Saturday, March 28, 2015
CANON OF FILM: "SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER"
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977)
Director: John Badham
Screenplay: Norman Wexler based on the magazine article “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” by Nik Cohn
I recall my first viewing of “Saturday Night Fever,” exceptionally well. I was about 10 or 12, about the age my mom was when she first saw it. Keeping in mind John Travolta was still only a teen idol playing Vinny Barbarino on “Welcome Back Kotter,” and hadn’t even done “Grease,” yet. Plus, I had gotten all these images of the film beforehand of Travolta’s great dance sequences and the music of the Bee Gees, had all but solidified this film for me as, to use a documentary word, the zeitgeist of the disco era. What I found however was a very different film. A dark movie, with a tragic and ambiguous ending that I could see coming a mile away, but felt more tragic because I could. I, at about 12 years old had been more observant of the world around these depthless characters than they were. Yes, there are quintessential scenes of dancing that are unforgettable and the music makes the album undisputedly one of the greatest movie soundtracks of all-time, but also being one of those albums that absolutely solidifies a particular era, almost as much as some Beatles albums do. But by god, gangs, gang-rape, misogyny,... this is the movie that defined a generation? This is the movie that defined my mother's generation? Turned Travolta into the iconic star that he is?
John Travolta in an Oscar-nominated role, (The film's only nomination, no not even one Best Song nomination, shame Academy) plays streetwise Tony Manero, a Brooklyn kid, not much older than a teenager, who still lives with his parents, has posters of Sylvester Stallone and Farrah Faucet in his bedroom, where he patiently and deliberately collects good shirts and tights pants with his paint store clerk money and probably a blow dryer, to suit up for Saturday Nights at the local disco club, 2001 Odyssey. He hasn’t graduated high school, and has no real technical skills other than his dancing abilities. He pales in comparison in his family’s eye to his older brother, a priest, and has almost as bad a Madonna-whore complex with women as Jake La Motta would have in “Raging Bull.” I describe his character excessively, but he is, in my eyes, the entire film. He’s in every scene, and is therefore who we follow. As much as the film represents an era, the movie is about this truly unlikable character. He has a few buddies who he hangs out with at the disco, who can be equated to a gang, particularly in the way they will all attack when one of them is attacked, although it’s unsure they went after the right guys. Tony is the leader of this group because, as the female teachers of my Uncle Billy would say, they all liked him. His women, not including the typical departures from the dance floor to the backseat, include Annette (Donna Pascow), a girl who likes Tony, but can’t seem to get him to notice her, and Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a Manhattan secretary by day, Brooklyn dancer by night who Tony is attracted to almost as much as his desire to use dance as a way out of Brooklyn. He yearns so much to leave that he’s memorized statistics about the Brooklyn Bridge hoping to cross it. Despite obvious differences between the characters, two different for them to ever be together, which this film correctly knows, they combine to train for and compete in a disco dance contest, which actually is slightly played down a bit in the film than it is in our recollections. The events of that night lead to the Brooklyn Bridge with a couple of Tony’s friends, Annette and a couple of misguided and accidentally-on-purpose incidents occur. Annette desires Tony for all he is; Stephanie tears down Tony seeing all he isn’t. All these people and directions pulling Tony, eventually shows him the harshness of a world where the Saturday Night discos become the center of your world. They’re dark, but with many lights, and more than enough beautiful women ripe for sinning, and enough young men, who’re plenty capable of many sins. I seriously doubt Tony is capable of having a better life, but by the end of the movie; he has at least come to desire it. One step closer to crossing that bridge.