played one of a number of soldiers who head back into Vietnam to rescue prisoners of war), the hockey film Youngblood (1986), and the sci-fi film Steel Dawn (1987). Three years later, he would have the biggest hit of his career with the romantic supernatural thriller Ghost.
(Photo Credit: NBCUniversal)
Veteran actor Jerry Orbach, who played Baby’s father Jake Houseman in the film, was extremely well known on Broadway when he was cast in Dirty Dancing. No doubt a lot of people watching the film years later would suddenly recognize him for one of his most famous roles, Detective Lennie Briscoe on Law & Order. He was also the voice of candelabrum Lumiere in the animated Disney classic Beauty and the Beast.
In a 25th anniversary video promo interview, Jennifer admitted, “I never knew that anyone would ever see it. I basically thought, ‘Oh, I got the lead in this movie, because no one’s going to ever see it and it’s a low budget movie,’ which was very unusual at the time. So we basically thought we’re going to do this labor of love, because we want to tell the story because we love dance, because the director, Emile Ardolino, had made a documentary about children dancing and it was really fly by the seat of your pants. It turned out really wonderful, but it was not easy.”
Although he started out as an actor, Emile made his reputation throughout the 1970s and ‘80s by profiling dancers and choreographers for PBS’ Dance in America and Live From Lincoln Center. Winning an Academy Award in the category of Best Documentary for 1983’s He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ made him a perfect candidate to direct Dirty Dancing.
His career began being trained by dance legend Gene Kelly on the film Xanadu, but Kenny Ortega went on to direct and choreograph music videos. He really got the chance to strut his stuff as choreographer of films like One From the Heart, St. Elmo’s Fire, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and, of course, Dirty Dancing. After that, he created and designed concert tours for Michael Jackson, and directed and choreographed the three High School Musical films, Cheetah Girls 2, and the two Descendants TV movies.
(Photo Credit: Lionsgate)
Screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein has said that many of the concepts of Dirty Dancing came from her own childhood. Wikipedia breaks it down as follows: “She is the younger daughter of a Jewish doctor from New York, spent summers with her family in the Catskills, participated in 'Dirty Dancing' competitions, and was herself nicknamed 'Baby' as a girl." And while much of the character of Baby came from her life, a good portion of Johnny Castle came from stories told by dance instructor Michael Terrace. The two had met while Eleanor was doing research for the script in the Catskills (which just happens to be the locale of the film).
The film’s choreographer Kenny Ortega explained, “Dirty Dancing is like soul dancing, only with a partner. A little mambo thrown in, a little Cuban motion thrown in. Sort of a conglomeration that’s based on all the original dancing of the early ‘60s. I think Dirty Dancing is the most intimate communication outside the bedroom. And it’s not dirty at all. But if two people are looking at each other, looking into each other’s eyes and trying to say, ‘I love you,’ it’s beautiful.”
(Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)
That was the original idea, with the character conceived as being Italian. Johnny went from Italian to Irish when dance tests between Titanic’s Billy and Jennifer did not play well. Billy was out, Patrick was in.
Speaking to Glamour she said, “I was cast before he was. He came in [to test] along with a bunch of other guys. I didn’t think we had chemistry. But you either do or you don’t. It’s a weird thing, though. It doesn’t have to do with whether you like someone or not. It’s just you either have it or you don’t.” Their screen test together, however, changed her mind, as she related in a 1987 promo interview: “We had our screen tests on the same day and we just did it and it felt right. You could tell, like two minutes into the screen test, that it was going to work.”
(Photo Credit: MGM)
Said Jennifer in a promo interview, “We didn’t have to bother with the whole getting-to-know-you process. We basically knew each other, and we didn’t have to go through the usual things that one goes through with a new cast when you’re getting to know your new movie family. We knew each other very well from before, which had been about six years ago. When we did Red Dawn together and we hadn’t seen each other since then, but we knew each other pretty well so it made it easy that way.”
The film is set in upstate New York’s Catskills Mountains, but in reality, production took place at Lake Lure in North Carolina and Mountain Lake in Virginia.
