Eleanor Bergstein is a bit rattled. “I’ve been watching the news,” the Dirty Dancing screenwriter and co-producer warns me as she settles into our Skype call from her home in New York. “So, if I’m particularly frantic, it’s because of that.”
Donald Trump’s presidency looms over our conversation like an ominous shadow. It’s the reason we’re here today. I’m keen to talk about the groundbreaking abortion storyline she wrote for the global phenomenon, Dirty Dancing, three decades ago – and its relevance in 2017. As Trump’s administration pushes back women’s reproductive rights at the rate of knots, mainstream abortion narratives couldn’t be more needed on our screens. And yet, if you look around, they seem frustratingly absent.
It’s been exactly 30 years since Bergstein’s coming-of-age 1960s tale hit the big screen. Dirty Dancing soon became a cult classic, with its unashamedly nostalgic portrayal of one woman’s sexual awakening against a sweltering summer backdrop; peppered with exotic Mambos, a crooning Ronettes chorus and that lift. Baby’s awakening, however, wouldn’t have occurred if it weren’t for a radical plotline that has the 17-year-old Baby (Jennifer Grey) borrow $250 to pay for Johnny’s (played by Patrick Swayze) dance partner’s illegal abortion. Beneath the surface, Dirty Dancing isn’t quite the fluffy chick-flick it is so often touted as. Bernstein had things she wanted to say. The fact that she did so with such subtlety is arguably why the film feels just as relevant in 2017 as it did in 1987.
Bergstein didn’t want to make a righteous movie, she tells me, but she did want to tackle certain social and political issues in a subliminal way. Behind the cheesy cha-cha steps, the subtext isn’t difficult to find – it’s right there in the opening scenes. Baby and her father make reference to “police dogs used in Birmingham” and “monks burning themselves in protest” before they’ve even unpacked their bags at their idyllic holiday retreat. Baby’s awakening is America’s, too. The summer of 63 was a watershed moment for America, so-often headlined as “the year everything happened” – a year that witnessed Martin Luther King’s era-defining “I Have a Dream” speech, President Kennedy’s assassination and military escalation in Vietnam. It would be another decade before the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe vs. Wade decision would legalise abortion in 1973.
“When I wrote it, people said, ‘Why illegal abortion?’ Roe vs. Wade is here in America and it’s fine. I said, ‘Well, I’m not sure.’ Of course, now it’s hanging by a tiny thread.” Ditto for race relations: “They said, ‘That’s dumb,’ and I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ Now we have Black Lives Matter.” Almost everything Bergstein was told was irrelevant in the 1980s has now come round again full circle. “Am I delighted it’s topical now?” she says. “Of course not. My heart is broken that these are all issues again.”
Bergstein’s uncertainties were shrewdly prophetic. In 1988, a year after Dirty Dancing was released, a restriction known as the “Gag Rule” was imposed on Title-X services in the US. The policy prohibited US federal-funded family-planning clinics from providing both referrals for abortion and counselling about the procedure. This year, marking the 30th anniversary of Bergstein’s pro-choice plotline, President Trump signed legislation that aims to strip Title-X funding from family-planning services that perform abortion, including Planned Parenthood. I tell Bergstein that I can count the number of on-screen abortion storylines I’ve seen on my one hand, and I’m perplexed as to why this is still an accepted norm, considering the current climate and the repealing of women’s reproductive rights. Bergstein agrees.
“Even all the cutting-edge movies have someone considering an abortion, but in the end she has the baby,” she says. In Sex & The City, Miranda changes her mind in the waiting room. “She ends up in a beautiful townhouse in Brooklyn with Steve and it’s all good,” Bergstein deadpans. We go through a familiar roll call of recent movies: Blue Valentine, Knocked Up, Juno. Bergstein sums up the popular mainstream narrative when it comes to on-screen abortion as this: “They flirt with the idea but, at the last minute, she doesn’t do it.”
The company called me and said, ‘We will pay you to go back in the editing room and take the abortion out'
Is abortion still a dirty word in Hollywood? “I guess it is still,” Bergstein muses. “One should never underestimate where the barriers are. I got a lot of push-back when I made Dirty Dancing, but that was 30 years ago.” Push-back is an understatement. Bergstein tells me that when a national sponsor wanted to put a tube of acne cream on the posters, they tried to remove Penny’s abortion altogether. She had to fight to keep it in the movie. “They said, 'We can’t risk that.' The company called me and said, ‘We will pay you to go back in the editing room and take the abortion out.’” Her reply? “I’d be happy to, but I can’t. It’s the reason Baby falls in love with Johnny and if you take it out, the whole thing falls apart.” Which brings Bergstein on to her ultimate piece of advice for any filmmakers who really care about a particular issue. “Make sure it’s essential to the plot,” she says, “otherwise it’s going to end up on the editing-room floor.”
With the repealing of reproductive rights – not just in the US, but across the globe – does Bergstein agree that producers and screenwriters have a responsibility to get pro-choice narratives out there? Absolutely, she says, but the problem is that the work has to be paid for. “Screenwriters can write lots of screenplays but, if nobody’s going to make them, it won’t do any good,” she says. “I expect there are those screenplays, directors and production companies out there, but you have to find people who are willing to put up money for it.”
Bergstein tells me that Dirty Dancing’s budget was under $5m which, even 30 years ago, was practically peanuts. Everybody turned it down, she says, “even though I had this lovely music on a cassette". Bergstein has previously said that she handpicked the Dirty Dancing soundtrack from her own collection of 45s and sent out cassettes with the script. The studio executives said nobody would like the 1960s soundtrack. They were wrong about Otis Redding, just like they were wrong about the commercial viability of a film that portrays abortion realistically. “I didn’t say I’ve made a movie with six different social classes and an abortion in it,” says Bergstein. “I got up on tables and dirty danced for these men with cigars.”
Which brings me to the million-dollar question: would she have made Dirty Dancing if she’d been forced to remove that abortion storyline? How important was it to her? “Everything,” she replies. “I would never have written it if it wasn’t for that.”
Now, more than ever, Penny’s life-risking termination is an urgent call-to-arms. “The only possible salvation for change in our country is to understand that the most important thing we can do is what we did in the 1960s – which is to be out there and organised,” Bergstein says. Her zeal is infectious. At 79 years of age, she has as much passion and determination as the teen protagonist she created all those years ago. “It’s a wonderful thing to do if you understand that you can reach out your hand and maybe change the world.” This sounds like a line Baby would say. When Bergstein says it, I believe her wholeheartedly. I’m ready to march.
That’s the magic of Dirty Dancing. Perhaps its legacy is best encapsulated by an anecdote Eleanor Bergstein read recently in a paper. During a pro-choice march that took place in Washington, a man strolled up to one of the activists and asked, “What’s a coat-hanger abortion?” To which the women replied, incredulously: “Haven’t you seen Dirty Dancing?”