Saturday Night Fever

I work on my hair for a long time, and you hit it
Released:
1977

Director: John Badham

Starring: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller, Donna Pescow

The Setup:

Disco king in Brooklyn realizes his life is going nowhere.

Discussion:

I was born in ’68, and this came out in ’77, so I remember the whole phenomena, and the whole disco craze in general--including my parents practicing their disco dancing in the living room--but never really saw the movie. Then I watched it around college age, but basically haven't really watched and followed it until now. Turns out, it's not the greatest thing ever made, but it has that little something extra and more than deserves being the sensation it is. This is directed by John Badham, who also directed the zesty Dracula with Frank Langella, before going totally banal with garbage like Stakeout and The Hard Way. This is based on a magazine article about the Brooklyn disco scene, although it was later revealed that the author made up the lead character, basing him on a friend. So it's based on an article that was largely fabricated.

Now, there are movies that you wonder, if they knew they were going to be blessed with such an amazing lead performance, would they have written and directed the film differently? This is one of them because--think what you will about him now--Travolta is absolutely incredible here, downright Oscar worthy, and I will go to the mat on that. The movie could not exist without his performance. At this time, he had only appeared in a supporting role in Carrie, and on Welcome Back, Kotter. We first see Travolta as Tony Manero strutting down the street to "Staying Alive," literally in time to the music, and the effect is quite energizing, while not leaving behind content. We are seeing his milieu, which is quite grubby and working class, and the way he deals with it: by fancying himself a king. You'll notice his eyes are quite blank here, and he seems to have no inner life. He gets to his job at a hardware store, where the theme hits us fast when Tony says ”fuck the future," and his boss responds: "You can't fuck the future, the future fucks you. It catches up with you and it fucks you if you don't plan for it." Thanks for the thematic mission statement!

Tony gets home, his parents nag on him, and he goes directly upstairs, where he starts primping. He combs his hair, picks out shirt and pants and chains, gazes at himself in the mirror, and dances. I don't know what it is, but you have to admit it's a pretty unremarkable sequence of events, yet this is one segment of the film everyone remembers. I think it's because Travolta is able to appear so self-absorbed it allows us to watch him as though unobserved, and it feels fascinating. He goes downstairs where we start to see his acrimonious home life, where, at one point, everyone in the family is hitting each other. Tony has a great line when he says, trying to control his temper, "You know, I work on my hair for a long time, and you hit it."

Now Tony goes out to the nightclub, the 2001 Odyssey, where he is well known and revered. A woman comes up to him and worshippingly tells him she loves to watch him dance. He has a hanger-on in Annette, played by Donna Pescow with such a pitch-perfect blend of desperation and bitterness that, by the end of the film, you too will want to step into the film and hit her. Tony once had a date with her in which she talked incessantly about former boyfriends, so he doesn't like her. Still, she's his best available partner for the upcoming dance contest, so he tolerates her. In here, he sees a woman and likes the way she dances. This is Stephanie. As the guys leave the club that night, they make fun of a gay couple on the street.

The next day, Tony gets a raise at work, which he is thrilled about, but his father makes fun of him for it. He finds that his brother, Frank, is home, and that he has left the priesthood. The next day, his mother viciously accuses him of saying something that caused his brother to change. Tony goes to a dance studio to practice with Annette, but finds Stephanie there and asks her to be his partner for the dance contest. They go to coffee afterward, where she is resistant to his advances. She tells him he has no future, while she is constantly taking classes to improve herself. Stephanie is quite a name-dropper, but she's trying to move forward and Tony is stuck. Tony dumps Annette as his partner, she is predictably devastated but keeps coming back for more, but his practice session with Stephanie is genuinely exciting, because they can both really dance. Another reason Travolta is perfect in this role: he's an excellent dancer, and you can believe that he's the sensation of the club. This is demonstrated in the next sequence, when the crowd parts and allows Tony to command the floor, content simply to watch him. There is a throwaway shot of a woman sitting on the side, watching, saying "Oh wow."

Tony's social scene slowly starts darkening. His friends take Annette and go out to the Verazzano bridge, where they play on the cables over the huge drop. They scare Annette by pretending to fall off. Meanwhile, one of the guys has gotten a woman pregnant, but doesn't want to marry her, and feels enormous Catholic guilt over wanting her to have an abortion. Tony wants the day off to help Stephanie move, and when he doesn't get it, he quits. Helping Stephanie move, the movie goes into Manhattan for the first time, and it feels significant; for the first time it hits you that this is really a Brooklyn story. He meets someone she has fooled around with in order to get ahead, and makes her cry with shame over it. The scene demonstrates her desperation to get ahead, and highlights the dead-end world of Brooklyn (at the time), and how everyone is struggling to get out. When Tony goes back to the hardware store, his boss gives him his job back, and points out some other workers that have been there fifteen years, indicating, to Tony's horror, that this would be a good future for him.

