Feb 6, 2020
ABC's Very Special Dirty Dancing Remake
There are movies that are so bad they’re good. Then there are movies that are so awful they should only be shown as part of enhanced interrogations, and only then in a ticking time bomb scenario. Finally, in its own singular category, there is ABC’s remake of Dirty Dancing, which should simply never be spoken of again.
Or to put it another way, it’s appropriate that I’m writing this review for the Agony Booth, as I felt like I was in the agony booth the entire time I was watching it.
They don’t remake films as TV movies for artistic reasons. But even given that, this was a horrible desecration, made with absolutely no understanding of what made the original click or why it’s still loved.
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So let’s try to be constructive in our criticism, because god knows this is some low-hanging fruit and the Twitterverse has already done its job. The one good thing this mess did was make it clearer than ever why Dirty Dancing (1987) was a breakout hit, even if the remake did this by systematically destroying everything that made it work. Hereafter, I will refer to the real movie as Dirty Dancing and the “remake” as TV Impostor ’17. Let’s examine what went wrong.
Dirty Dancing tells a specific story. It hit on universal elements: falling in love for the first time, sexual awakening, coming of age. What it did not do was try to tell everyone’s story. Dirty Dancing is the story of a young woman’s summer of love in 1963–the year she went from being Baby to becoming Frances.
The very first line–voiceover narration by Baby as a car is heading toward Kellerman’s–tells us about that year. She explicitly reminds us that it was both before the Kennedy assassination and the Beatles’ first appearance on American TV. Within the first minutes, we receive more information from dialogue that sounds natural even while it functions to further set the time period. When Baby is introduced to Neil, Max Kellerman’s grandson, her father mentions she’s going to join the Peace Corps after college. It’s said with pride, establishing not only her plans, but that she’s daddy’s girl. Neil tells her (which may be true, or maybe he’s trying to impress) that he’s going down south with the Freedom Riders. There are also references to the war in “Southeast Asia” scattered into the conversation.
For some inexplicable reason, the TV remake is set in the summer of 1964. This is after Kennedy had been killed and the Beatles had taken America by storm. But that isn’t all. The war was heating up, and closer to home, three young Freedom Riders–one black, one a white Catholic, and one an East Coast New York Jew from a family similar to Baby’s–had been killed that June in the South. Their bodies wouldn’t be found ’til early August. The idea of the family blithely singing pop songs on the radio in the summer of 1964 is highly unlikely. The car radio would have been blasting news about that search or the investigation.
Granted, nobody loves Dirty Dancing for the politics, but getting those details right was part of what made the movie work. And shouldn’t it be the job of whomever wrote the screenplay for the remake to do a little research? In TV Impostor ’17 , these references are eliminated, and instead Baby (played by Abigail Breslin) is reading The Feminine Mystique. Baby in the original was not a housewife in need of rescue, the audience for that book. She was already planning a life for herself that went beyond that. It’s not the book she would be reading. It’s as though the writers thought all those references in the original would be confusing or maybe controversial, and they wanted a simple statement like: “Girls can be more than housewives.” Either that, or their only knowledge of the ’60s comes from watching Mad Men, and they used The Feminine Mystique because Betty Draper read it, and they thought the audience would “get” it because it was a thing that had been referenced in a previous TV show.
While Kellerman’s appears similar in both versions, there’s one major difference. It’s been ethnically neutered. De-Judiazed. Did someone think the occasional Yiddishisms were “too ethnic” and needed to be excised like most of Jennifer Grey’s original nose? The end result is the same as what happened after Grey had her nose fixed. What was unique is lost.
By 1987, when Dirty Dancing opened, most of the great resorts of the Borscht Belt were already closed, and movie audiences outside of New York wouldn’t have known much about the nuances, history, and mores of the Catskill resorts. That didn’t stop the film from becoming a classic. Prior information was not a requirement. Even a Midwestern goy could follow along. Details were skillfully dropped in. The clientele had Jewish names and many had accents. There was a loudspeaker activity announcement that included a talk by a rabbi about the Talmudic roots of Catskill comics.
Just as in sci-fi and fantasy, “world-building” is important even in a summer romance movie. If the world you build is authentic, the actions that occur in it will be believable.
