Strutting, Smiling, Smirking, Sulking. This was a young John Travolta at his best. It was also director John Badham at his best, as he and screenwriter Norman Wexler adapted a New York Magazine article written by Nik Cohn entitled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”. Their work, along with Travolta’s dance moves, changed the way young adults spent their weekend nights.
Given his recent disturbing mentions in the news, it might be difficult to imagine, but in the mid-1970’s, Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino on “Welcome Back Kotter” was idolized (and lusted after) by just about every teenage girl on the planet. At the peak of that TV show’s popularity, Travolta exploded onto the big screen as Tony Manero, the king of the disco dance floor. It wasn’t long before every guy’s wardrobe included multi-colored polyester shirts and maybe even a white 3 piece suit. This movie now serves as a time capsule of the disco era. But it’s also much more.
Saturday Night Fever can be viewed from a couple of different perspectives. Many view it as a snapshot of the short-lived disco era, replete with the clothes, music, drugs and preening. I have always found it even more effective as a coming-of-age story for working class youngsters trying to make sense of the world as they head into adulthood. Tony realizes he won’t fit in much longer living with his family, but the tough love and advice provided by his paint store boss (Sam Coppola) falls on deaf ears. When Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) starts spouting off her “whole other world” stories from Manhattan, Tony realizes brawling with his buddies is no answer to life’s mysteries.
Tony is a 19 year old living at home with his traditional Italian parents. His mother, played by Julie Bavasso, is a religious woman who takes great pride in her eldest son Frank Jr (Martin Shakar) being a Priest. His father, played by Val Bisoglio, is a recently unemployed emotional man who takes his anger out on the family by lashing out. Their family meals are loud and aggressive events filled with pride, physicality and hurtful words. Tony’s joy in receiving a raise at work is quickly shut down thanks to the belittling reaction from his father. Dancing at 2001 Odyssey is Tony’s escape from the realities of his world … and the only place where he is admired for being something special. It’s a feeling he relishes and one everyone should experience.
As viewers, we recognize that this little world of Tony’s threatens to lead him down an obvious path where he will wake up 20 years later as a bitter 39 year old, not so different from his father. Hanging out with his friends, each searching for their own path while trying not to appear desperate, provides momentary escape but no promise of a brighter tomorrow. When Stephanie enters the scene, Tony sees her as a guiding light to a new world. As viewers, we easily see her insecurities and faux-cultural maturity, but to Tony she offers a ray of hope. A way out.
Tony’s buddies are entertaining in their own ways. Joey (Joseph Cali) and Gus (Bruce Ornstein) are just good, solid guys. Double J (Paul Pape) is the quietly aggressive one. He’s the guy that views every day as a chance to seek revenge on anyone who might have done him wrong, even if accidently. Mr. Pape went on to become a prolific voice actor (more than 500 credits). That’s a bit ironic since he is the quiet one of the group. Bobby C (Barry Miller) and Annette (Donna Pescow) are the ones who break your heart. Bobby’s girlfriend is pregnant and he is desperate for a magical solution, while longing to be as cool as Tony … or at least not invisible. Annette is a sad creature who just wants to be loved. She misreads Tony’s signs and covers her grief with booze, drugs and regrettable sexual activity.
John Badham was mostly a TV director when he assumed the helm for Saturday Night Fever. He had some Hollywood success the year before with a Negro League baseball comedy featuring Richard Pryor and James Earl Jones called The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. Mr. Badham, the brother of Mary Badham (Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird), went on to have some box office success with War Games and Stakeout, but in 1997, he returned to TV projects and has remained there since. The film is also known for launching the hugely successful soundtrack, which was the top selling album of all-time until passed by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in 1983. Many of the Bee Gees songs are still played on classic stations today, and “Stayin’ Alive” became the title for the film’s sequel. The 1983 movie followed Tony’s attempt to break through on Broadway and was directed by Sylvester Stallone. It received brutal reviews and has since faded into oblivion. In another example of how small the Hollywood community is, Stallone’s girlfriend in Rocky was played by Talia Shire. Ms. Shire’s first husband was David Shire, who composed the score for Saturday Night Fever. When they divorced, Mr. Shire married Didi Conn, who co-starred with Travolta in Grease.
Travolta is clearly the most interesting story here. Seemingly at his peak, his career took another leap forward when Saturday Night Fever producer Robert Stigwood hired him for the musical Grease the following year. In 1980, Travolta was again front and center in a cultural shift as his turn in Urban Cowboy shifted focus from disco dancing to the Texas Two-Step, and the subsequent trend towards mainstream “country” music. Travolta’s career then went quiet until his first comeback with Look Who’s Talking in 1989. His second comeback came thanks to Quentin Tarantino casting him in Pulp Fiction. What many don’t know is that while filming Saturday Night Fever, Travolta’s love interest, actress Diana Hyland died of cancer. Ms. Hyland had appeared as Dick Van Patten’s wife in season one of “Eight is Enough” and upon her death, his character was presented as a widower.
It’s interesting to note that a substantial number in the cast were making their feature film debuts. That includes Fran Drescher (“The Nanny”) who plays local girl Connie. Her dancing skills, or lack thereof, lead Tony to make assumptions about her other talents. Also making quick appearances are Travolta’s sister Ann (as the pizza girl) and his mother Helen, who scolds him in the paint store for making her wait so long. The posters in Tony’s room include Al Pacino in Serpico, Stallone in Rocky, and the iconic Farrah Fawcett swimsuit poster. Travolta had a key role in the horror classic Carrie, and just missed out on being cast as Meadows in one of my favorite movies The Last Detail. Randy Quaid was ultimately cast. The great film critic Gene Siskel always said Saturday Night Fever was his favorite all-time movie and he even purchased and displayed Tony’s white suit from the film’s climax.
Regardless of how you view it, this little film certainly has its place in Hollywood lore. It launched the film career of John Travolta, changed the cultural nightlife for a generation, taught us not to play on bridges, to take only your allotted time when sharing the backseat, to always chew your food, and whether you are feeling up or down … it helps to strut.