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JACK MATHEWS

'Dirty Dancing' Steps Back Into Nostalgia

September 09, 1987|JACK MATHEWS

What was it about Eleanor Bergstein's pitch for "Dirty Dancing" that got producer Linda Gottlieb's attention? What was it about the script that convinced director Emile Ardolino he had to do it? What is it about the finished movie that has convinced so many film goers that they had to see it?

The answer is right up there on the marquee. It's the dirty dancing itself.

"Eleanor and I were having lunch when she told me she wanted to do a dance story about two sisters," said Gottlieb, who was then developing projects as an East Coast producer for MGM. "She talked about a Catskills resort and tango dancing in the early '60s.

"Then she said, 'I used to do dirty dancing, but that has nothing to do with this story.' I dropped my fork. I said, 'Dirty Dancing' as a title is worth a million dollars."

More than that. In its first 17 days of release, "Dirty Dancing" has grossed $16.5 million, finding a spot for itself in the busiest movie summer in history and launching the new movie division of Vestron Video with a hit.

For the major studios, "Dirty Dancing" becomes one more fish that got away. Gottlieb talked MGM into financing and developing the script, but before it could go into production, there was a change in studio management and the new regime didn't want it.

Nobody else did, either. Gottlieb said she shopped "Dirty Dancing" everywhere she knew, including all of the major studios, only to face quick rejection at each stop.

"They all regarded it as soft, small and old-fashioned," she said. "They never saw the movie in it that I saw."

Gottlieb, who had left MGM to co-write a book ("When Smart People Fail") about turning defeat into success, said she took the script to Vestron after reading in the New York Times that the Stamford, Conn.-based company planned to begin producing its own movies.

She said Vestron quickly agreed to finance "Dirty Dancing," but only if she could guarantee bringing it in for $5 million, about half of what she said it would have cost to film with union crews in New York. Gottlieb, who had had 16 years' experience developing and producing educational films, finally hired non-union crews and got the movie done--for $5.2 million--in right-to-work states Virginia and North Carolina.

Emile Ardolino read the script for "Dirty Dancing" while on jury duty in New York. It made his day.

"I loved the period, I loved the music of the period," Ardolino said. "I knew I could relate to the movement, the body language of the dancing. But more than anything, I liked the characters. . . . It was a musical love story that was rooted in reality."

Ardolino and Gottlieb had to overcome Ardolino's image as a dance director. Although he had directed several dramatic programs for television, the bulk of his credits were associated with dance--28 programs for PBS' "Dance in America," specials featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev, and the remarkable "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin'," which won a 1984 Academy Award as best feature documentary.

Ardolino said that he had moved to Santa Monica four years ago to try to make the transition from television to features. He was getting tired of organizing images for "that small box." But he went back to New York to do "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin'," which chronicled the efforts of Jacques d'Amboise of the New York City Ballet and the dozens of non-dancing kids that he prepared for one night of hoofing on Broadway.

Gottlieb said that she had written a rave letter to the producers of "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin' " when she first saw it, then went back and took another look when someone suggested Ardolino as a candidate to direct "Dirty Dancing."

"It was so clear from 'He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin' that Emile had the fundamental sensibility for this movie," Gottlieb said. "It was very warm and very funny. He never made fun of anybody. He understood movement and the joy of learning. All of that was essential to 'Dirty Dancing.' "

Gottlieb said she also watched all of Ardolino's dramatic television programs, which included Joseph Papp productions starring Meryl Streep and William Hurt, and her decision was made.

"When you hire a director, what you get writ large is the director's own sense of taste," she said. "What we got with Emile went way beyond his love of dance. He has a kindness, a gentleness, and all of that comes through in the picture."

Perhaps most important to Gott-lieb was Ardolino's understanding of dance as an expression of sexuality. "Dirty Dancing" didn't come by its name accidentally.

"Dirty dancing is partner dancing," Gottlieb said. "All the elements are like the foreplay of sex. Learning to dance is the central metaphor of the film."

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