Eleanor Bergstein, Screenwriter, Talks Dirty Dancing


At Monday night’s screening of Dirty Dancing, hosted by Jezebel for the New York Abortion Access Fund at Cinema Village, one attendee asked screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein to entertain the audience with what would have been some fan fiction.

“I’m wondering if in your mind you have any idea what happens to Johnny and Baby at the end of the movie?” the fan posited during the question and answer session.

“Sure I do,” Bergstein answered. “But what you have in your mind is just as valid as what I have.”

It was a sly response, as one can assume that if you added together the number of times most people in the room, including myself, had seen the 1987 movie, you might get a figure in the quadruple digits. (Save for the one man who walked into the theater asking, “Is this movie out yet?”) I, for one, have always been a pessimist: In my post-“(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” version of the couple, Baby and Johnny try to stay together when she goes off to college, but eventually break up because everyone in long distance relationships breaks up in college.

But regardless of that question, the evening focused for the most part on the very real elements of the movie: the political and feminist themes brought upon by the abortion plot line. If you haven’t seen the movie (and you really should see the movie), Patrick Swayze’s dance instructor Johnny Castle teaches Jennifer Grey’s Frances “Baby” Houseman to dance after Baby must fill in for Johnny’s partner Penny while Penny receives an illegal abortion. The event Tuesday was, after all, a benefit for NYAAF, a non-profit which helps women in New York who are in financial need fund abortions.

Bergstein, wearing an orange dress that reminded me of Penny’s mambo dress, regaled the audience with tales of the film’s making and afterlife in an interview with Jezebel’s Irin Carmon (who did a write-up of the event with video here). Truck drivers in Australia travel with the DVD. In the German version of the movie, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” is translated to “My baby belongs to me, is this clear?” The parent company of an advertiser tried to make her take out the abortion.

But given the news that original choreographer Kenny Ortega was going to remake the movie, one of the most pertinent topics Bergstein mused on, prompted by Carmon, was the original’s relation to entertainment today. She pointed out that in recent commercial successes like Sex and the City, Juno and Knocked Up, women make the “moral” decisions to forgo abortions and they end up living happily ever after: “In the end, the message is the girl who is true of heart goes ahead and has the baby, and she ends up on West End Avenue with a rich husband.”

“I would have said we were ahead of our time, now I feel rather differently about it,” she said.

The screening itself was a part singalong, part celebration. In addition to the oft-quoted watermelon and Baby-in-a-corner lines, Baby’s declaration that she is going to study “economics of underdeveloped countries” was met with cheers. Bergstein told me she hadn’t seen the film on a big screen in a while.

After the film was shown I got a moment to talk to Bergstein, who does project a lot of the same earnest optimism as Baby, the character with whom she has so long been associated.

I asked her if she thinks a new movie could have the same affect on people, given that now she said people who saw the original say it helped shape a lot of their social consciousness.

“I don’t know, I just heard about it yesterday so I really don’t know anything,” she said. “Maybe that will be good, maybe it won’t — I don’t know yet. I do know that the new generation, meaning 14, 15, and 16 year-olds are seeing [the original] constantly.”

I certainly did, at that age, and I told her that. As a curly-haired Jewish girl, I identified with Baby because there was someone who looked like me on screen. Bergstein, earlier, had poo-pooed the billing of the movie as an “ugly-girl-falls-for-hunky-guy” story.

“Who she is animates her beauty…What you need to do is train your eye to what is really beautiful,” she said. “I think by the end there is no one who wonders why Johnny’s in love with her.”