The greatness of Dirty Dancing was not lost on me in my near-daily viewings as a child and preteen, re-enacting every dance with my sister. What I learned a little later: it's a great, brave movie for women.
That it was a wildly successful, commercial film, widely seen as "ugly duckling gets the guy" doesn't change that, although screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein told me this week it always dismayed her that that's how people saw it. In her mind as in mine, Jennifer Grey's Baby is a strong-minded idealistic young woman with her own interests, who doesn't have to change herself to get the guy even as she undergoes a transformation from gawky wallflower to confident onstage dancer. But Patrick Swayze's Johnny, too, changes and learns from her, under the force of her stubborn, naive belief that you can "fight harder."
"I conceived of her and made her a fighter. A girl who just won't give up... and who doesn't expect the world to be handed to her. There's a lot she doesn't understand, but she works very, very hard," says Eleanor.
Along the way we get some great dancing, yes — more on that in a sec. But we also get some subtle, retrospectively sharp-eyed critiques of class and gender.
The first time we glimpse Baby, she's reading a book called Plight Of The Peasant, because she's going to major in the economics of underdeveloped countries and not English. The daughter of the first generation of American Jews to read widespread upper-middle class prosperity, if not elite cultural acceptance, she is swathed in a pre-Kennedy assassination liberalism. But her time at Kellerman's that summer is a loss of innocence in one significant way — and I'm not talking about her virginity.
Told her whole life that she could do anything and change the world, she's faced with the hypocrisy of a long-shunned minority enacting its own unexamined exclusion, this time on class grounds. The guests at Kellerman's look comfortable, but they were raised in the Depression and traumatized by World War II. She can contrast the welcome her family received at the resort with the chilly, dismissive one Johnny and his working class dance crew gets. She can dance with the owner's son and thaw a little when she learns he's going freedom riding with the bus boys, then see how he treats Johnny. She can find out that the supposed prize, Yale Medical school and out-WASPing-the-WASPs Robbie, is also an Ayn Rand-reading cad whose life philosophy is, "Some people count, some people don't."
She sees this, and she isn't cowed, even if she has moments of doubt. She unpacks the car herself, isn't interested in being decorative (until she makes off with Lisa's beige iridescent lipstick), tells off Robbie, acts like "Miss Fix-It," in Johnny's initially contemptuous term, offers to learn Penny's dance so she can get an illegal abortion, and works her ass off to do it. Eleanor Bergstein says the moment Johnny falls in love with Baby is when she screws up the lift in their first performance at the Sheldrake and does what she called the "hitchhiker move." (Re-enactments in my childhood living room of this move were, shall we say, gently mocking.) She doesn't beat herself up; she moves on, and he looks at her with new eyes — peeking at her changing through the rearview mirror.
This is a "false climax," Eleanor says. Another movie would have built up to a performance she got perfectly right (and indeed there is one, later), and she gets the guy. Instead, they come back to Penny's botched abortion, a still incredibly rare and key plot point that Eleanor says she put in back in the mid-1980s because she was afraid Roe v. Wade would be overturned. (Helpfully, her refusal to take it out later lost the movie a pimple cream sponsor that would have forced its image onto every movie poster.) A few weeks ago, she read about a pro-choice march where a man asked a protester what exactly a coat-hanger abortion was and she snapped, "Haven't you seen Dirty Dancing?"
Later, Baby actually gets the guy by showing up in his cabin and seducing him, in what I'll challenge anyone to deny is the greatest love scene of all time. Because she doesn't have to take off her glasses and emerge a swan, besides turning up with some better-fitting clothes and some "stuff on her face" from the show. Nor is this a fantasy where she erases her background by pretending to be just like her new friends — what I like to call "cool gringo" syndrome. She stays herself.