Some films come and go, others stay with us forever. Some films remain niche, others resonate worldwide. In 1987, Dirty Dancing, starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, was released to theaters and has become a cultural touchstone. It won an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Original Song for “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life,” and Swayze’s line “Nobody put’s Baby in a corner” was named the 98th Greatest Movie Quote of All Time by the AFI.
But, of course, someone wrote that line. That someone is Eleanor Bergstein, who spoke with me about the film to commemorate its return to theaters on January 29th for its 30th Anniversary.
Andrew Walsh: Before we talk about the movie, when did you start writing and what kinds of things did you prefer writing about?
Eleanor Bergstein: Well, I started writing stories. Then I wrote novels. Then I wrote films, and directed films. But I continued to write novels and stories. I never changed from what I was doing, I was just also doing other things. I think stories are stories and then you find what is needed for what form. I’ve never made a novel into a movie or a movie into a novel. I think you know what form the material should take.
AW: You’ve written two novels in addition to your screenplays. Which would you say you prefer writing?
EB: I think the material just demands that you understand that something can only be what it is. My novels are about things that can only be novels, the films can only be films. For example, my first film was about a mathematician, and I couldn’t write a novel about that. You can show theoretical mathematics on a screen in a minute, see how beautiful and pure and wonderful it is. It would take something like thirty pages to say it. I’d say it wouldn’t be worth it. So that made me understand what each thing is. I remember when I made my first film I walked onto the set and they said: “which glass did you want, Eleanor?” There were something like fifty glasses on the table and I reached out my hand and picked up one and said “this is what I meant.” And that was so exciting to me, to pick something up in my hand that came out of my head. We did a scene in Yankee Stadium and I remember I was so full of myself, saying to my husband, “look, all of this came out of my head! It’s incredible!” And he said “Yankee Stadium did not come out of your head.” In fact there’s a picture of me on home plate, and it’s clear I didn’t believe him. I was just so full of jubilation. It’s just really different when you can hold something in your hand.
AW: Dirty Dancing is said to be partially based on your childhood. Is that the case?
EB: Well, that’s gonna be a long, boring answer, so I’ll make it fast. Dirty dancing is the dancing that I did in junior high and high school in basements, so that comes from something called “dirty dancing”, which is what we did. And I went to the Catskills with my parents, I was a teenage Mambo Queen, which is the other title for dirty dancing, when people thought it was porno film. So certainly there are lots of elements from my life that I’ve used, but it is not the story of my life. If anything I’m more Johnny than Baby. I worked my way through college as a dancing instructor.
AW: You were also a Producer on the film. Did you ever spend much time on the set during the production or did you simply stick with the script?
EB: Every second, yes, I was.
AW: Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey were said to have a bit of animosity between them despite the positivity of their screen test.
EB: You know, there really wasn’t. That’s one of those “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Dirty Dancing” lists and the thing you know is that they’re not true. So, you know, those lists are really some fabrications. We were fine. We were all very, very busy, very tired, on a very low-budget film. Very little time, it rained a lot, we were all exhausted.
AW: You adapted the film into a stage musical in 2004.
EB: Yeah, after twenty years I finally agreed to do it. And that’s great because it’s all over the world. Huge success. It’s had the highest advance in Europe, the highest in Germany. The wait list was seven years, you couldn’t get tickets. It’s done very well and it’s a very lovely show.
AW: Dirty Dancing has become a sort of cultural hallmark, to the point more people have probably heard about it than actually seen it.
EB: I’m not sure of that because it’s on television all the time. You can get it on video, DVD. More people have seen it. In other years you would hear about a movie you hadn’t seen, it’s harder to see it than to hear about it. But now we’ve got distributer every place. I’m astounded all over the world how many have seen it, how many times. I’m always amazed when we cast the show, for example, and people all around the world, not only the actors, but people who come to see it have seen the movie so many times. I think that’s the new media thing. When I was growing up maybe people had seen Casablanca, but you’d only seen it if you were in a little art theater that was playing it. You couldn’t play it in your house. I think things have really changed.
AW: Of course I have to ask about the famous line “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” It’s entered the lexicon.
EB: I think one thing is, and I don’t really have much to say about that, but you know it was a line and we didn’t even know if it was going to stay in the movie. Patrick thought it was a really stupid line, and I couldn’t disagree with him. So I just had him say it once so we could move on. We decided to use it. I think something that made me feel better about it, when we did the show in Germany, the movie is an enormous hit in Germany for reasons that I don’t understand. No need to ask a follow up question because I don’t have an answer to it. But we did the show in Germany, the movie was dubbed rather than subtitled. And the Germans are very concerned about having the mouths line up exactly with the words. The Italians, for example, don’t really care, say one thing and the lips do another. They don’t really care very much. But the Germans are very precise. So when Johnny goes on stage to get Baby he says “my Baby belongs to me.” And I didn’t know this, so when I said “how do you say ‘nobody puts Baby in a corner’ in german,” they looked very bewildered. When they told me what he says “my Baby belongs to me,” I said “Oh my God, that’s gonna boot me from Feminist Heaven. The show has to change it back.” But then I found that that line is as popular in German as “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” is elsewhere. It gets a huge ovation in the theaters. Everyone in the world uses it. So that makes me think it was more occasional rather than the actual line, which made me feel much better. That there were other lines that translated that had the same affect for their place in the story.
AW: But has anyone ever put you in a corner?
EB: Heh, no. Well, I’m sure in a million figurative ways, but no one has said that in particular to me. If so, I’ve obviously blocked it. You know, to be very fair I’m sure they have over and over again and I just don’t keep it in my memory bank. Surely that’s happened to you, hasn’t it?
AW: I suppose so.
EB: You know, I’m always saying to people, whenever we’re introduced anyplace we should be introduced by what went wrong in our lives. Because the only reason we’re being introduced on stage or wherever is because we picked ourselves up off the floor again. So I guess that applies to being in a corner.
AW: Thank you so much for your time, and congratulations on the 30th anniversary.
Be sure to check out Dirty Dancing at a theater near you this Sunday. You can find a list of participating theaters at Fathom Events. You can also pick up the 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition on February 7th.