Jennifer Grey knows you care about her nose
In her new memoir, Jennifer Grey leads with her nose.
For the first 29 years of her life, the “Dirty Dancing” star’s trademark proboscis was her pesky “friend,” demanding three-quarter profile headshots. It was the feature that prompted her mother to call her “interesting-looking.” Grey thought her nose, which she resisted “fixing” for years, was what kept her from reaching the next level of her career – or, to put a finer point on it – kept her from being cast as someone “other than a Jew.”
Reading these reflections in “Out of the Corner,” a negative that can’t be proven arises. If Grey hadn’t done the “unfathomable” in the late 1980s, changing her nose “after becoming famous,” would she have been an A-lister? More interesting questions, which go unconsidered, also loom: had she never gone under the knife, could the “look” of Hollywood actors have shifted around her? Could she have played non-Jews, or could the types of Jewish roles on offer have become more fulfilling and complex?
There are no easy answers – not least because the narrative surrounding Grey’s infamous nose job is often rendered incomplete. In an opening prologue – a magazine-ready excerpt – she explains that she in fact had two procedures. The first gave her nose a “tip,” and actually made her nose bigger, affording her an aquiline profile you can find in stills for the 1992 film “Wind.” (Grey notes with no undue satisfaction that her character in the film, the first woman to sail in the America’s Cup, was not Jewish.) It was when she went back to the doctor to have some cartilage shaved down that the surgeon took some liberties that spelled the end of her star’s rise.
“In the world’s eyes, I was no longer me,” Grey recounts, cycling through the shame of people’s misunderstandings that she was running from her heritage or foolishly, vainly, making a mid-career mistake, right when audiences were getting accustomed to her face.
You may not know that Grey (whose father, Joel, changed his name from Katz, the last name of his klezmer parodist father, Mickey) was partaking in a family tradition when she did her nose. On her father’s side it was a third-generation alteration and a second on her mother’s. While Grey thought that she was living in a more enlightened moment, she frames her ultimate choice as a practical one.
Her dad, she reasons, became iconic (and won an Oscar) in the role of the Emcee in “Cabaret,” a role that – at least until Sam Mendes had his way with him in a 1993 revival – was decidedly un-Jewish. In her mind the plastic surgery facilitated his casting, before the many layers of makeup and slicked-back Jew-y curls did.
In making her point, Grey recalls the moment in Bob Fosse’s film version of the musical where her dad, as the ghoulish Weimar performer, dances with a female gorilla, singing about society’s disapproval of their relationship. At the end, the Emcee snarls, “If you could see her through my eyes… she vouldn’t look Jewish at all.”
Grey rightly says that at that moment, when the gorilla is revealed to stand in for a Jew, “the audience realizes the insidiousness of normalizing this conceit: that Jews are the definition of ugly.”
Yet there are times where one wonders how Grey may have internalized this idea herself. While there’s no disguising her Jewish pride – though she insists her family “felt more powerfully tethered to show business, worshipful of talent and artistry, than to our Jewishness,” as if they weren’t in this case related – she often has fixed ideas of what Jews look like. Upset that her nose was a “problem” for casting directors, if not herself, she nonetheless is guilty of sorting attractiveness and Jewishness into discrete boxes.
Her onetime fiancé Matthew Broderick certainly resembles his Irish-American dad, but saying “on the outside, he had the boyish, Irish good looks; on the inside he was more of a cranky old Jew” creates an unnecessary false binary. If we wanna talk typecasting, Broderick is plenty Jewish-looking – at least enough to have played Neil Simon’s alter ego twice.
Grey’s memoir, it should be said, is not all about her nose, however conspicuous a motif it may be.
A punchy, candid writer rarely short of a cute turn of phrase or at a loss for a nostalgic name brand, her book is brimming with behind-the-scenes details on “Dirty Dancing” and (later) “Dancing with the Stars.”
It’s baffling to see the confluence of events in her life: She was sexually assaulted the day she got her braces off (and the day Nixon resigned); she went to the premiere of “Dirty Dancing” just two weeks after a car crash in Ireland, in which two women died and Matthew Broderick was hospitalized; breaking off her engagement with Johnny Depp and her relationship with an agent a day before her 29th birthday, and two days before her first “fine-tuning.” If you were impressed with her winning turn on “Dancing with the Stars,” wait’ll you hear about the major neck surgery she had weeks before – or the slipped disk she suffered just before the finale.
Threaded throughout is a bisl of Yiddish, a primer on her “superanxious” epigenetics, even a look at Hal Prince’s Christmas parties (mostly Jewish guests; Sondheim on piano). While written from a place of contentment, a nose-shaped tragedy casts a shadow. It’s not just that Grey’s career went off-piste, it’s that losing her nose invited the judgment of the world. That is, when she hadn’t become invisible – unrecognized in the grocery store, on red carpets, in casting offices – while remaining fundamentally herself.
With all due grace, Grey accepts her fate, perceived by others as “willfully stripping away the only thing that made me special,” as a lately realized blessing, allowing her a life of limited fame that she says she prefers.
Fans may still feel the loss, not just of Grey, but what she may have ushered in.
The parameters of her Jewish casting were never immovable, even within her own slim filmography (see “The Cotton Club” and “Red Dawn”). And should she have remained visible and influential within Jewish roles, perhaps we’d live in a world where Jenny Slate is playing Mrs. Maisel and Sarah Silverman has a bit less to gripe about.
But that world was never Grey’s job to deliver. With this book, we can instead thank her for what she did do and what she’s willing to share – while hoping against hope that her encore in the “Dirty Dancing” sequel is better than “Havana Nights.”