Eleanor Bergstein, the author of Dirty Dancing, based the story on her own experiences. Like the movie’s main character, she grew up in a family that visited resort hotels in the Borscht Belt regularly during summer vacations.
Bergstein was born in 1938 and therefore was 17 years old in about 1955. The movie’s main character was 17 years old in the year 1963 and so would have been born in about 1946. The movie was issued in 1987 and told a story that took place in 1963, so the initial audience was looking back about 24 years.
Why didn’t Bergstein set the movie’s time in about 1955, when she herself was about 17?
Bergstein did not address that question in her running commentary about the movie, but she did say that she worked at such a resort hotel in her summers during her college years and also that she worked as an Arthur Murray dance instructor during her college years. If we estimate that she attended college as an undergraduate from about 1956 through 1959 and further attended as a graduate student from about 1960 to 1963, then we can suppose that her last summer working at the camp might have been in about 1963, which is the summer when the story takes place.
This suggests that Bergstein based two of the movie’s characters on herself:
the 17-year-old girl visiting the resort hotel with her family
the 25-year-old woman teaching dance at the resort hotel.
The movie does not specify the two dance instructors’ ages, but I read somewhere that Patrick Swayze was 35 years old when he played the movie’s dance-instructor, who was supposed to be 25 years old. (Likewise Jennifer Grey was 27 years old when she played the 17-year-old girl.) If the male instructor indeed was supposed to be 25 years old, then we can suppose that the female dance instructor was about the same age.
In the movie, the female dance instructor, named Penny Johnson, had a platonic friendship with the male instructor, named Johnny Castle. Meanwhile she had fallen in love and become pregnant with a college student, named Robbie Gould, who had just been accepted into medical school. We can suppose that he was finishing his undergraduate studies and therefore was about 21 years old.
When Penny Johnson learned that Robbie Gould does not want to marry her, she decided to have an abortion, which could be done only on one particular night when she was supposed to perform a dance with the Johnny Castle. Therefore, the 17-year-old female guest agreed to learn the dance and then pretend to be Penny Johnson on that night. The 17-year-old female guest thus became the 24-year-old dance instructor in the story. Therefore we should appreciate that Eleanor Bergstein in her story perceived herself as both female characters, the younger one eventually becoming the older one.
There is a scene in the movie where the dance instructor danced behind and guided the girl as the girl began to learn to dance. There is another scene where the dance instructor and the girl were mirroring each other's movements. In both scenes we might say that the girl became the dance instructor.
Since Eleanor Bergstein’s own father was a doctor and her family life was happy, we can suppose that she herself as a young woman would have idealized a husband who would have been a doctor. She therefore could have imagined herself as easily seduced by a medical student. Perhaps she even had such an experience.
The dance instructor’s name is Johnny Castle, and the father’s name is Jake Houseman. Both their first names – Johnny and Jake – are nicknames for the proper Biblical name Jonathan.
Both of Eleanor Bergstein's parents died when she was in her early twenties. She was affected most profoundly by the death of her mother, about which she later wrote: “Losing my mother was so frightening. I had an almost total absence of hope, and I closed myself off, unable to face the grief and the pain.”
After both her parents died, Eleanor went to live with another family that had many relatives who had died in the Holocaust. This new family talked about these murdered relatives almost every day, which made Bergstein even more depressed.
She tried to continue making a living a dancer as a professional dancer but then gr1adually became a novelist and then a screenwriter. She married a man who became a professor of poetry at Princeton University. Many of her stories, novels and screenplays included dancing as a story element.
In 1980 a movie based on one of her screenplays was issued. The movie was titled It’s My Turn and starred Jill Clayburgh, who played a mathematics professor, and Michael Douglas, who played a former professional baseball player who had to retire early because of an injury. Each of these two characters had lost a parent through death, and the surviving parents fell in love and married. The two characters met at the wedding of their parents and then fell in love themselves, even though they now were step-sister and step-brother. The script included a scene where the two characters dance, which then leads to their first sexual experience together. The dance scene was removed from the movie’s final version, however, which dismayed Bergstein.
The removal of this dance scene from It’s My Turn decisively motivated Bergstein to write the movie Dirty Dancing, in which dancing is the main theme.
