Director: John Badham
Writer: Norman Wexler
Cinematographer: Ralf D. Bode
by Jon Cvack
I remember my friend told me about the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in my fourth grade class, and for Halloween he dressed up John Travolta’s iconic white suit. I recall picking up the VHS and popping it in and ‘Staying Alive’ lit up the speakers and I was hooked. I’ve heard this song so many times that it’s completely lost its magic. I hadn’t watched this film in over a decade, back when I was nineteen years old. I always enjoy discovering a central character in a film who I considered so much older and mature, is now years younger, with his immaturity and irascible attitude coming out in brilliant and awkward moments.
The story is of dancer Tony (John Travolta) living in Brooklyn during Disco’s peek. What I love about the film is its ability to portray a moment in time. Soon Disco would become the brunt of jokes, with the great album burning at Wrigley field, and even up through the nineties, when I first saw the movie, there was still a sour taste for the era. In 2017, the first film I could compare it is to The Naked City, in which we got a genuine taste of the spirit of 1948 NYC. Saturday Night Fever is not a great film, but it does capture a very unique and niche moment in time, which really has no other competitors.
Tony is surrounded by his dead beat friends who enjoy drinking, snorting coke, and taking turns with girls in the back of their one car. The film has moments of such grotesque misogyny that I was more terrified over the fact that such behavior was evidently more regular back then and acceptable for the screen, further supported by a recent interview I listened to with Norman Mailer back in 90s on Book Worm where he mentions that 9 out 10 men genuinely believed that “No” in no way meant no, and allows you to at least rest assured that we’ve come a long way with how popular cinema portrays women.
For instance, in one of the film’s more powerful scenes, in a relentless and demeaning attempt to make Tony jealous, a friend zoned Annette (Donna Prescow) takes up with one of his friends, Gus (Bruce Ornstein). The pair leave with Tony and his other buddies, start having sex in the back of the car, and just when it’s over, Annette is forced to stay in the back while Double J (Paule Pape) then rapes her, with Tony and the others doing nothing, until they stop at a bridge, where their diffident and diminutive friend Bobby C. (Barry Miller) ends up falling off the bridge and Tony castigates Annette for having done what she did. It’s a scene that leaves you feeling dirty, despising Tony in a way that the film never really vindicates.
The film abides by the presently uninspired, mumble core premise of working a dead end job, going out on the weekend, partaking in the same debaucheries night after night, living paycheck to paycheck, always hoping for something more. That all changes when Tony meets the older and more mature Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney) - a masterful dancer who could provide Tony with a genuine shot of winning the 2001 Odyssey Disco Dance Club grand prize of $500. Tony is enamored with Stephanie, though constantly puts his foot in his mouth as his refractory short temper is unleashed time and again, such as when he can’t walk her home he kicks a garbage can; when he catches Stephanie dancing with the Dance Studio owner he flips out and storms away; when he can’t get the afternoon off he unleashes a profane maelstrom against his boss, finally quitting. Individually, these tirades are some of Travolta’s most brilliant moments. In terms of overall story, they have the opposite effect. It creates a person who is so volatile you can’t understand why anyone would give him the chance, whether for his love or for his talent. The only defense I can muster is believing that it was all about the dancing, acting as some type of noble pursuit, in which case the era's hilarity returns as you wonder how Disco Dancing could ever possibly hold this much meaning for a person, with so many willing to overlook his volatile temper, violence, and intensity just because he’s that good at Disco Dancing.
Tony’s brother Father Frank Manero, Jr. (Martin Shakar) is one of the film’s great roles and characters, along with their mother Flo (Julie Bovasso) and Frank (Val Bisoglio) as the father. Flo embodies the spirit of late middle aged dissatisfaction, compulsively crossing herself at every single mention of her son Frank, Jr. (Martin Shakar). Shakar is a flawless cast, falling far short of Tony’s good looks, appearing a bit awkward, but with a respectable persona, looking like someone you could spill your guts to. Finally, we learn rather creatively that Frank, Sr. has been laid off from his job, with most of the information exchanged through passing moments, rather than someone coming into the kitchen and declaring it. Midway through the story we learn that Frank has left the parish, no longer interested in the priesthood. He comes home and heads out with Tony.
While he watches Tony dance, Bobby C. (pre-suicide) asks him about an abortion for his girlfriend and Frank has little beyond hallow platitudes. Frank, Jr. then takes off the next day. They built up a character as a legend, and when he finally arrives he runs away. A perfect opportunity for insight and direction was all prepared, and the story wasted the opportunity. I suppose I can imagine some type of silence acting as a metaphor, but I think it could have been done better with Tony’s flaring temper and Frank, Jr.’s empathy coming into battle.
A lot of the film feels like should have turned right when it went left. While I once recalled this as a melodramatic story told amidst a shitty moment in time, I now would put this more in the direction of A Bronx Tale, Diner, or Liberty Heights, albeit falling far a bit short. Historically, it’s as good as it gets, especially understanding that it’s appealing to the generation that enjoyed Disco. I wouldn’t look to this film for universal truths or grand philosophies but rather as a historical piece. It makes the darker scene far more dark, as you realize that men like Tony and his friends are meant to look like the Male Ideal. It was meant to inspire, and we have this story to highlight that moment in time with genuine Sexist Disco Bros.
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