Nobody puts Dirty Dancing in a corner! When it premiered 35 years ago this August, this nostalgic coming-of-age tale set at a Catskills summer resort in 1963, became a sensation.
The film raked in $214 million worldwide, with some fans (dubbed the 100-plus club) returning to movie theaters to relive its love story again and again. Jennifer Grey, who played Frances “Baby” Houseman, to Patrick Swayze’s dance instructor Johnny Castle, still marvels at how everything came together. “There’s magic in that movie,” she tells Closer exclusively. “It was this confluence of events that created this lightning-in-a-bottle feeling.” But back in 1987, few had high expectations for Dirty Dancing’s success.
The film’s most recognizable star, Patrick, was advised not to do the movie. Jennifer, meanwhile, was just elated to be cast as the film’s lead over more established actresses Sharon Stone, Winona Ryder and Sarah Jessica Parker. “All of a sudden, I was doing a part that felt it was made for me,” she remembers. “And I was so grateful.” However, filming Dirty Dancing, which had a minuscule budget of $4.5 million, was extremely difficult.
Rain delays were a constant burden on the set in Virginia and North Carolina. The cast and crew endured outdoor temperatures that soared to more than 100 degrees and dipped to 40. Patrick also badly hurt his knee filming the scene where he balances on a log. “It was such a hard movie to shoot,” admits Jennifer. “Everything went wrong. Everything was on a shoestring. People were getting fired and others quit. It was just one thing after another.”
It didn’t help that Patrick and Jennifer, who had previously costarred in 1984’s Red Dawn, didn’t have much chemistry off-camera. Things became so bad that the producer and director forced them to rewatch their original screen test where they lit up the room together. “The same way Baby and Johnny were not supposed to be together, we weren’t a natural match,” admits Jennifer. “And that created a tension.”
There were some happy accidents, too. Patrick admitted the camera caught his “real frustration” in the scene where Baby keeps giggling whenever Johnny runs his fingers down her arm in a dance move. That candid moment wasn’t in the script, but the filmmakers loved it. “When we saw it, we just thought it was so funny that we used it,” screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein said.
By the time Jennifer and Patrick filmed the movie’s climactic leap, they had learned to work together. “Patrick showed up for me,” says Jennifer, who had never practiced the lift previously. “I had to fully leap into his arms, in spite of how terrified I was. He didn’t ever let me down.”
Today, the film still has influence. Jennifer recently titled her memoir Out of the Corner, and Virginia’s Mountain Lake Lodge, which doubled as Kellerman’s, sold out its 2022 Dirty Dancing-themed weekend packages. Patrick, who passed away in 2009, believed the universality of the film’s message was the secret of its success.
“Everybody dreams that somebody would see into their lonely world and see what they’re really like,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing this film communicates, is a relationship, not because of how somebody swings their rear but [because of] what’s inside.”