Eleanor Bergstein was named after Eleanor Roosevelt, but she was called Baby by her family and friends through her teenage years. She had an older sister named Frances, who was named after Frances Perkins, who was President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945.
In the movie Dirty Dancing, the central family’s name is Houseman, its older daughter is called Lisa, and its younger, 17-year-old daughter is called Baby. After Baby became intimate with Johnny Castle, he asked her what her real name was, and she told him that it was Frances, because her parents had named her after the first female member of the US Cabinet.
In the movie, the older sister Lisa was frivolous, and her main interest was beauty and fashion. She thought she might have a successful career in show business and she gladly participated in the resort hotel’s talent show. The audience sees her rehearsing for her talent-show performance, and it is obvious that she had no performance talent and would never succeed in show business.
In the movie, the younger sister Baby (Frances) was very serious and intended to major in international economic development when she began her studies soon at Mount Holyoke College, a prestigious women’s college. At the beginning of the movie, she was already reading a textbook about the economics of peasant societies. She had a plain appearance and she dressed drably (during the first half of the movie). On one occasion Lisa suggested to Baby that she restyle her (Baby’s) hair in a more attractive appearance, but Baby is not interested. When the hotel owner’s grandson flirted with Baby, she tried to avoid him.
In real life, the older sister Frances was the unemotional, serious, intellectually ambitious sister. Frances eventually became a mathematics professor and served as the basis for the character played by Jill Clayburgh in Bergstein’s movie It’s My Turn.
In real life, the younger sister Eleanor was the frivolous, entertaining sister, always called Baby by everyone who knew her. Eleanor worked as a professional dancer, married a poet, lived a Bohemian life, strove to break into show business, and eventually made a career as writer and producer of chick flicks.
Thus we should appreciate that Eleanor Bergman saw herself in three of the movie’s main female roles, as
The third role is an inside joke for people who know Eleanor Bergman’s real family and who recognize that the two sister’s names and personalities have been switched. Whenever the movie makes fun of the older sister Lisa as a frivolous nitwit who, for example, obviously never will achieve her fantasy of succeeding as a dancer in show business, the movie really is making fun of Eleanor Bergstein herself. And when the movie depicts Baby Houseman as a serious young intellectual, the movie is attributing the real older sister Frances’s most admirable characteristics to the real younger sister Eleanor.
In general, the movie scrambles the two sisters Lisa and Baby and the female dance instructor Penny Johnson. As I have already pointed out, Baby eventually became Penny Johnson. Furthermore, Lisa and Penny fell in love and had sex with the same medical student Robbie Gould. Meanwhile Baby fell in love and has sex with the male dance instructor Johnny Castle, who initially seemed to be the lover and impregnator of Penny. While writing her script, the author Eleanor Bergstein apparently saw herself in each of these three female characters and in each of their situations.
The family’s mother, Marjorie Houseman, plays a role in the film, but because of an unexpected fluke, her role was altered significantly. In real life, Eleanor Bergstein’s real mother, who was a doctor’s wife and a homemaker, had enough money and time to become a superb golfer. On the other hand, Eleanor Bergstein’s real father, who was a busy doctor, always remained a mediocre golfer. Therefore Eleanor Bergstein wrote into the script a scene where both parents are practicing on a putting green. The scene was supposed to display the mother’s competence and give her an opportunity to instruct her husband.
When the scene was filmed, however, the actor playing the father (Jerry Orbach) happened to sink two long puts in a nonchalant manner. Furthermore, the second put swirled around the hole three or four times before it fell in. Since the director Emile Ardonlino enforced a strict rule that all actors must continue to play their roles seriously, even if something unexpected happened, the actor maintained a straight face even though he was supposed to miss both puts.
This unexpected feat, all caught perfectly on film, was so hilarious that Eleanor Bergstein immediately rewrote the dialogue so that the father subsequently instructed the mother condescendingly about her golf technique. One dialogue line that did remain was the father’s remark that if he ever died, the mother probably would immediately marry Arnold Palmer (the most famous professional golfer of that time).
During her running commentary about the film, Eleanor Bergstein told this story about the change of dialogue in the putting scene and apologized to her deceased mother for demeaning her well-deserved reputation as a superb golfer.