Referring to Dirty Dancing as the most challenging thing she’d ever done, Jennifer commented in a 1987 promo, “Just the stamina alone is a challenge. Then to dance… I’ve never done anything like this before. Ever. I’ve never danced in front of anyone except maybe other kids in dance class. When we shot the mamba with 350 extras or something, and then 100 crew, with lights...it was very exciting, very exhilarating, but really scary.”
In a separate promo interview, Patrick said, “She’s amazing. She’s got an incredible natural talent. She’s jumped into this stuff and it’s not easy dancing at all. She’s really jumped into this stuff and just taken over and made it her own and has come out with a sensuality in her dancing which has just staggered everybody. There’s real power in our eyes when we dance together, which is fun. It makes it a lot more interesting. It makes it neat when you’re playing with that connection in the eyes on how hot you can make it.”
There were definitely difficulties between Jennifer and Patrick, and they most certainly didn’t like each other all the time. In fact, it supposedly got heated between them (and not in a good way) before almost every take. Fearing that animosity would show up on screen, the filmmakers made them watch their screen test again to get them back in that mindset. It worked.
Noted Patrick Swayze, “One thing that worked beautifully is it really was a teaching situation. I really had been a dancer my entire life. Jennifer had a great deal of natural talent, but needed to be nourished. I think Jennifer, at that time and still, is one of the most gifted actresses around in terms of her ability to be present, in the moment, right now. And I think that’s what made Baby, her character, really, really special.”
“At the beginning of the movie,” Jennifer said in a promo video at the time of the film’s release, “the character I play is very serious and very much daddy’s little girl. Very politically minded, very insecure and very unsure of herself. Very unaware of her body, and completely unaware of any sexuality at all. She’s 17 and in the ‘60s things happened a little bit later than they do now. I don’t think there was anything wrong with her or anything. I think that’s just a natural thing at that time. And she goes up to the Catskills with her family for this vacation, and she sees the dance instructor, Johnny Castle, played by Patrick Swayze, and she is very taken with him. Really dazzled by him. He ends up having to teach me the mambo and in teaching me the mambo we start to fall in love with each other, and I think that my character really becomes a woman and becomes aware of her sensuality.”
“I don’t think my career would be working as well as it is if I had not had that discipline of existing in the dance world beat into me,” he said in an early video interview. “Because I approach my whole life from that point of view, from an understanding of what it means to work for something and what it means to work until your last breath. It’s worth working for.”
Choreographer Kenny Ortega commented in the film’s original VHS featurette, “The dancing has a lot more to do with the continuity of the story and the development of the characters. Where in other musical pictures the dancing sometimes and often is separate from the story. Hopefully this picture will help to inspire people to get back out there and really dance together.” It did.
“It was horrifyingly hypothermically cold in the lake,” Patrick Swayze wrote in his autobiography The Time of My Life, “and we filmed that scene over and over. And despite the fact that Jennifer was very light, when you’re lifting someone in water, even the skinniest little girl can feel like 500 pounds.”
Added Jennifer in a People video, “I think about how rough it was on the lake, when we were doing the lift. How painfully cold it was, in that water. Everyone had on wet suits and it was the end of October, the beginning of November. It was freezing. I really thought that my nipples might fall off. It was very cold. But, they didn’t. That was good.”
Wrote Patrick in The Time of My Life, “I was on overdrive for the whole shoot — staying up all night to do rewrites, squeezing in dance rehearsals, shooting various scenes — and was exhausted a lot of the time. I didn’t have a whole lot of patience for doing multiple retakes.”
For her part, Jennifer told Diane Sawyer, “I was terrified. He [Patrick] can’t wrap his head around that kind of fear, because he was completely fearless. He had no physical fear at all.” That fear plagued her for many years, as she explained: “I didn’t even like dancing at weddings, because I was so self-conscious that people would be disappointed in my dancing. I decided to do Dancing With the Stars because Patrick had just passed and I had just had thyroid cancer, and all of a sudden I was realizing, 'Why am I not dancing? Why am I letting anything stand in my way of my joy?'”
