‘DIRTY DANCING’ STEPS BACK INTO NOSTALGIA
What was it about Eleanor Bergstein’s pitch for “Dirty Dancing” that got producer Linda Gottlieb’s attention? What was it about the script that convinced director Emile Ardolino he had to do it? What is it about the finished movie that has convinced so many film goers that they had to see it?
The answer is right up there on the marquee. It’s the dirty dancing itself.
“Eleanor and I were having lunch when she told me she wanted to do a dance story about two sisters,” said Gottlieb, who was then developing projects as an East Coast producer for MGM. “She talked about a Catskills resort and tango dancing in the early ‘60s.
“Then she said, ‘I used to do dirty dancing, but that has nothing to do with this story.’ I dropped my fork. I said, ‘Dirty Dancing’ as a title is worth a million dollars.”
More than that. In its first 17 days of release, “Dirty Dancing” has grossed $16.5 million, finding a spot for itself in the busiest movie summer in history and launching the new movie division of Vestron Video with a hit.
For the major studios, “Dirty Dancing” becomes one more fish that got away. Gottlieb talked MGM into financing and developing the script, but before it could go into production, there was a change in studio management and the new regime didn’t want it.
Nobody else did, either. Gottlieb said she shopped “Dirty Dancing” everywhere she knew, including all of the major studios, only to face quick rejection at each stop.
“They all regarded it as soft, small and old-fashioned,” she said. “They never saw the movie in it that I saw.”
Gottlieb, who had left MGM to co-write a book (“When Smart People Fail”) about turning defeat into success, said she took the script to Vestron after reading in the New York Times that the Stamford, Conn.-based company planned to begin producing its own movies.
She said Vestron quickly agreed to finance “Dirty Dancing,” but only if she could guarantee bringing it in for $5 million, about half of what she said it would have cost to film with union crews in New York. Gottlieb, who had had 16 years’ experience developing and producing educational films, finally hired non-union crews and got the movie done--for $5.2 million--in right-to-work states Virginia and North Carolina.
Emile Ardolino read the script for “Dirty Dancing” while on jury duty in New York. It made his day.
“I loved the period, I loved the music of the period,” Ardolino said. “I knew I could relate to the movement, the body language of the dancing. But more than anything, I liked the characters. . . . It was a musical love story that was rooted in reality.”
Ardolino and Gottlieb had to overcome Ardolino’s image as a dance director. Although he had directed several dramatic programs for television, the bulk of his credits were associated with dance--28 programs for PBS’ “Dance in America,” specials featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev, and the remarkable “He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’,” which won a 1984 Academy Award as best feature documentary.
Ardolino said that he had moved to Santa Monica four years ago to try to make the transition from television to features. He was getting tired of organizing images for “that small box.” But he went back to New York to do “He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’,” which chronicled the efforts of Jacques d’Amboise of the New York City Ballet and the dozens of non-dancing kids that he prepared for one night of hoofing on Broadway.
Gottlieb said that she had written a rave letter to the producers of “He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ ” when she first saw it, then went back and took another look when someone suggested Ardolino as a candidate to direct “Dirty Dancing.”
“It was so clear from ‘He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ that Emile had the fundamental sensibility for this movie,” Gottlieb said. “It was very warm and very funny. He never made fun of anybody. He understood movement and the joy of learning. All of that was essential to ‘Dirty Dancing.’ ”
Gottlieb said she also watched all of Ardolino’s dramatic television programs, which included Joseph Papp productions starring Meryl Streep and William Hurt, and her decision was made.
“When you hire a director, what you get writ large is the director’s own sense of taste,” she said. “What we got with Emile went way beyond his love of dance. He has a kindness, a gentleness, and all of that comes through in the picture.”
Perhaps most important to Gott-lieb was Ardolino’s understanding of dance as an expression of sexuality. “Dirty Dancing” didn’t come by its name accidentally.
