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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Re-Writing of Eleanor Bergstein's Script

In 2010, the Dirty Dancing screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein wrote a Letter to Fans, in which she claimed that the original script no longer exists. She indicated, however, that the movie matches the original script so closely that the movie's dialogue transcript is, for all practical purposes, the original script. Her "Letter to Fans" includes the following passages:
No single "original script" of Dirty Dancing exists today. Anyone who shows you one will next be selling you the Brooklyn Bridge.

Not all the scenes I wrote are here, or could be found. What I retrieved from my trunks is a collection of fragmented pages, different typefaces, coffee stains, holes from staples removed with my fingernails.

They were originally on different colored paper, green pink, blue, yellow, representing different drafts, but we ran out of colors and finally used whatever paper was around.

The represented changes were because we didn't have enough money, lost our location, lost the light, replaced an actor. ....

What amazes me most looking over these annotated pages was how much everything remained the same.

So many things changed, but almost never the words. The dialogue in almost all cases is identical with what is on the screen. [Director] Emile [Ardolino] and I were very specific about no words being changed. Occasionally after hearing a speech in an actor's mouth, I cut a few words -- less is more.

But most important things remained exactly the same, from "Ma, will you look at that," through "and most of all I'm scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I'm with you," to "Sit down, Jake." ...

There was a long discussion on set about "a little head in the woods" instead of "go down on" which the crew was very opinionated about in terms of which was the correct period expression.

"It's hopeless" changed from "I wish you hadn't found me" ...

There's a different typescript for the scene where Penny tells Baby she doesn't sleep around. This scene was a request from Cynthia, which I typed on my bed with my portable Olivetti the night before, while the splendid David surprised us with a locker room at dawn.
Bergstein's account here is nonsense. Of course there was an original script, and copies were given to many people. However, each such person signed a non-disclosure agreement and still will be sued now if he is caught providing a copy of the original script to the public.

 Bergstein does not want any student of the movie to compare the movie to the original script, because the differences certainly are enormous.

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In addition, most of the people -- especially Bergstein -- involved in making the movie enjoy wallowing in a fantasy that they proved all the other professional movie-makers to be wrong. Supposedly, all the other movie-makers who had rejected Bergstein's original script were stupid fools.

This fantasy is told by, for example, film critic Carrie Rickey in an article titled Dirty Dancing: Panned as a dud, but dynamite, which includes the following passages:
The worst day, as screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein remembers it, was when [the production company] Vestron executives brought in movie producer Aaron Russo to advise how to salvage Dirty Dancing.

"Burn the negative and collect the insurance money," he reportedly suggested. ...

Every studio in Hollywood passed on the screenplay. The indie outfit that produced it considered it a straight-to-video release. After all these false starts, the movie no one wanted leaped into the hearts of film-goers around the world. ...

Though [MGM executive Eileen] Maisel advocated on behalf of Dirty Dancing, she lost her job in a corporate regime change. Linda Gottlieb, another MGM exec and the film's ultimate producer, also fought for it. But in the end, new management put it in turnaround, trying to unload it. ...

MGM dropped its option. Bergstein's agent sent the orphaned screenplay to a video distributor called Vestron. To stay alive, the little video company had decided to make low-budget movies and distribute them itself.

At a time when the average cost of making a movie was between $15 million and $25 million, Vestron offered $4.7 million for the film. Bergstein and Gottlieb jumped at it. ...
The fantasy is that countless professional movie-makers were too foolish to recognize the brilliance of Bergstein's original script. All those fools were proved wrong by the movie's cast and crew, who followed the script precisely to make the movie that turned out to be so hugely successful.

The likely truth, however, is that Bergstein's original script was rejected by so many professional movie-makers because it was lousy. The script had had to be re-written drastically for the movie to succeed. That truth is why 1) the original script has been suppressed and 2) Bergstein's fans have been told told falsely that the movie is almost exactly like her original script and 3) Bergstein in advance tries to discredit any future appearance of the original script as "selling you the Brooklyn Bridge".