Dirty Dancing connected with people on a number of levels, notably with the soundtrack. In 1988, it was nominated for Grammys in the category of Best Song Written For A Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media, and won in the category of Best Pop Performance by a Duo. It didn’t stop there. For the Golden Globes, it was nominated for Best Performance By An Actress in a Motion Picture — Comedy/Musical; Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Comedy/Musical; Best Motion Picture — Comedy/Musical. It won for Best Original Song (“The Time of My Life”). And then there was the 60th anniversary Academy Awards, where it took home the gold for Best Original Song (“The Time of My Life”).
Internally, the production company, Vestron, feared it had a disaster on its hands, but when screened for critics, Dirty Dancing received mostly positive reviews. Beyond the romance and dancing, the abortion subplot was praised as the “gold standard” for the subject being dealt with on film.
Dirty Dancing was produced for $6 million and pulled in $216 million at the box office. It also soared on home video, moving upwards of 10 million copies.
(Photo Credit: Sony Legacy)
The soundtrack album has sold over 32 million copies, which is astounding, spending 18 weeks at the top position of Billboard’s 200 album chart. The song “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 (one week) and the Adult Contemporary chart (four weeks); and Patrick Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind” reached number three on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the Adult Contemporary chart.
In 1988, there was a music tour given the name Dirty Dancing: Live in Concert, which featured soundtrack singers Bill Medley and Eric Carmen. They performed in 90 cities over the course of three months, both promoting the movie and (cynically speaking) cashing in on it. In 2004, Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage was launched in Australia, eventually spreading to Germany and London’s West End. A Canadian production began in 2007, before making the jump to America in such cities as Boston and Chicago. A full-blown American tour was launched in September 2014.
C’mon, you don’t remember that show? Don’t worry about it, nobody else does either. Not surprising considering it ran for only 11 episodes from October 1988 to January 1989. The show starred Melora Hardin as Baby and Patrick Cassidy as Johnny Castle, and while the premise had some similarities to the film, in this version, Baby is actually the daughter of the camp’s Max Kellerman and was Johnny’s boss. All told, not very memorable.
Patrick Swayze was paid $5 million to make a cameo appearance in 2004's prequel Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, set in Cuba in 1959 just prior to the Cuban Revolution. Finally, back in May, ABC aired a three-hour remake that was greeted pretty negatively. Abigail Breslin played Baby and Colt Prattes was Johnny.
As far as Jennifer's concerned, that is a large part of the film’s appeal, "Even though so many of the parts are so wonderful,” she noted in a promo video for a 25th anniversary screening of the film. “Like Patrick, his masculinity; this street guy who’s also a great dancer. He was actually a great ballet dancer, and he’s a cowboy and he just had the kind of mixture of machismo and tenderness. And how tender he is with my character, with Baby, who very much has one foot in childhood and one foot in adulthood. And just that very teetering on the brink of becoming a woman. I think that the music is fantastic and I think people love to dance and using dance as a metaphor for falling in love. Like, you cannot have someone teach you something that gives you joy without attaching something to that person, because they are the purveyor of that joy for you.”
"Jennifer Grey, if you’re watching her career at all, she’s an incredibly available actress,” Patrick said at the time of the film’s release. “What you strive for as an actor is do all this work, do the history, find the subtext, find the subleties, find out what the protections a character puts up to insulate themselves. Yet when the camera rolls, you have to have the courage to throw all that work out the window and let magic happen, let something special happen. The only way you do that is be who you are in that moment at this moment in time. Jennifer Grey is truly gifted at that.”
“The thing that is so strange about it,” she related on the film’s 25th anniversary, “are that so many people have passed. Patrick’s no longer with us. Our director Emile Ardolino’s no longer with us. Jerry Orbach’s no longer with us. Jack Westin’s no longer with us. It’s very intense to realize that we’re not all here. That I’m here doing this by myself. It feels somehow wrong, like I feel like something’s missing. But I do feel it’s had such lasting impact and has given so many people so much pleasure that that is enormously gratifying.”
This story originated on Life & Style.
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