Monday, August 4, 2008

Film #68: Saturday Night Fever

John Travolta created a huge stir in late 1977 with his Oscar-nominated role as Tony Manero, king of the Brooklyn dance floor, in Saturday Night Fever, the now-legendary hit directed by John Badham (WarGames). Manero (get it--MAN-ero?) is a hardware store worker who reconsiders his station in life when he meets Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a poorly name-dropping Manhattanite also striving for a life as a professional dancer. Together, they enter a disco dance-off at 2001 Odyssey, where Tony's a respected regular. And, after the expected clashes, they enter the competition to win.

Even if disco isn't your thing (it isn't mine), Saturday Night Fever will clue you in as to how the genre came to grow so huge in its day (actually, contrary to popular belief, disco is still around--it's called dance music now and they're still playing it in every club known to man, even if you think it's called dub-step or techno or any other thing you wanna label it with). Travolta and Gorney have some incredible moves, together and solo, and they have some pretty snazzed-up music as inspiration. Included on the 25-million-selling, Grammy-winning soundtrack: Yvonne Elliman ("If I Can't Have You"), Walter Murphy ("A Fifth of Beethoven"), MFSB, The Trammps ("Disco Inferno"), KC and the Sunshine Band ("Boogie Shoes"), Kool and the Gang, and of course, the Bee Gees (who somehow escaped getting an Oscar nomination for "Night Fever," "How Deep Is Your Love?" and the sit-up-in-your-fucking-seat startling "Stayin' Alive," one of the best opening songs in movie history, which is still unforgettable as the soundtrack to Tony Manero's cocksure strut down a Brooklyn street).

It's interesting to look back on the effect this movie had on the public. Hard-hearted at times and vulgar, the original film got an R-rating (it was the first major movie to use the term "blow job" in its dialogue), but the kids, they had to see this, so producer Robert Stigwood recut the movie for a PG release (the only time I think this has ever been done for an R-rated movie). The costumes, designed by Patricia Von Brandenstein (Amadeus) sparked a polyester-driven fashion trend. Travolta's famous white three-piece suit with a black shirt, which he wore opposite a charming, authentic character actress named Fran Drescher, was auctioned off in the mid-1990s. The buyer? The late film analyist Gene Siskel, who counted Saturday Night Fever as his favorite film and plunked down $150,000 for the suit. And of course there was an awful sequel, written and directed by Sylvester Stallone, called Stayin' Alive that has one of the FUNNIEST bad movie sequences of all time--the staging of the Broadway show Tony gets the lead in, called "Satan's Alley." It's such an awful second act that its mere mention puts it in place for historical notice.

Donna Pescow, a later sitcom star with Angie, sears our memory with her portrayal of a girl who desires Tony but is literally fucked over by him. In the same way, Barry Miller impresses as the most troubled of Manero's crew; his face is one of the aspects of the movie I remember most. The charismatic dance numbers were choreographed by Lester Wilson, with former Dance Fever host Danny Terrio acting as Travolta's teacher. The great supporting cast includes Julie Bovasso ( great at Travolta's mother), Joseph Call (as Tony's wannabe priest brother), and (very quickly) former SNL cast member Denny Dillon. I love that the film ends, true to 1970s stylings, as maturely as it does, with Tony and Stephanie agreeing to be friends rather than lovers. Other than the sweet ending, my favorite moment in the film? When Tony gets a dinner table slap from his dad and Travolta goes improv with "Watch the hair! I spend hours fixing up my hair and he hits it! He hits my hair." Never fails to make me laugh. Travolta shoulda gotten the Oscar just for this (he was cheated out of it by Richard Dreyfuss, who was good but not THAT good in The Goodbye Girl). Still, all said and done, Badham's Saturday Night Fever is, say, just as influential a film to Stallone's history-rocking Rocky as there is out there in moviedom. It's not perfect, but it will certainly freakin' do.

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