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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Re-Watching Eleanor Bergstein's Earlier Movie "It's My Turn"

In August 2015, I happened to watch a 1980 movie titled It's My Turn, staring Jill Clayburgh and Michael Douglas. The movie was lousy. On the following day, I read the Wikipedia article about it. There I learned that the movie had been written by Eleanor Bergstein, who later wrote the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing. By the time, I already had deleted the movie from my television, so I was not able to re-watch it with a Dirty Dancing perspective.

Michael Douglas and Jill Clayburgh in a scene from the movie
"I'ts My Turn", written by Eleanor Bergstein and
directed by Claudia Weill
I wrote a blog article about the movie and vowed that I would record and re-watch it again at my next opportunity. Recently I did so, and I still think that the movie is lousy. (The only improvement in my evaluation is that the televised movie now has subtitles.)

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The movie It's My Turn does provide, however,  insights into Bergstein and thus into Dirty Dancing. In addition to re-watching It's My Turn, I researched it on the Internet. I found an informative article titled Michael Douglas: It's My Turn, written by Jean Vallely and published by Rolling Stone magazine in 1980. Vallely tells much about Bergstein's life and work in the 1970s.

Bergstein was born in 1938. In 1973, when she was 35 years old, she published a novel titled Advancing Paul Newman. Vallely's article merely mentions that novel, which I have not read. The only summary of the novel that I could find was on Kirkus. The novel takes place in 1972 and portrays the long friendship of two young American women who had met while touring Europe in 1959.

https://www.amazon.com/Advancing-Paul-Newman-Eleanor-Bergstein/dp/4450843843/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1486866021&sr=8-1&keywords=advancing+paul+newman
The paperback cover of
Eleanor Bergstein's novel
Advancing Paul Newman
One of the women, named Kitsy Frank, seems to be based on Bergstein herself. In 1972, the character Kitsy is a literary agent, married to a poet. (Bergstein's husband Michael Goldman is a prolific writer.) The other woman, named Ilia Rappaport, is an unsuccessful free-lance writer, unmarried, with a varied love life. I assume, based only on the Kirkus summary, that married, established Kitsy envies Ilia's freedom and excitement, while single, struggling Ilia envies Kitsy's marriage and stability. I assume that the novel portrays the conflicts that many young women suffer in balancing family and career.

Assuming that Kitsy is based on Bergstein, this character was about 21 years old in 1959 and about 34 years old in 1972. The two characters interact in 1972 while working to support the Presidential campaign of George McGovern. (Paul Newman appears in the novel's title and story because he was a celebrity who famously campaigned for McGovern.)

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When Bergstein's novel was published in 1973, it was read by a young, aspiring movie director named Claudia Weill. She was born in 1947, so in 1973 she was about 26 years old (while Bergstein was 35). In 1973 Weill was trying to develop a movie, which eventually would be released in 1978 under the title Girlfriends. In 1973 Weill still was looking for a screenwriter. Weill loved Bergstein's novel and so tried to recruit her to write the projected movie's screenplay. Bergstein refused, saying she already was too busy writing her next novel.

For the next four years, through the mid-1970s, Weill continued to propose a collaboration with Bergstein. After Weill's movie Girlfriends was released in 1978 and achieved some critical and commercial success, Weill obtained a funding promise of about $200,000 for her next movie project. On that basis, Bergstein now agreed to collaborate with Weill. The result was the movie It's My Turn, which was released in 1980.

Weill's movie Girlfriends is about two Jewish girlfriends. One girlfriend marries happily and gives birth to a child. The other girlfriend, an artistic photographer, experiences a series of romantic failures, including an affair with a married rabbi. The single girlfriend is jealous of the married girlfriend's married happiness, and the married girlfriend is jealous of the single girlfriend's freedom. The two women drift apart. Eventually they meet again, and the married woman reveals that she has just had an abortion because she does not want to be tied down further by a second child. Thus the movie ends. (See the movie's Wikipedia article for a more detailed plot summary.)

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Weill explained in an interview that she is interested in portraying the resentments that women -- especially Jewish women -- feel in having to compete with, measure up to, and learn from men.
I was very fixated on what it meant to be Jewish and female in America ... because that was what I was facing. ... because I had Orthodox grandparents. God was just available for men, not for women. [There is] a kind of self-doubt which is perhaps more female -- I think of it as being more female -- not being sure that you’re really a contender -- that you can play the game -- not sure that you’re one of the boys, so to speak.