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Before Bergstein wrote her Dirty Dancing script, she had written one other script that became a movie -- It's My Turn, which had been released in  1980. In a previous blog article, I wrote that this previous movie was lousy -- an opinion I expressed in the following passages:
The movie turned out to be lousy, but we watched it to the end. ....

A major reason why the movie is bad is that the story is implausible.

Kate [the heroine] is a character with whom very few female viewers would identify. ... I didn't believe in this Kate character for even one second.

For me as a male viewer of the movie, I even thought that the Kate character was morally repugnant.

* Attending the preparations for her widowed father's wedding, Kate has a sexual affair with the son of the father's new bride. If this affair had been exposed, her father's wedding and marriage could have been ruined.

* Kate treats her father's new wife meanly.

* Kate asks Ben to continue their affair long-distance after he returns home to his wife and she returns home to her now cuckolded boyfriend.

* Ben refuses to continue the affair because he is married. Nevertheless, he sends her a present by mail, and she seems to be happy and hopeful that her affair might continue after all.

* After she returns to Chicago, she dumps her boyfriend Homer because, she complains that he has not been paying enough attention to her. So, it's Homer's fault. She does not admit to Homer that she already has become a baseball player's groupie.

In general, men do not admire such women and do not consider movies featuring such women to be romantic comedies.

Since [Michael] Douglas and [Jill] Clayburgh were expensive actors, the movie's investors must have lost a ton of money.
I regret now that I did not use the word "atrocious" when I reviewed It's My Turn.

In that same blog article, I quoted someone who saw the movie and reviewed it astutely on the movie's Amazon webpage.
The whole film, It's My Turn, from beginning to end, is jive. Watching this film was a truly hateful experience.

... The characters portrayed in It's My Turn seem about as real as the two-dimensional cardboard likenesses of film stars that one might see in the lobby of a theatre. The whole concept behind the movie is laughable. It's full of campy 70's feminist rhetoric, and about as deep as a soap opera about Barbie and Ken. .... The dialogue sounds like a series of mindless jokes. ....

I saw this film at the local cineplex over twenty years ago, and since then, have never forgotten the experience. Upon the conclusion of the film I felt that I had wasted two hours of my life. I was so irritated that I seriously considered breaking into the projection room, taking the film from the projector and burning it with some lighter fluid and a match. ....
In view of this preceding movie, everyone should be skeptical of any assumption that Bergstein's next script, for Dirty Dancing, was brilliant.

(After Dirty Dancing, Bergstein wrote the script for a third movie, Let It Be Me, which I do like.)

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Patrick and Lisa Swayze jointly wrote an autobiography titled The Time of My Life. Anyone who thinks that Bergstein's script was not rewritten drastically should read the following passages (pages 130 - 137) from the chapter about their experience in the filming of Dirty Dancing.
I [Patrick] read the script for Dirty Dancing one evening in our new house. Right away it filled me with emotion — but not the kind it was supposed to. I didn’t like it. It seemed fluffy — nothing more than a summer-camp movie. Lisa read it, too, and she felt the same way. ....

Even though the screenplay was weak, with some work it could explore all those elements through a strong story filled with compelling characters.

Potential is a wonderful thing, but would the writer and director be open to rewrites? The next morning, as Lisa and I worked on remodeling our kitchen, we talked about how the script could be better. And despite our initial reservations, we began to get a little excited about it. ... I also wanted to find out if we could really turn this into a great movie or not. ...

... I still had reservations about going for the role of Johnny Castle, for one big reason. Even if the script could be vastly improved, I wasn’t sure this movie was the right step to take in my career. ....

I was scared to say yes, scared I’d be undoing what I’d worked for the last eight years to build. Rut at the same time, both Lisa and .1 believed that Dirty Dancing had the potential to be wonderful. ...

Once I’d been cast as Johnny, Lisa and I started looking at how the script might be improved. Eleanor, Emile and others were doing the same thing, so it definitely was a group effort, but I was as grateful as ever for Lisa’s insights. ....

I want to know what’s weak, so I can work on improving it. Whenever we worked on a script or scene for a movie, we’d always play devil’s advocate with each other, switching positions and thinking through every angle but Sunday. What does the writer intend here? What does the director see? Could the story have higher stakes? Is this how my character would react? Do these characters talk like real live flesh-and-bone human beings? Once you’ve gone through every possible scenario with a script, when you get back down to the words on the page you know right away what works and what doesn’t.

