Thirty-five years on from her biggest hit, Dirty Dancing, Jennifer Gray is an open book. Her candid new memoir, Out of the Corner, covers her Hollywood youth, fast fame, frequent relationships, abortions and, yes, multiple cosmetic surgeries with a raw and unfiltered honesty. Gray suggests that memoir-writing should be taught in schools. “It’s a great way to look at your life and question your own narrative,” she says. “Maybe the worst thing to happen to you wasn’t the worst, or some good came from it? I think everybody should try it.”
Grey’s story takes some telling. After finding early success in the mid-80s with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Dirty Dancing, Grey’s upward trajectory was suddenly derailed by a car crash in Ireland that occurred between the latter film’s completion and release. Her then boyfriend and Ferris Bueller co-star, Matthew Broderick, was behind the wheel; the car they were traveling in collided head on with another, killing two women. Broderick was convicted of careless driving and Gray was left with severe whiplash that would affect her for years to come. Soon after, a whirlwind rebound period saw her engaged to Broderick and Johnny Depp within the same month. In the 90s, surgery designed to correct a small imperfection from a previous rhinoplasty operation left her unrecognizable.
Grey’s mother, Jo Wilder, was an actor and singer who left a showbiz career for motherhood. Her father was actor, singer and dancer Joel Grey, who won an Oscar in 1972 for his performance in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, and famously came out as gay decades later, much to the shock of his only daughter. Grey’s paternal grandfather was the hit Borsch Belt musician and comic Mickey Katz.
As a teenager, Gray found refuge in the party scene. Manhattan’s Studio 54, booze, drugs and a string of intense relationships defined an adolescence that, in hindsight, even Gray admits was reckless. Eventually she entered the family business, securing parts in films by Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius and John Hughes before a role that was seemingly written just for her ushered Gray out of the corner and into the spotlight.
Dirty Dancing has since become a coming-of-age classic. Set in 1963, it stars Gray as “Baby” Houseman, the youngest daughter of a wealthy Jewish family vacationing at a Catskills resort. When she falls for Patrick Swayze’s bad-boy dance instructor, Johnny Castle, this hip duo defy society’s rules to revel in a radical new era of pop culture.
“When I read the script there was so much that felt like it was made for me,” says Grey. She filmed the movie when she was just 27. “I’m thinking: ‘Oh my God, the Catskills, my grandfather, I love to dance but I’m not great at it …’ It also felt like a bit of a time warp. I was playing a virgin and I didn’t even remember what it was like to be an innocent person.”
Dirty Dancing features a subplot that is unfortunately still relevant; Johnny’s former partner Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) struggles to gain access to a safe abortion. “I was brought up in this extremely liberal feminist household,” Gray says. “Social justice was front and center.
“It was unthinkable to us in the 80s that there was ever a time where women didn’t have the constitutional right to choose whether they wanted to bear children. What we’ve been watching this year is almost like an avalanche. You think: ‘This can’t be happening.’ When I wrote in the book about how I had abortions, I remember my editor saying, ‘Maybe you should take that out.’ I said ‘No. I won’t take it out but I’m not going to get into it, either.’ Nobody wants to have an abortion. It’s a heavy thing.”
Dirty Dancing also gave us the image of Swayze holding Gray aloft during the film’s climactic dance finale. In fact, thanks to an awkward first encounter on Milius’s 1984 action film Red Dawn, Gray and Swayze didn’t exactly get on. “Patrick was a really good guy and really cared about me. He was always there for me and I would’ve done anything for him … but we were also a little oil and water,” says Grey, suggesting that this “crackle” ultimately added to the film’s onscreen chemistry. “The difference was beautiful because it created a kind of static,” she adds. “There’s a push and pull. We were both trying to assert ourselves.”
Funnily enough, it was the lift that Gray was most nervous to shoot, even more so than her love scenes. “I’d never done it before that moment,” she says. “They had three cameras going and we only did it once. It was ridiculous because I couldn’t rehearse it. I couldn’t make myself do it and I hated myself for not trying it.
“There was something really emotional about it, too. You can see it on my face: I’m like: ‘Oh my God, I fucking did it!’”
Out of the Corner is published by Ballantine Books