It was important to me [to portray] the girl that’s not normally the protagonist -- not the pretty, blond, breezy one that everybody loves and adores. She is that girl’s best friend, the 'Rhoda' lineage, Mary Tyler Moore's best friend played by Valerie Harper.

The best friend is always funnier, and men are usually less attracted to her because she’s either overweight, not as gorgeous or not as oriented towards pleasing them. I was very interested in making a movie about that girl because that’s who I am and making films was just my way of figuring life out.
Summing up so far, I think that Bergstein and Weill both liked to tell stories about young-adult girlfriends being envious toward each other in the balance between family and career. The girlfriend in a stable romantic relationship envies the girlfriend who focuses on her career -- and vice-versa. That was the central conflict in Bergstein's novel Advancing Paul Newman and in Weill's movie Girlfriends.

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In her Rolling Stone article, Vallely reported how Bergstein and Weill began their collaboration.
Eight years ago [in 1973], Claudia Weill, who was making documentaries, read a political novel called Advancing Paul Newman, which was about two girls in the Sixties. Weill contacted the author, Eleanor Bergstein, and asked if she would like to write a screenplay  (Weill had Bergstein in mind to write Girlfriends). Bergstein, who had started her second novel, wasn't interested.

"Eleanor is a knockout writer," says Weill .... "Most screenplays you read are sketches, a scheme, an idea for a film. It's My Turn is a story. All the characters are her creations. ... I bugged Eleanor for years." ....

Weill called Bergstein [in about 1977] and told her about a project that she thought would fulfill her [Bergstein's] conditions. There would be a one-in-three chance of production, a $200,000 grant if produced, the work would be shown on educational television, and there might be a limited theatrical release. .... Bergstein had finished a draft of her [second] novel ....

Bergstein and Weill sat down to discuss what they could do with $200,000 in terms of setups and locations. Then Bergstein and her husband, Michael Goldman (an author and professor of Shakespeare, modern drama and poetry at Princeton), leased a house in Vermont, and she went to work.
When Bergstein began to develop this story she herself was about 37 years old. She pondered the idea that some professional people of this age might have passed the peak of their powers. She saw examples among professional athletes and mathematicians.
"At the time I was writing, Luis Tiant got his contract," recalls Bergstein, an avid baseball fan. "There were all these papers saying, LUIS TIANT, 37, GETS CONTRACT. In what other field would 37 be so incredibly old?

Then I thought about mathematicians and how most of them, from Einstein on down, do their best work and have their major breakthroughs in their early twenties, or certainly before the age of thirty. They can go on to do good work, but it is usually based on that original insight."

Bergstein sees both mathematics and baseball as "pure, more perfect than the world around us." So it was set. [The film's female lead] Kate would be a mathematician and [the male lead] Ben a baseball player. ...
A typical movie about a woman reaching an age-related limitation at the age of 37 would be about the impending end of her fertility. Bergstein, though, imagined that lots of people would want to buy tickets to watch a movie about a 37-year-old woman who might have passed the age when she could accomplish a major breakthrough in mathematics.

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The female mathematician Kate Gunzinger was played by actress Jill Clayburgh, who was 36 years old when the movie was released in 1980. The male baseball player Ben Lewin was played by Michael Douglas, who likewise was 36 years old.

* Ben injured a shoulder while playing and therefore has retired from professional baseball. Now he is struggling to make a living by doing personal appearances and giving inspirational speeches.

* Kate teaches advanced mathematics at a Chicago university and is struggling to make a major breakthrough in mathematics.

Now Kate faces a professional dilemma. She has an opportunity to become an administrator in the Mathematics Department of a New York university. If she fills that position, then she will enjoy a higher salary and better job security, but she will become too busy to accomplish a major breakthrough in mathematics. Also, as a secondary consideration, if she moves to New York, then she will move away her boyfriend, Homer, who works as an architect in Chicago.

Kate Gunziner teaching advance mathematics
at a university in Chicago.
Kate and Ben meet because their parents are getting married in New York. Kate's father is marrying Ben's mother, and both families meet each other at the pre-wedding dinner. Between that dinner and the wedding, Ben seduces Kate. By the time she flies back to Chicago, Kate falls in love with Ben. He, however, breaks off the affair because he is married.

