As the daughter of Broadway star Joel Grey, Jennifer Grey caught the acting bug early, at age 6. That’s when her father originated the role of the slick, menacing Master of Ceremonies in “Cabaret” onstage in 1966. As Jennifer Grey writes in her keenly observed memoir, “Out of the Corner,” her Saturday treat was to sit in his dressing room while he transformed himself with false eyelashes, lip pencil and Dippity-do gel.
“Every one of his features was reinvented from scratch,” she writes. “This self-drawn mask blotted out any trace of my dad as I knew him.”
Those admiring words haunt the rest of her story, because Grey’s own arc of celebrity has been famously complicated by the reinvention, so to speak, of her own features.
Grey rose to fame in her mid-20s with a pair of films that became touchstones of the 1980s. She was the perfectly snotty sister in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” in 1986, and a year later, she was adorable, endearing, sexy Baby, mambo queen of the Catskills, in “Dirty Dancing.” That surprise hit, pairing her with heartthrob Patrick Swayze, transformed her.
“I was America’s sweetheart, which you would think would be the key to unlocking all my hopes and dreams,” she writes. “But it didn’t go down that way.”
Grey chronicles the flatlining of her career with savage and engaging wit. But the pain is clear, and it is tied up with how much of her Hollywood value hinged on her features, and the price she paid for tweaking her face.
“For one thing,” she writes, “there didn’t seem to be a surplus of parts for actresses who looked like me.” That is, Jewish. Or rather, a bit too Jewish. So she did what so many Jews have done for ages — what both her parents had done, in fact: Grey got a nose job. She was almost 30, a celebrity, yet out of work. She told her doctor not to radically alter her looks, and he didn’t. Success! Grey started getting hired again. When a medical problem arose about a year later, another surgery was necessary — and the doctor wasn’t so careful this time. Now her life truly tanked, because she’d become unrecognizable.
Even Grey’s father told her (with what feels like brutal coolness), “I think it would probably be best if you just didn’t go out in public for a while.”
“Out of the Corner” is meant to be a tale of triumph, and it is, once Grey climbs out of career-crash hell. Swayze’s character, Johnny, famously proclaimed in “Dirty Dancing” that “nobody puts Baby in a corner,” but that’s where Grey ended up in real life. Alone. Rejected, as she tells us, by an ultra-conformist industry, and not helped by her own tendency toward self-destruction. She takes us on a wild ride through her star-studded youth (belting show tunes with Stephen Sondheim), her star-studded coke binges, and her many bad romances, featuring Johnny Depp, Matthew Broderick and a creepy zillionaire who flew the teenage Grey to Rio, where she tumbled into a bizarro situation involving her comic idol Gilda Radner.
Nothing, however, comes close to the torment of what she dubs “Schnozzageddon.” The irony of it: “I’d taken a certain pride in being an original, not looking like every other actress.” So had her fans. Was her “physical imperfection” key to the public’s connection to her? Perhaps. She avoids Googling herself, but still, she says, the outrage over her appearance has gone too far.
“Is there no statute of limitations on how long people think they are entitled to ownership of my face? … Overnight, I was basically reduced to a punchline.”
Grey had only ever wanted to be an actor. But barely out of her 20s, she had no work, no backup plan. What followed was a prolonged period of self-reflection. She got sober, and found an acting coach and a husband. (The marriage lasted 20 stable years.) She discovered happiness and meaning in later adulthood, not as an actor, but as a mother — and a dancer. At 41, she gave birth to a daughter, and at 50 she won Season 11 of “Dancing With the Stars,” despite rupturing a lumbar disc near the end. America’s sweetheart, all over again. She hadn’t danced seriously in 20 years, she writes. But she did what dancers do: She worked her tail off. She polished her innate talent. She dug deep into a passion for physical expression and music.
She also barreled through bullet-biting pain. That injury seems like a metaphor for a hard-won life. Grey’s memoir is interesting not only for her journey out of darkness but also for what her story reveals about what women encounter in the entertainment business, and the fortitude required to make it. The double standards. So much riding on appearance. Those sex scenes Grey had to shoot without warning, without a closed set.
The agent who set her up with a pre-famous Depp, over Grey’s objections, in the hope of nabbing him as a client. Grey doesn’t come right out and connect the dots like this, but you can’t come away from her book without being aghast at how Hollywood operates.
But the message of hope in this book is that the bad stuff was outweighed by the good things that Grey, 62, is relishing now — including working on a sequel to “Dirty Dancing.” The nose was nothing. Her true transformation came from within.
Sarah L. Kaufman is The Washington Post’s dance critic and author of “The Art of Grace.”
Out of the Corner
By Jennifer Grey
Ballantine. 352 pp. $30
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