As the daughter of Broadway star Joel Grey, Jennifer Gray caught the acting bug early on, at age 6. It was then that her father originated the role of the skilled and menacing emcee in 1966’s “Cabaret” onstage. As Jennifer Gray writes in her keenly observed memoir, “Out of the Corner.” , his Saturday treat was to sit in his dressing room while he transformed with false eyelashes, lip liner and Dippity-do gel.
“Every one of his features was reinvented from the ground up,” she wrote. “This self-drawn mask erased all traces of my father as I knew him.”
Those admiring words haunt the rest of his story, as Grey’s own stardom arc was notoriously complicated by the reinvention, so to speak, of his own traits.
Gray shot to fame in her mid-twenties with a pair of films that became touchstones of the 1980s. She was the perfectly cocky sister in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” in 1986, and a year later she was adorable, endearing and sexy Baby, queen of the mambo of the Catskills, in “Dirty Dancing”. This surprise success, associating her with idol Patrick Swayze, transformed her.
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“I was America’s sweetheart, which you think would be the key to unlocking all my hopes and dreams,” she wrote. “But it didn’t happen that way.”
Gray recounts the stagnation of his career with a wild and engaging wit. But the pain is clear, and it has to do with the extent to which her Hollywood value depends on her features and the price she paid to polish her face.
“On the one hand,” she wrote, “there didn’t seem to be a surplus of roles for actresses who looked like me.” That is to say, Jewish. Or rather a little too Jewish. So she did what so many Jews had done for ages – what both of her parents had done, in fact: Gray had his nose done. She was almost 30, a celebrity, but without a job. She told his doctor not to drastically alter his appearance, and he didn’t. Hit! Gray began to be hired again. When a medical problem arose about a year later, another surgery was needed – and the doctor wasn’t so careful this time. Now her life has really changed, because she had become unrecognizable.
Even Grey’s dad told him (with what sounds like brutal composure), “I think it’d probably be best if you didn’t go out in public for a while.”
“Out of the Corner” is meant to be a story of triumph, and it is, once Gray comes out of the hell of a career crash. Swayze’s character Johnny proclaimed on “Dirty Dancing” that “no one puts Baby in a corner,” but that’s where Gray ended up in real life. Only. Rejected, she tells us, by an ultra-conformist industry, and not helped by its own tendency towards self-destruction. She takes us on a wild ride through her starry youth (belt with Stephen Sondheim), her starry coke fits and her many bad romances, starring Johnny Depp, Matthew Broderick and a creepy zillionaire who piloted teenage Gray to Rio, where she fell into a bizarre situation involving her comedian idol Gilda Radner.
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Nothing, however, comes close to the torment of what she calls “Schnozzageddon.” The irony of the thing: “I had taken a certain pride in being an original actress, in not looking like all the other actresses.” Just like his fans. Was her “physical imperfection” the key to the audience’s connection with her? Maybe. She avoids googling herself, but still, she says, the outrage over her appearance has gone too far.
“Isn’t there a statute of limitations on how long people think they’re entitled to ownership of my face? …Overnight, I was basically reduced to a punchline.
Gray had never wanted to be an actor. But barely out of her twenties, she had no job, no back-up plan. What followed was a long period of introspection. She got sober and found an acting coach and a husband. (The marriage lasted 20 stable years.) She discovered happiness and meaning later in adulthood, not as an actress, 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 her lumbar disc ruptured near the end. America’s darling, once again. She hadn’t danced seriously for 20 years, she wrote. But she did what dancers do: she worked her tail. She honed her innate talent. She dug deep into a passion for physical expression and music.
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She also went through biting pain. This wound feels like a metaphor for a hard-earned 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 courage it takes to make it happen. Double standards. So much about looks. Those sex scenes that Gray had to shoot without warning, without a closed set.
The agent who hooked her up with a pre-famous Depp, over Grey’s objections, hoping to nab him as a client. Gray doesn’t come right out and connect the dots like that, but you can’t walk away from his book without being appalled at the way Hollywood works.
But the message of hope in this book is that the bad things have been outweighed by the good things Grey, 62, is now relishing — including working on a ‘Dirty Dancing’ sequel. The nose was nothing. His real transformation came from within.
Sarah L. Kaufman is the Washington Post’s dance critic and author of “The Art of Grace.”
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