Although it’s now one of the iconic films of the 1980s—and certainly one of the most quoted—Dirty Dancing was a box office dark horse upon its release. A teen movie for former teenagers, set in the Jewish summer resorts of the Catskills—a milieu that was fading even in 1963, when the movie is set—it was seen as a nostalgia piece. It might connect with a core market of Boomers, but was considered a long shot to bring in the all-important youth audience.
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But the screenplay—loosely based on writer-producer Eleanor Bergstein’s experiences—connected with audiences young and old, who recognized their own idealism in the heroine “Baby,” played by Jennifer Grey. Oh, and a star-making turn from a chiseled and largely shirtless Patrick Swayze certainly didn’t hurt.
But there’s more going on in Dirty Dancing than pelvic grinds and oiled chests. The evocation of the early 1960s—often romanticized as a time before America’s collective loss of innocence—has a delicate edge of self-mockery. There’s plenty that’s grim and seedy, even in the self-contained world of the summer resort.
Baby, like a lot of young people, has ambitions to save the world, but finds herself overwhelmed by injustices on her own doorstep, injustices for which her upper-middle-class upbringing has not prepared her. Given how reluctant American movies are to tackle socioeconomic issues at all, Dirty Dancing doesn’t shy away from the resentments of those on the wrong side of the service economy, or from the unearned sense of entitlement of the managerial class. You can spot the bad guy because he’s toting around a copy of The Fountainhead. There’s a critical essay to be written unpacking the film’s treatment of the class divide—and its decision to elide the related questions of religion and ethnicity in its romance between the Jewish Baby and the gentile Johnny.
You won’t find that essay here though. Nor will you find any discussion of the film’s use of music, blending pop tracks new and old to evoke place and mood. Nor will you find any unpacking of the ways in which Dirty Dancing both influenced and was influenced by the rise of the MTV music video, or any one of another half-dozen interesting things that could be said about the film. This new “celebration”—its release timed to the 25th anniversary of the film’s release—really isn’t much more than a glorified picture book. Photo montages and pull quotes of the film’s dialogue alternate with facsimile pages from Bergstein’s screenplay.
That’s a disappointment. Though the photographs, both stills and screen grabs, are sumptuous (thanks to cinematographer Jeff Jur and still photographer Adger Cowans, neither of whom are mentioned anywhere in the book’s indicia), Dirty Dancing: A Celebration is ultimately unsatisfying. The occasional feints toward content and analysis make one wish for more, but apart from the occasionally amusing stage directions in the screenplay pages, there’s only Bergstein’s brief foreword—which is long on gratitude and short on revelations—and a few generic quotes from the principals. According to Swayze, for instance, “Jennifer [Grey] just captured Baby in a way that I don’t think anyone else could have,” which isn’t exactly a blinding insight.
The book seems designed less as an adjunct to the experience of watching the film, and more as a re-creation of that experience. And that’s OK, as far as it goes. Not every movie needs to be Citizen Kane, and not every book about a movie needs to be The Citizen Kane Book. There only ever was one Pauline Kael (thank God), and Dirty Dancing is probably too slender a reed to bear the weight of too much Cult Studs theorizing.
Still, if a Dirty Dancing fan wishes that there was a little more there there to this celebratory book, it’s a testament to the fact that the movie had more on the ball than the average teen flick. Like the put-upon dance instructor at its center, it deserves more.
Jack Feerick is critic-at large for Popdose.com, and nobody puts him in the corner.