Now in here, and through the end of the film, is what I'm saying about how Travolta's performance makes the film what it is. You remember we discussed how Tony's eyes are blank at the beginning, and how he stares at himself in the mirror with total self-absorption. Slowly his eyes have been becoming ever more wide with terror and desperation. He is starting to realize the limits of his world, and the future that faces him if he stays there, and while the events of the script work well to provide incident, it's Travolta's eyes that show us his changing state of mind. After he helps Stephanie move, he takes her to the spot beneath the Verazzano where he goes to think, and, around 1:25, his expression is nakedly vulnerable, on the verge of tears, and he jumps perceptibly when she touches him, his emotion almost roiling over. All of this is far beyond anything in the script, and why he deserves a huge chunk of the responsibility for making the film work as it does.

SPOILERS > > >
Now things start closing in. First, Tony gives in and takes Annette out to the car, the guys' selected trysting place, and are about to have sex when he realizes that she is unprotected. "It's okay, Tony, because I love you," she says. He refuses (while, at the same time, casting it as entirely her responsibility to carry protection). Meanwhile, Bobby is growing ever more desperate, asking Frank the ex-priest if there isn't some way to be forgiven for having an abortion. Bobby extracts a promise from Tony, upon borrowing his car, to call him later that night to talk. Tony never calls. One of the guys got beaten up by a rival gang, and the guys take Bobby's car and smash it through the front of their clubhouse, then have a huge brawl. They all get beaten to a pulp, and when they go see the guy in the hospital, he tells them, well, it might not have been that gang, but thanks anyway.

Tony arrives, bandaged up, for the big dance contest, in the famous white tux. He and Stephanie dance a relatively subdued number, then a Puerto Rican couple come on, and do an incredible routine. Tony realizes that they are better than he was. Still, he and Stephanie win, because they are locals and the Puerto Ricans have come to town just for the contest. Tony realizes that it was a set-up, and feels betrayed that his friends are lying to him in saying that he was better. He gives his trophy and prize money to the Puerto Ricans. The movie avoids one of the common traps of these films in showing that the Puerto Ricans routine was demonstrably better, not one of these things where they're all good and one arbitrarily wins. The script doesn't explicitly make the connection, but we are left to surmise that if Tony hadn't gotten beat up in the brawl, which it turns out was for nothing, he would have been in better shape to dance, i.e. his connection with his pals has ruined his dream.

In here Stephanie has shown up to Tony with condoms, the desperation of which only alienates him further. She gets super-high and agrees to have sex with all of his friends in the back seat, as a way of showing him she doesn't care. This soon turns into a quasi-rape, and it's happening right behind Tony as he sits in the front seat, obviously disgusted. They stop on the Verazzano and crawl out on the cables, when suddenly Bobby is out there, clowning more dangerously than the other guys, babbling wildly, and before they can help him, he falls to his death. Tony leaves the guys and spends all night riding the subway, alone and thinking (please recall the last movie you saw that climaxed with the hero sitting for hours and re-evaluating his life). He goes to Stephanie, and tells her he wants to get a job, and start working toward a future. They agree to remain friends, sitting together in the window, the screen freezes and--credits! It might seem kind of an arbitrary ending, or you could appreciate the subtlety of it. Enough pieces are in place to know that a change has occurred, and the script doesn't need to spell it all out or make it literal.
< < < SPOILERS END

So that script, this direction... it's kind of hard to know if it's a bit disconnected or just subtle. Things like the whole gang angle just happen with no build-up, and the brawl can seem like a somewhat arbitrary element. The question of Frank the ex-priest is just kind of dropped, without any resolution. Tony's relationship with Stephanie never comes to a head, and stays ill-defined. Yet... it all kind of works. You have enough info to put together what's happening, and can appreciate that everything isn't drawn to neat conclusions from the screenwriter's handbook. And Travolta's performance papers over all the cracks. So, screenwriting and directing genius, or just a supernaturally great performance that makes it all work? We'll never know, but it is what it is, and it works well without konking you on the head.

All said, it really stands up. The dance sequences are still exciting, the social scene is fully realized, Tony's change of mind is palpable, and it manages to be somewhat light and fun while still having a story that's a total bummer. Travolta was drawn into a disastrous sequel, Staying Alive, which was written and directed by Sylvester Stallone, and was essentially Rocky with dance (building up to a notoriously disastrous final dance number). But it wasn't enough to damage this movie. Travolta turned in a few more serious performances, like in Blow Out, but he's so good here, it makes one wonder what he could have accomplished had he not been exiled into Look Who's Talking-land for so long.

Should you watch it?

Yeah, it's pretty much essential.

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