Some of the mother’s dialogue might have been removed from the film because the actress who began to play the mother while the movie was being filmed became sick after several days and was replaced. (In one of the first scenes, when all the guests are arriving and unloading their cars, the mother is a blonde, but during the rest of the movie she is a brunette.)
In the scenes where we do see the mother acting, she is restraining the father’s angry reactions to Baby’s actions. For example, in the last scene when Johnny Castle barges into the talent show and grabs Baby and leads her toward the stage, the father rises from his chair to interfere, but the mother grabs the father and pulls him back into his chair.
Thus Eleanor Bergstein intended to present the mother as a strong and capable mother who encouraged her daughters to succeed as independent women. The movie states explicitly, for example, that the younger daughter had been named after the first woman to serve in the US Cabinet (although in the real family the older sister was so named) and was sending this daughter to attend a prestigious women’s college. Thus we should appreciate that the movie’s author Eleanor Bergstein intended to identify the mother with the daughter. This was a mother who wanted to realize her own frustrated professional ambitions through her intellectual, studious, ambitious daughter Frances (the older daughter in the real family).
Thus the author Eleanor Bergstein identifies herself with four of the movie’s female characters:
the younger daughter Baby Houseman,
the dance instructor Penny Johnson,
the older daughter Lisa Houseman,
the mother Marjorie Houseman,
The movie features a fifth female character, named Vivian Pressman. She was a middle-aged female guest, married to a man who spent much of his time at the hotel resort gambling. She took dance lessons from Johnny Castle and had a sexual affair with him. Thus she resembled Baby Houseman, who likewise took dance lessons from and had a sexual affair with Johnny Castle.
(When the actress who was supposed to play the mother had to drop out of the movie because of an illness, she was replaced by the actress, Kelly Bishop, who was supposed originally to play Vivian Presssman. In turn, the role of Vivian Pressman was filled by an assistant choreographer, Miranda Garrison, who had helped train the female “dirty dancers” in the cast. The unexpected but perfect placement of dirty-dancer, sluttish Garrison into the Pressman role is irrefutable proof that the production of the movie Dirty Dancing was inspired, favored and guided miraculously by Mankind’s Loving and Omnipotent God.)
Another similarity is that both Vivian Pressman and Baby Houseman gave money to Johnny Castle for sexual reasons. Vivian Pressman arranged for her gambler husband to give $100 to Johnny Castle for dance lessons, although it is apparent that Vivian Pressman hoped that this monetary payment would enable her own sexual affair with Johnny Castle. On the other hand, Baby Houseman arranged for her father to give $250 to Johnny Castle for Penny Johnson’s abortion.
Eventually, Vivian Pressman was rejected by Johnny Castle and so had a sexual affair instead with the medical student Robbie Gould. The older sister Lisa Houseman intended to have a sexual affair with this same Robbie Gould, but this intention was interrupted when she found Gould and Pressman in the act of sexual intercourse.
Thus, we should appreciate that Eleanor Bergstein identified herself finally with this fifth female role too. This was an older, predatory female that the younger, idealistic females might become. Vivian Pressman competed with the younger sister Baby Houseman for a sexual affair with Johnny Castle and then competed with the older sister Lisa Houseman for a sexual affair with Robby Gould. Although Baby Houseman defeated Vivian Pressman in the competition for Johnny Castle, Pressman subsequently accused Castle of stealing money from her husband and so caused the hotel resort owner Max Kellerman to fire Castle, which seemed to ruin Baby Houseman’s relationships with Castle and with her father.
Vivian Pressman is the movie’s main villain, but the author Eleanor Bergstein identifies with her too. When Bergstein finished writing Dirty Dancing in about 1984, she herself was in her mid-forties, about the same age as the Vivian Pressman character. Vivian Pressman represents the middle-aged Eleanor Bergstein’s enduring, competitive, wicked lust for sexual adventures and experiences with attractive young men.
Thus we should appreciate that Eleanor Bergstein herself identified with the movie’s five main female characters:
the 17-year-old idealistic younger daughter Baby Houseman,
the 25-year-old talented dance instructor Penny Johnson,
the 19-year-old frivolous older daughter Lisa Houseman,
the admirable, faithful middle-aged wife and mother Marjorie Houseman,
the contemptible, adulterous middle-aged wife Vivian Pressman,