Monday, September 09, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—Saturday Night Fever (1977) ****

R, 119 min.
Director: John Badham
Writers: Norman Wexler, Nic Cohn
Starring: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller, Joseph Cali, Paul Pape, Donna Pescow, Bruce Ornstein, Julie Bovasso, Sam J. Coppola

Every time I see “Saturday Night Fever” I’m impressed by how good it is. Having been a child at the time of its release, I remember the disco craze that surrounded it. The movie was huge. Its impact was felt on television as the networks entered a war of the dance competition shows. John Travolta was catapulted into the spotlight as a megastar. The Bee Gees’ soundtrack album became one of the best selling albums of all time. The movie even received a rerelease with a PG rating that allowed people like my parents to drag kids like me to it and wrap everyone up in the disco craze.

What my five-year-old self took away from the movie at the time was that a white suit with a black shirt was the epitome of cool and playing around on the Verrazono Narrows Bridge was a bad idea. It was just your typical blockbuster in my mind. A crowd pleaser, which by 70’s gold-plated standards, I suppose it was. When I saw it as a young adult I thought my parents were awful people for having brought a six-year-old to see a movie with a gang rape scene in it. It was shortly after that screening that I learned it had been edited out (along with all the bad language) for the PG version that was released for mainstream audiences because of the film’s popularity.

Now, I see it for the social criticism that it is. This movie is not kind to the lifestyle these young men embraced in the 70s. It is not nice to Travolta and his group of friends. They’re depicted as racist bigots who bash blacks, Hispanics, homosexuals and women without any question of hiding their feelings toward others. They come from families that worship religious ambition and have taught them nothing of tolerance or empathy. Travolta’s Tony Manero aspires to be something better, but must fight against the environmental conditioning in which he’s been raised. It’s a coming of age story that’s about so much more than the typical trivialities of young adulthood.

His dancing partner, Stephanie, isn’t as far beyond Tony’s maturity that she thinks she is, but she is a doorway to a life without the walls of conditioning of his upbringing and social stagnancy. The dancing is another doorway out of his environment of stereotypes and blind acceptance. It’s important that he breaks from his friends to protest his own dance contest win. He finally understands that you can’t be judged on how you look or what social group you belong to. Some people have talent that is not dictated by race or appearance or gender. He’s one of them, but the only way he can fully realize it is to accept that others have it too. It’s a powerful realization that finally opens his eyes up to his own friend’s suffering but too late. Bobby’s sacrifice, however, is what ultimately leads to Tony’s salvation.

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