Immediately after Kate returns to Chicago, she breaks up with Homer. Although she has been offered the administrative job at the New York university, she decides to remain teaching at the Chicago university so that she can continue to try to achieve a major breakthrough in mathematics. Thus the movie ends.

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The seemingly main story-line about Kate's devotion to achieving a major breakthrough in mathematics is preposterous. That story-line is merely a platform for various subplots about Kate's resentful relationships with other characters. The movie's actual theme was stated accurately by the director Claudia Weill, as already quoted above:
... God was just available for men, not for women. [There is] a kind of self-doubt which is perhaps more female -- I think of it as being more female -- not being sure that you’re really a contender -- that you can play the game -- not sure that you’re one of the boys, so to speak.

It was important to me [to portray] the girl that’s not normally the protagonist ... men are usually less attracted to her because she’s ... not as gorgeous or not as oriented towards pleasing them. 
I was very interested in making a movie about that girl because that’s who I am and making films was just my way of figuring life out.
The character Kate -- although she is a brilliant mathematician -- feels inferior to :

* her boyfriend Homer, a successful architect,

* her new lover Ben, a famous professional baseball player,

* her father Jacob Gunzinger, a retired doctor,

* her male student Cooperman, a mathematics genius.

Kate also is contemptuous of the various women who have profited by merely marrying such successful men. These women include Homer's separated wife, Ben's estranged wife, Jacob's new wife, and Kate' own deceased mother. I had the impression that Kate feels these women never have achieved or even striven toward any intellectual or professional accomplishments. These women were merely pretty, pleasant, agreeable and supportive for the men.

Kate does have a "girlfriend" relationship with her cousin Gail. Kate envies Gail's marriage, and Gail wishes Kate to become happily married.

Despite all her frustrations and resentments, however, Kate is rather happy at the movie's end. She still hopes to achieve a major breakthrough in mathematics. Perhaps more important for her emotional satisfaction, she has enjoyed a brief sexual fling with a former but still famous professional athlete and still hopes that he will leave his wife for her.

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Here is some more from Vallely's article about Bergstein's and Weill's collaboration on the movie:
Seven weeks after disappearing into the Vermont woods, Bergstein re-emerged, script in hand. It was her first dramatic writing, and it had gone well and fast. She loved doing it. Her script was submitted to see if it qualified for the $200,000 grant. 
Meanwhile, Girlfriends had come out, and suddenly Weill was the hottest new filmmaker in town. "None of us had anticipated this," says Bergstein. "Here was Claudia, sitting in Hollywood being offered everything in the world, and she kept saying, 'No, thank you. I want to do this little educational-television thing.'"

The $200,000 came through, and Bergstein was ecstatic. Then Weill said she thought they could make a Hollywood picture. Weill was excited. Bergstein was furious: she wanted no part of Hollywood. Weill kept trying to impress on Bergstein the difference between making a big movie and a small one. "At the time," says Bergstein, "the differences didn't seem extreme to me. But for Claudia, it was like the difference between writing a story and a novel."

She [Bergstein] sips her coffee thoughtfully. "My hierarchy is clear, I think. The greatest novel is greater than any film. A great film, like, say, a Godard film, is better than a pretty good novel. Most fairly good novels are better than most films. 
Nevertheless, all that being said and established, there are things you can do in films, materials you can use, that you just can't use in a novel. I can spend six or seven pages of prose describing how the coffee cup goes this way instead of that way [she tilts her cup ever so slightly], but even if I got it, it simply would not have earned that prose. 
I cannot really describe parents and children dancing together or the way higher mathematics looks. You can do it in words, but you won't have earned the reader's efforts."
Ironically, Bergstein reveals here her own self-limiting inferiority complex. She wanted to limit the movie to a "little educational-television thing". She wanted to keep the movie too small for Hollywood. She really wanted to limit herself to writing novels and did not want to venture further into writing screenplays.

Bergstein was married to a successful writer and was settled in a nice home in Vermont. Bergstein lacked Weill's freedom, mobility and ambition. Bergstein and Weill had themselves become the "girlfriends" characterized in Bergstein's first novel and Weill's first film.

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In the above passage from Vallely's article, I want to focus briefly on one bit:
I [Bergstein] cannot really describe parents and children dancing together ... You can do it in words, but you haven't earned the reader's efforts.
Bergstein means here that a written, prose description requires much more effort from a reader than a movie depiction requires from a movie-viewer. Bergstein had written then screenplay, but Weill still had not made the movie. After the movie was made, Bergstein would increasingly appreciate that a writer labors to describe a moment that a movie director can show in a moment.

