Movies We Like
Saturday Night Fever
At first glance what may appear to be a cultural relic from the disco '70s is actually a deeply sensitive star-making vehicle for the young John Travolta as a Brooklyn hot dog who is slowly realizing that everything in the world he knows - his unemployed and jealous father, his gooney Brooklyn buds, his life as the king stud on the dance floor, everything around him - is all bullshit.
Who would guess that a little script by Norman Wexler (Serpico) based on a New York Magazine article by Nik Cohn, "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," would be at the center of a cultural phenomenon? (The piece was said to be based on his reporting of real life characters he met in Brooklyn, but later it was revealed he made the whole thing up.) Everything about Saturday Night Fever became hot; Travolta’s white suit started a fashion trend, discotheques went from being an urban, ethnic or Euro trend to being found on main street in the middle of America. But hottest of all was the soundtrack, selling 20 million copies. Most was produced and performed by the Australian family band, The Bee Gees, the one time Beatles wanna-bees. The soundtrack scored them hit single after hit single, including "Staying Alive," "Night Fever," "How Deep Is Your Love," and "If I Can’t Have You" sung by Yvonne Elliman (who played Mary Magdalene in the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar).
Playing the 19-year old Tony Manero, paint salesman by day and dance floor diva on the weekends, was John Travolta, then known for playing sweathog Vinnie Barbarino in the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, as well as for the TV movie The Boy In The Plastic Bubble and as one of the high school creeps in Carrie. Saturday Night Fever would earn him a well-deserved Oscar nomination (losing to Richard Dreyfuss for The Goodbye Girl, a performance and movie that have not lasted the test of time). With all the acclaim he would follow Fever with another knockout performance in the musical comedy Grease. Even with a couple of interesting roles in Urban Cowboy and Blow Out, he would famously squander his career with some of the worst films of their era (Moment By Moment, The Experts and the "so terrible it’s almost good" Fever sequel, Staying Alive, directed by muscle lug Sylvester Stallone). It wasn’t until '94 that he had his big comeback (and another Oscar nomination) for Pulp Fiction and, of course, he has since squandered all the good will and gone back to being a ham in bad movies.
But as Tony, Travolta found an iconic role. He struts his way through the film, brooding and preening himself. At home he deals with a cranky Italian father (but he loves his Momma and little Sis). When his old man slaps his head Tony delivers the great line, "You know, I work on my hair a long time and you hit it. He hits my hair." His bedroom wall is lined with posters of Farrah Fawcett, Bruce Lee, Stallone as Rocky, and Al Pacino in Serpico who an admiring woman at the disco tells him he looks like (this makes him preen a little longer in front of the mirror). But beyond his confident facade he is actually a guy not satisfied with his world and in search of more, but doesn’t know it yet.
His friends are a bunch of sexist pigs (and by most standards even rapists) except for the wimpy Bobby (Barry Miller, later great as the twisted comedian Ralph in Fame and as Jeroboam in The Last Temptation Of Christ) who is dealing with his (never seen) pregnant girlfriend. Though his worshipping dance partner, Annette (Donna Pescow, Angie of the short lived early '80s sitcom Angie), is constantly throwing herself at him, it turns him off. It’s when he meets the more upscale "ballerina" (not really, but she does wear a leotard and seems to practice ballet moves) Stephanie, played excellently by Karen Lynn Gorney, who sadly never seemed to have any kind of film career after, that he begins to see his life through different eyes, her eyes. She is striving to leave the Brooklyn hood and reinvent herself in Manhattan. Their relationship is quite powerful and the centerpiece of the film. At first Tony treats her like just another disco chick, but slowly he comes to admire her drive to grow.
Tony and Annette’s friendship is one of the places the film breaks so many of the usual rules. Their relationship is never consummated with carnal knowledge. After Tony gives up trying to score with her he realizes she is a better friend than any of the other clowns he hangs with. And the film becomes about how a guy like Tony can come to be friends with a "girl" and therefore become a better man. It separates itself from other NY films of the era, good ones like The Wanderers or Mean Streets, that are more about the bonds between men. But Fever, like Annie Hall (also from ’77), is about the bond, even platonic, between a man and a woman. Another interesting unexpected turn, Tony and Annette rehearse for the big disco dance contest, they win. But Tony knows they didn’t deserve it. The Puerto Rican couple deserved the trophy; Tony gives it to them, knowing his fellow racist Italians rigged it, voting for him not because he was the best, but because he was Tony. Great to see a film where the hero isn’t "the best."
There are some subplots that don't work - the story of Tony's priest brother, Frank Jr., never quite has the impact the film seems to want it to (and then it's abruptly dropped). There is some side plot as well where one of Tony's crew gets beaten up by another gang of dudes and then the two sides have a brawl in a clumsy fight scene straight out of Mean Streets without the style. But that's not to say that Fever is styleless. The cinematography by Ralf D. Bode (who went on to do Coal Miners Daughter and Dressed To Kill) is very nice. The scenes of the camera moving through the Brooklyn streets, and especially through the discos, are really exciting. The way the lights on the ceiling of the dance floors are captured is stunning. Like All The Presidents Men a year earlier, perhaps not since Gregg Toland’s innovative work on Citizen Kane have ceilings been photographed so prominently. Travolta’s big solo dance number where he takes over the floor, amazingly shot in one long take, is also one of the great scenes in movie history (thanks to Travolta’s moves as well as the filmmaking).
Director John Badham followed up Saturday Night Fever with the campy disco Dracula starring Frank Langella in '79. After hits like Blue Thunder and WarGames he became a middle tier director with forgettable fluff like Bird On A Wire and Stakeout before becoming a solid TV director (The Shield, etc.). But for one brief shining moment in ’77 Travolta and journeymen like Badham and writer Wexler could get together and make a film that stands the test of time, that holds up quite well today, and is still the highest point in all of their careers, and what a high it was.
Saturday Night Fever was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor (John Travolta).