Art dealing with a specific ethnic experience will resonate differently for the people who have shared that experience than it will for the “outsiders” who haven’t. If a piece works, everyone will feel the universality of the story. Audiences will identify with a group even if they aren’t members of that group. This is why white audiences cheer at the climax of Get Out. This is why Puerto Rican Lin-Manual Miranda surprised his wife by using “L’Chaim” from Fiddler on the Roof at his wedding. Stripping or downplaying the ethnicity in Dirty Dancing is like presenting an all-white version of Fences.
Jewish Catskill resorts evolved because Christian-owned resorts were “restricted” and didn’t allow Jewish guests. It was very rare, to the point of unheard of, that Christians vacationed in Jewish resorts. In Dirty Dancing, Vivian Pressman, the older woman who likes her dancing lessons to have a happy ending, is a married Jewish lady. Her husband stays in the city to work during the week, but joins her on weekends to play cards. In TV Impostor ’17, Vivian mentions giving up something for Lent, a Catholic ritual. The only way a Catholic woman was going to be at Kellerman’s is maybe, just maybe, if she had a Jewish husband, and even then it would have been something remarked upon. Intermarriage was a big deal. However, in TV Impostor ’17, Vivian is not only Catholic, but also divorced. The divorce nonsense seems to be there so that Marjorie Houseman can get the idea she’d be better off without Jake because sure why not, isn’t meeting a divorced person the number one reason for divorce? But places like Kellerman’s were for families, and a divorced woman with no kids on the prowl would not have been welcome. As for a divorced man-hungry shiksa? Max would never have stood for it.
While that particular wrong note might not be noticed by 90% of the audience, the other 10% of the audience hear it as loudly as a tray being dropped in the dining room (an event which, by the way, is usually followed by applause and shouts of “Mazel tov”). But beyond that, de-Jewing the story changes other elements and has a cumulative effect of making everything that happens less believable.
While the Housemans aren’t portrayed as not-Jewish in TV Impostor ’17, removing any signifiers to their ethnicity doesn’t universalize the characters–it muddles them. Jake’s telling Baby that he gave up the piano because he decided to “put away childish things” makes no sense in a culture where accomplishments like the ability to play an instrument as well as to be a doctor are celebrated. These are New York Jews, not Midwestern fundies who think music is of the devil.
The Housemans would have had a piano because all upwardly mobile Jewish families at the time had pianos. All of the kids took lessons. If Jake could play, he might not have had a lot of opportunity to practice, but his girls would have known. Part of the reason everyone comes around at the end when Baby demonstrates her newfound dancing chops is because this is a culture that respects hard work and talent.
The beauty of Dirty Dancing is how compact it was, with no extraneous subplots, which isn’t to say there weren’t hints of other things going on. Marjorie tells Jake that the kids are becoming adults and she and Jake need to adjust, but their adjustment isn’t the point of the story, and both Kelly Bishop and Jerry Orbach, who were absolutely present in their performances, imply that this change is huge for them simply by the way they inhabit their characters: by acting. The look of pain on Orbach’s face tells us more than all the dialogue in TV Impostor ’17.
Debra Messing and a badly miscast Bruce Greenwood hit their marks and speak clearly, but all the extra scenes and talk don’t give us as much sense of who they are as we had with much less in the original.
We also could certainly have done without sister Lisa’s interracial romance. Granted, if Dirty Dancing was unfair to anyone, it was the older sister, but it was Baby’s story from Baby’s perspective and Lisa was kind of an idiot in both versions, though at least in the original, she was a recognizable type of idiot. Not to belabor the point, but Dirty Dancing (the real one) was perfectly cast even in the small roles. Jane Brucker managed to almost make us feel sorry for Lisa, even as she pursued that good-for-nothing Robby. In TV Impostor ’17, Lisa’s romance with Marco not only felt beyond improbable, but the only explanation for it is to imagine the writers thinking, “Let’s make this more like Hairspray!”
More improvements that weren’t included turning Johnny Castle (played by Colt Prattes) into Danny Zuko from Grease–a former juvenile delinquent and a dyslexic? That felt like a very special episode. Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote Dirty Dancing, grew up going to places like Kellerman’s and then interviewed people like Johnny before writing the screenplay. She listened to real people and tried to get them right. The reality is that we do have poor people in America and their options are limited. It’s difficult to pursue your dreams of artistic glory when you lack a trust fund. Johnny lives hand to mouth, not because he lacks confidence, but because he doesn’t have the privileged life and the options Baby does. Part of the point of Dirty Dancing is that Baby meets people like Johnny for the first time and experiences their reality. This message gets mixed up in TV Impostor ’17 where Baby social workers him, and teaches him the most important lesson any after-school special can offer: If you believe in yourself, you can do anything!