“Dirty dancing is partner dancing,” Gottlieb said. “All the elements are like the foreplay of sex. Learning to dance is the central metaphor of the film.”
In “Dirty Dancing,” actress Jennifer Grey plays a 17-year-old spending the summer at a Catskills resort with her parents and her younger sister. She is drawn away from her family and the camp routine when she wanders into the after-hours den of the resort’s teen-age staff and sees couples, with their thighs interlocked, doing a dance that is definitely not the Merengue.
Grey eventually falls in love with the resort’s dance instructor (Patrick Swayze), and before this summer is over she learns to dirty dance, and a whole lot more. The phrase, “It takes two to Tango,” was never more appropriate.
Still, it is not hard to understand why production executives passed on the script. As a story, it appears to be just one more spin on the tired theme of “Romeo and Juliet,” and the last act descends into shameless romantic cliche and fantasy.
But, as many critics agreed, “Dirty Dancing” works despite its excesses. Rarely has a film been so obvious and seemed so fresh.
Ardolino said he had never heard the term dirty dancing before he read the script (“I was pretty square, I danced the way kids did on ‘American Bandstand’ ”), but he understood its sexual translation .
“I really wanted the audience to feel what it was like for that girl to be in that room (where dirty dancing was going on),” Ardolino said. “It’s exciting, it’s sexually charged, and I certainly wanted that on the screen.”
Ardolino had a camera among the actors during the dirty dance segments. During the performance numbers, the camera sits back and watches. The object was to make the dirty dance scenes participatory, to put the audience on the dance floor with the kids and let them feel the heat.
“Dirty Dancing” obviously steamed some eyeglasses in the small audience that makes up the panel of the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s ratings board. The six-person panel rated the first two versions of the film R, Gottlieb said, even though all the nudity had been removed.
“The really erotic sequences are the dance sequences,” she said. “We felt it was important to have a PG rating, so we kept going.”
On the third try, “Dirty Dancing” was rated PG-13.
“Dirty Dancing” seems to be working for a variety of reasons, some of which, Gottlieb acknowledges, have to do with “blind luck.” The film’s setting, and its period score, has caught a wave of resurgent popularity of early ‘60s, pre-synthesizer music. It’s not just nostalgia; teen-agers like it as much as their parents do.
Perhaps the movie’s unabashed romanticism, and its pre-sexual revolution ethic, are simply tapping into a shift in the focus of teen-agers’ relationships. The boast of virginity as a measure of character may never be heard again, but the concept of courtship as a progressive experience seems to be making a comeback.
As Ardolino says, there is nothing like a slow dance to get things started.
“Dancing can be a metaphor for any relationship,” Ardolino said. “You start with simple steps, it builds and becomes more complex as the couple gets to know each other, and eventually there is trust. Through that movement, without words, you have a guidebook for the relationships conducted in life.”
Ardolino said he is flattered when people say “Dirty Dancing” is a throwback to another era in film musicals, when dance was often an act of seduction.
“What distinguishes this movie from more recent dance movies is that it’s about partner dancing,” he said. “In ‘Flashdance,’ only women danced on that stage and it was for themselves. Even in ‘Footloose,’ the kids didn’t dance with each other. In ‘Saturday Night Fever,’ the basic thrust was a guy being satisfied when he danced alone.’
“In ‘Dirty Dancing,’ I wanted to see the development of the relationship. The girl wasn’t living totally in the physical world. I wanted to see her loosen up, I wanted to see them showing a sexual awakening to each other.”
Gottlieb said that Ardolino insisted from the beginning that the actors do all their own dancing. In “Flashdance” and “Footloose,” the stars were doubled by professional dancers.
“Using doubles imposes a particular shooting style where you film body parts,” Ardolino said. “I wanted to be able to go from full shots to faces. The dancing wasn’t the important thing, but how the dancing revealed the relationship.”
“One of the things I hoped to put into ‘Dirty Dancing’ is that it’s not only sexy, but it’s fun,” he said. “This is a joyous celebration between two people.”