Dir. John Badham. Starring John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Donna Pescow
The cry comes out. “Give the kid some room! He’s taking over again!” Tony Manero (Travolta), to the tune of the Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing,” has broken off from his erstwhile partner and decided to go it alone. What Tony does on the dance floor, broken into four quadrants of blinking lights in primary colors, hardly measures up to the great movie dance routines of this ’70s, let alone the best of the four preceding decades. All the same Travolta sells it. In Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly there’s always a little wink, as if to say to the audience, “Yes, I’m dancing, and it’s all part of the plan.” There’s no look to the camera, ironic or literal, when Travolta dances. He just goes for it, with a positively indecent strut in his step and an army of extras oohs and aahs and claps and cheers. The world stops for four minutes while he “takes over again.” It’s a fitting phrase, because there is not other aspect of his life where he can “take over” so easily or with so much adulation. He’s the leader of a flailing group of degenerates who put a car through the wall of a Hispanic gang’s hideout on the supposition that they beat up a buddy; the buddy, for his part, can’t be sure it was them. He’s the younger brother of a priest who leaves the ministry, which hurts Tony when his unemployed father’s anger and his wailing mother’s disappointment come down on him by proxy. He’s nineteen and he’s already wandered into a career conundrum; he has a solid but low-wage job at a paint store, and he has no college credits to make him more appealing for some white-collar job. Even with women, where one might expect him to have a leg up, he’s torn between the woman he’s totally disinterested in and the woman who talks down to him in an effort to prove to herself that she’s risen above her Brooklyn roots. Any one of these interactions going the wrong way makes him defensive or starts him yelling or even gets him into serious trouble. Thus, “He’s taking over again!” On the dance floor, he is in total command of his situation, which is why he is so fanatical about practicing, about dressing just the right way, about fixing his hair. On Saturday nights, Tony can have total control for minutes, maybe even hours at a time, and for him it’s a reason to live. The fact that he can be in charge that long makes him the luckiest son of a polyester shirt in Bay Ridge.
Forty years later, coming to Saturday Night Fever without preconceptions is almost impossible. Even though I knew something of the plot before watching (and, weirdly enough, I read “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” before I saw this movie), I was still blindsided with how heavy this movie wanted to be. There’s probably as much dancing in a local dance studio as there is at the discotheque. Nods to unemployment, underemployment, suicide, gang violence, drug abuse, and rape (as we’ll see in a minute) are made. What’s campy about the movie certainly shines through—how deep is your Bee Gees love?—but the movie is swamped with what’s gritty and tough and “raw.” Ironically, the social drama playing out is significantly more hyperbolic and melodramatic than anything that happens while John Travolta is dancing, and the movie suffers badly for it.
Joey (Joseph Cali) and Double J (Paul Pape) are wilder than Tony, far more invested in making it with a girl or beating up as many people as they can than he is. Saddest of all is the group’s runt, Bobby (Barry Miller). When the other three guys decide to get into a fight against two or three times as many people, Bobby pointedly stays out of the fight, driving away and only coming back in the nick of time; he has “coward” thrown at him a few times, and each time it obviously hurts him. He’s also gotten some poor girl pregnant and is extremely reluctant to marry her, as those sorts of boys always seem to be. He even asks Frank, Jr. (Martin Shakar) if he thinks the Pope would give him and his lady friend a dispensation for her to get an abortion. Frank is a little too shocked to be gentle about saying he thinks that’s unlikely, although he tries to recover, telling Bobby that he ought to see a priest. Bobby has already stopped listening. His desperate belief that the Pope might save him from himself is reminiscent of that famous exchange from Dog Day Afternoon where Sal plans to escape the federal government by going to Wyoming. It’s so sad, so stupid, and so funny that your heart hurts a little bit. Eventually, Bobby tempts fate by fooling around a little too much on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, sort of tap dancing in the same spot for a minute or two, and falls to his death just inches away from Tony’s grasp. It’s one of the movie’s lesser moments, one of those contrived suicides one usually finds in high school fiction where the author doesn’t know how to resolve the issue and thus chooses a premature death.
Of course, that sequence may fall flat largely because of what happens just in front of it. Annette (Pescow), utterly smitten by Tony and presumably rejected by him once too often, decides to bang one of his friends in the backseat while the rest are in the front seat. This very quickly turns into a rape, and then a second rape when Joey decides to get in on the action that Double J has uncovered. Neither Bobby nor Tony intervenes, even though both of them make sour faces while it happens which I suppose are meant to show their disapproval. Indeed, when the car stops in its usual spot on the side of the bridge, Tony even upbraids Annette before realizing that’s probably not the best way to handle the situation. (Tony ends the movie by trying to become a better person; how nice that complicity in the rape of a friend can be used to improve someone, as if that’s what rape is for.) And when Bobby falls off the bridge, Annette screams and goes to Joey for comfort after he just raped her two minutes ago. Those are the sexual politics of Saturday Night Fever in a nutshell: the plight of a guy who didn’t know to wrap it up and didn’t have the sense to stay off the side of a bridge is far more tragic than a girl who is raped twice by a pair of boys she knew and, presumably, trusted.
Saturday Night Fever is deeply concerned with the plight of the young men it’s following, but has no empathy for the women in the story. Annette is the prime example (taken to a ludicrous extreme), although just about every woman in the movie is somehow beaten down by this particular unconcern. Stephanie (Gorney) is a very good dancer who is a little older than Tony and a little more experienced than Tony and definitely less gullible than Tony, and so she does her best to make him feel inferior by name-dropping famous people. Laurence Olivier came into the office today. Don’t you know who Laurence Olivier is? she condescends. (Tony’s mouth is very full of hamburger at this point and there’s not much he can say in response.) He’s the guy from the Polaroid commercials! When it turns out that Stephanie has an ex who intellectually dominates her in the way she intellectually dominates Tony, the movie turns this into a betrayal of Tony’s trust rather than considering the deep inferiority that Stephanie harbors because of a mansplainer in her past. Even Tony’s mom isn’t immune from this disinterest. Her husband has been unemployed for months, and the movie wants to feel for him even if we don’t like his ugly behavior all that much. Mrs. Manero, on the other hand, has nothing under the surface. Her first reaction when she hears that her eldest son quit the priesthood is along the lines of, Oh, what will the neighbors say? She blames Tony at dinner one night for Frank’s resignation, even though there’s no evidence that the two were even speaking to each other. The movie supposes a depth of character in unemployed dad, but likewise suffering mom is a shrew. A lot of the movie’s goodwill built up in John Travolta’s bouncing stride or in the fabulous colors of the 2001 Odyssey Disco is incinerated simply by its callow, sexist disinterest in its women.