In Dirty Dancing, Johnny is changed by Baby. He sees her courage firsthand when she stands up for him and tells her father and Kellerman that he couldn’t have stolen the wallet because he was with her the entire night. It means something to him. It’s her willingness to do that that brings him back at the end to show off his kind of dancing, and to take Baby out of the corner, to acknowledge her as Frances, an adult, and to allow her to shine. It’s a contained ending in no need of improvement. It doesn’t matter what either one of them does after that. Our story is complete.
Aside from plot, the heart of Dirty Dancing is the dancing and the dirty, by which I mean sex. Was the dancing any better in the remake? God, no. In the real deal, once Baby decides to be Johnny’s partner at the Sheldrake, it’s all dance, all the time. There’s music on the soundtrack, but very little dialogue for a sequence that runs more than ten minutes. We watch Johnny and Baby fall in love through their movements the same way Fred and Ginger did, only with more close-ups focusing on specific body parts: Johnny’s hand gliding on Baby’s waist, which makes her laugh because she’s ticklish, and annoys Johnny because he’s a professional. We watch a story being told through movement, like a ballet.
There’s a beautiful flow to the entire rehearsal sequence which culminates with the performance at the Sheldrake. In TV Impostor ’17, there’s not only added and unnecessary dialogue and subplots, but there’s singing. Once singing comes in, reality goes out, which is why most musical films these days are Disney cartoons.
We’re set up to accept singing more readily in a stage piece, and had they done a live stage version, it might have worked, but even then it can’t be random. The setup for Baby’s arrival at the staff party (the watermelons) is almost identical in both versions. In the real Dirty Dancing, Johnny and Penny enter and start dancing their way. It’s as though Johnny has just taken off a tight pair of shoes or a tie he had to wear in an office job. Now he’s with his peeps and he can be himself.
In his Danny Zuko-like entrance in TV Impostor ’17, Johnny starts singing like a Broadway lead. However, unlike a Broadway musical, he’s not singing an original song that moves the plot along or gives us some insight into his character. He’s performing. All it does is take us out of the moment.
There’s a later scene in Dirty Dancing, a cha-cha lesson post-Sheldrake, after Johnny and Baby are sleeping together. They lip-sync and mime a song while dancing. It’s playful and fun. This is what two people who are really comfortable with each other would do. It’s replaced in TV Impostor ’17 with Penny and Baby rehearsing prior to Baby’s performance. Penny spontaneously breaks out into song, belting it out like it’s opening night, a highly unlikely thing to do in the middle of a rehearsal. Lip syncing might sound goofy, but it’s real, which is why it worked.
For any production of Dirty Dancing to work, Baby has to be credible at the Sheldrake. She has to look like a dancer, and she and Johnny need to look like they’re partners. Jennifer Grey pulled it off. Abigail Breslin doesn’t, and she’s certainly not helped by her lack of chemistry with Colt Prattes. Prattes probably comes off better than anyone else because at least he can dance, but the Broadway style of the choreography takes away from the realism and historical accuracy, and unlike Patrick Swayze, he never gives us a sense of the character as more than a type. As for the non-dancing part of Breslin’s performance, she doesn’t have a sense of the character. She’s playing a single emotion: girlish innocence.
And what of the dirty? By which I mean the sex? The original is all about summer heat. Not only do Pratts and Breslin lack chemistry on the dance floor, they lack any kind of chemistry whatsoever. But beyond that, the original let you see and feel the summer, nature, the lushness of the lake, and a time when everything was blossoming, and wet. There was a lot of wet. There’s no sex at the lake, but the lift at the lake is clearly meant to be a metaphor, and both their bodies gleam in the water.
Grey’s white clothing looks almost translucent, and we see the outline of her taut breasts. In the remake, Baby is wearing enough layers that it’s a miracle Johnny can lift her when they’re wet. We get a brief look at Pratt’s not-historically accurate six-pack, but he’s standing several feet from Breslin in the shot. It could be an ad for gym. In a story of sexual awakening, Breslin projects girlish innocence and intensity, with Coates as the Tiger Beat object of her crush.
But some good can come from this fiasco. If you haven’t seen TV Impostor ’17, you’ve been sufficiently warned not to. If you’ve never seen Dirty Dancing, the one and only, you can stream starting now. Believe me, you’ll have the time of your life.