The example that Bergstein offered was a moment of "parents and children dancing together". There is such a moment in It's My Turn. At the pre-wedding dinner, Kate dances with her father while Ben dances with his mother. I assume that Bergstein labored while writing her screenplay to describe a certain impression that this dancing moment was supposed to convey. The impression that I received was that:

* Kate and her father danced awkwardly with each other,

* Ben and his mother danced comfortably with each other.

None of these four danced masterfully, but Kate recognized her inferiority to Ben in physical skill. Kate and Ben danced also with each other. Kate was not able to follow Ben's strong lead well and even became dizzy.

A dancing scene from the movie "It's My Turn". In the foreground
are the movie's two main characters, played by Michael Douglas
and Jill Clayburgh. In the background are those characters'
parents, played by Steven Hill and Beverly Garland. 
The screenplay included another dance scene that was cut from the film. The movie's Wikipedia article remarks:
The producers of It's My Turn cut out an erotic dancing scene from Bergstein's screenplay, which sparked her to go on and write a new script that would become the 1987 hit film Dirty Dancing.
I suppose that this "erotic dancing scene", featuring Kate and Ben, was supposed to take place after their parents' wedding.

(Update on July 26, 2017):

According to an article by film critic Carrie Rickey, the erotic dance did not happen in public.
Its script included a scene of an erotic dance as the foreplay to a mutual seduction. The studio cut it.  What's left is a shot of Douglas unbuttoning Clayburgh's blouse.
If so, then the erotic dance took place in Ben's (i.e. Douglas's) hotel room.

(End of update.)

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Vallely writes that Michael Douglas especially liked the story's dealing with the idea that a person might have passed his peak already in his mid-thirties.
"The first attraction." says Douglas, explaining how he became interested in the project, "was to work with Jill [Clayburgh]. I am a total fan of hers. Also, I liked the romantic part of it.

And I was attracted to the idea of a career being finished at thirty-two. I am a frustrated jock and the analogies were pretty close: well-educated Eastern guy who chose to jock it up, and it's over for him just at the time that he would have begun his practice if he had studied medicine."
Ben had rebelled against his father by devoting himself to sports instead of studying to become a doctor. (It's not clear whether Ben's father himself was a doctor. As Ben's father had predicted, Ben now suffers difficulties in trying to establish a new career after retiring from his professional-sports career already in his mid-thirties.

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Vallely reports that Weill confidently tackled her new challenge of directing a Hollywood film.
Weill is a relatively inexperienced director, but more important, this was her first Hollywood movie. ... At $50,000 a day — well, that takes a lot of guts. ... Weill brought It's My Turn in on schedule and on budget, and she gets high marks as a director from her actors.

"Claudia has a very relaxed way of working," says Clayburgh. "She made everyone extremely comfortable and would always try it your way if you had an idea. She is not very imposing in terms of it having to be this way or that way. She was very appreciative. As far as being a woman. I don't think that mattered. I think the tricky part came because this was Claudia's first time in Hollywood. She had a certain lack of experience and she was learning. She was new and we were the big company. That was really difficult."

Michael Douglas' eyes light up when he talks about Weill and her directing. ... I just loved having the director come up to me, put her arm around my shoulder and ask me if I'm okay. She made me feel confident."

"It seems to me," says Weill, "that the whole notion of the director is fucked: this macho, authoritarian sort of figure. I think you have to be able to command the set, keep things moving, communicate. The purpose of the director is to orchestrate all the talent into his or her vision. ... 
However, the producers and investors were dissatisfied with Weill's movie.
It's My Turn was shot for seven weeks on the Burbank lot and one week in New York. It wasn't long before the little whispers started about the film. Then there were the screenings that were abruptly canceled. Then came the item in Marilyn Beck's gossip column about how Douglas hated the movie and would not promote it. ....

"What I said [Douglas explained] was that I couldn't shoot my wad like I did with The China Syndrome. I am overexposed. I told them I was willing to do some interviews, but not to count on me for all the talk shows. I am an actor, and I cannot go out like that after every film." ....

The actors have been told not to talk about the whole mess, so it is difficult to pin down what actually happened. "I don't think it is useful for me to be specific." says Weill rather cautiously. "I think I had the same problems any filmmaker has when you are dealing with $7 million that isn't yours. People involved in the money side [Ray Stark, in particular] have different opinions on what the film should say, how it should be put together, and we got into some discussions about it. When you are working with a group of people, you have to go through that process." ....