That’s how Lisa and I work together: We find the intention and emotional flow of a scene, and the words follow naturally. ....

The draft of the script we’d read only hinted at deeper sociological and emotional currents, but we all knew that if we could just push the characters a little further, and explore them a little more deeply, we’d really have something. So everyone jumped right in, working day and night to tear apart things that weren’t working and deepen the parts that were. Eleanor’s script had strong bones, but now we were adding the flesh to them — and we’d continue doing so all the way through filming. And by the time we were done, we had a beautiful script.

Some of what Lisa and I suggested made it into the film, and some didn’t. We inserted the fight scene between Johnny and the cad waiter, Robbie, to give Johnny the rougher edge his character needed. We wrote it so Johnny would stop before knocking the guy out, though, since he’d be wary of getting fired — something that had no doubt happened to him before.

Lisa and I also stayed up the entire night before filming the final scene, where Johnny grabs the microphone in front of everyone at the resort, so we could rewrite his big speech. Sometimes we’d be working on new dialogue right up to shooting — and then continue fixing it between takes. We never stopped trying to make it better. ....

We did a lot of rewriting for the big final scene ....

Throughout the filming, we kept inserting little touches to help flesh out the characters and their relationships. ....

The more we added and revised, the stronger the characters got. ....
I think that Swayze's account of the drastic rewriting is believable, whereas Bergstein's account of her screenplay remaining almost unchanged is not believable.

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As the producers began to develop this movie project, they surely understood that the movie's success would depended on convincing Patrick Swayze to play Johnny Castle. He was perfect for the role, but he initially resisted the offer. The budget was rather small, so the producers could not offer him a large amount of money. The producers were willing, however, offer him three concessions:

1) One of his songs would be included in the soundtrack.

2) He would be granted great authority in changing the script.

3)  His wife Lisa would be cast as Penny Johnson.

The third concession was kept secret, as a last resort to convince Swayze to accept the role. As it turned out, the first two concessions sufficed to convince him. In his autobiography, Swayze wrote (page 134):
As perfect as the role of Johnny was for me, the role of Penny was equally perfect for Lisa. She auditioned for it, and wowed everyone. But ultimately, Cynthia Rhodes was cast as Penny. Cynthia was also a good choice, but what tipped the scales was the fact that she’d had a starring role in Staying Alive, with John Travolta. Cynthia had some momentum, and momentum sells in Hollywood.

What we didn’t know, but found out much later, was that Eleanor expected me to insist on casting Lisa as a condition of I getting me. But I really didn’t think of myself as having that kind of power as an actor, so it never even occurred to me to ask. As Lisa now jokes, because she and Cynthia are both slender and blond, half the time people think it’s her in the movie!
In addition to Lisa's lack of career "momentum", I assume that movie producers routinely avoid casting married actors together on the general business principle that nepotism often causes serious problems. In addition, I think that Lisa Swayze -- despite her beauty and talent -- had a troublesome personality that impeded her career as an actress. (When I write an article about the Swayze autobiography, I will explain that idea.)

The above passages from the Swayze autobiography indicate that as soon as Patrick decided to do the movie, he and Lisa immediately -- "the next morning" -- began to develop script changes, apparently exercising an extraordinary and explicit authority to propose script changes.

I'm sure that Swayze eventually earned much more money from his soundtrack song -- "She's Like the Wind" -- than he earned for acting the role of Johnny Castle.

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The producers' concession that Patrick Swayze could change the script opened the floodgates for the director, choreographer, other actors -- and even Patrick's wife Lisa -- to propose changes. Swayze's autobiography indicates that the group process of changing Bergstein's original script could be described as a feeding frenzy. The original script was turned into the "collection of fragmented pages ... on different colored paper" that Bergstein described in her "Letter to Fans".

As a result, Bergstein's original script was dramatically changed and improved -- and the movie turned out to be brilliant.

In a following article, I will speculate about what was in the original script and what was changed.

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