According to sources, Stark hated the film. He took it away from Weill and completely recut it. The recut version was shown to the principals, all of whom preferred Weill's version. After much fighting, the film went back to Weill, and the version you will see in the theaters is very close to her original.

"What I did, basically," says Weill. "was tighten it up. The film shifts tone a lot. It's witty, oblique, romantic, charming, serious, and when it moved into last gear, it had to move much quicker, and I really tightened up that part. The changes in this film were basically of pace, but those are important changes. I mean, I don't like to bore people. This film is ninety minutes long, and it is still too long for me. This is my film. I stand behind it absolutely. I feel very good about it. I think the whole thing worked out just fine."
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As I explained in my previous article, It's My Turn was a lousy movie. People went to see it only because it starred Clayburgh and Douglas, not because of word-of-mouth recommendations. According to the Rotten Tomatoes website, only 23% of the audiences liked it.

Weill indicated in the above quote that the movie cost $7 million to make. The movie earned only $11 million at the box office and ranked only 60th in earnings among movies in 1980. A big portion of the $11 million went to the movie's two, expensive stars.

* In 1978 Clayburgh had been nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in An Unmarried Woman, and in 1979, she had been nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in Starting Over.

* In 1974, 1975 and 1976, Douglas had won Emmy awards for Best Supporting Actor in the TV series The Streets of San Francisco. In 1979, he co-starred in the hit movie The China Syndrome.

The movie's advertising must have cost several million dollars. The movie's investors It's My Turn probably made little profit and perhaps even lost money.

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Bergstein's next movie, Dirty Dancing, released in 1987, turned out to be one of the most profitable movies in history. Its production cost was only $6 million, and it earned $214 million by 2009. Rotten Tomatoes reports that 90% of the audiences liked it.

Obviously, Bergstein learned valuable lessons from her experience of writing It's My Turn. That film's worst aspects were its anti-man resentments and the preposterously intellectual female lead. Those aspects do not appear in Dirty Dancing.

On the other hand, several attractive aspects were carried over from the first movie to the second:

* The female protagonist's respect toward her father.

* The male protagonist's physical prowess and intellectual mediocrity.

* The female protagonist's ultimate acceptance that her fun fling has ended.

Of course, the most important carry-over was the dancing. I remarked above that one "erotic" dancing scene was cut from the screenplay, probably from a post-wedding party. I speculate that Kate's dancing was supposed to improve remarkably, to become "erotic", in the second dance scene.

The character Kate in It's My Turn was a female mathematician who was trying to achieve a major break-through on the level of Isaac Newton. She was mean toward her new step-mother Emma. She cuckolded her nice boyfriend Homer and then dumped him and then tried to break up Ben's marriage. She was morally despicable.

In contrast, Baby in Dirty Dancing was smart, idealistic and kind. Female viewers could admire and identify with her, and male viewers could imagine falling in love with her. Baby did not cheat on a current boyfriend in order to enjoy her fling with Johnny. (I suppose, however, that people who strongly oppose abortion might dislike this character.)

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Claudia Weill deserves major credit for turning Eleanor Bergstein into a screenwriter. Perhaps, however, it was Weill who pushed the anti-man resentments too much It's My Turn. After Bergstein ended her collaboration with Weill, Bergstein wrote the more romantic, man-loving Dirty Dancing.

Both of Bergstein's movies do feature female protagonists who feel a complex of resentments:
* Men have more opportunities then women

* Even very intelligent women cannot match men's achievements

* Pretty women who subordinate themselves to men can become happily married
However, these resentments are rather bitter in It's My Turn, compared to Dirty Dancing. Perhaps that's because the first movie's Kate is about 20 years older than the second movie's Baby. Kate is about the same age as Ben and has only glimpsed his baseball skills, whereas Baby is significantly younger than Johnny and sees and learns from his dancing skills. Kate does not admire Ben as Baby does admire Johnny.

Baby's resentment toward male advantages is balanced by admiration for male leadership and skill.

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Because of It's My Turn, Eleanor Bergstein was one of ten nominees for the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Screenplay for movies released in 1980. (The "winner" was the screenwriting duo -- Bronte Woodard and Allan Carr -- who wrote Can't Stop the Music.)

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In the following article, I will write about the Jewish subtexts of both movies.

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