‘Saturday Night Fever’ Casts Disco-Ball Light into America’s Dark Corners

Much like All in the Family -- which also addressed sexuality, gender roles, and race in a brutally honest manner -- Saturday Night Fever uncovers ugly truths.

Brooklyn wasn’t always trendy. Times Square didn’t resemble Disneyland. The subway system was splattered with graffiti, and its riders were often surprised if they reached their destinations without being mugged. Lifelong borough residents departed in unprecedented numbers, fleeing the crime and the litter and the tragedy of a decaying landscape.

New York City in the ’70s was dirty and dangerous, and 1977 was an especially cruel year. A serial killer roamed the streets, hunting young women and scrawling catch-me-if-you-can letters to the Daily News à la Jack the Ripper. His murder spree continued into the summer, and he extinguished more lives during the same summer month that lightning strikes plunged an already dim city into total darkness. The electrical blackout that began on a sweltering July night left New Yorkers blind while looters shattered windows, raided stores, and sparked fires. In 1977, the New York City was truly burning.

Still, amid the gloom of there were rays of light. The harshness and hardships of urban existence in the ’70s inspired artists to trade sugar-coated scripts for raw, honest stories brought to life by actors who portrayed their roles with stark realism. Writers, directors, and actors were no longer completely shackled to the old Hollywood system that demanded squeaky-clean films with formulaic happy endings. Many artists rejected the idea of adopting all-American names and kept their real ones. Actors such as Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Sylvester Stallone displayed ethnic pride in movies like The Godfather (1972) and Rocky (1976). Those movies became blockbusters that connected with audiences of various nationalities and races throughout the country and the world.

Rocky won an Oscar for Best Picture at the 1977 Academy Awards. Later that year, another realistic film that was shot on the streets and featured an Italian-American main character hit the theaters. Saturday Night Fever starred John Travolta (already famous for his role in the successful TV sitcom Welcome Back Kotter) as Tony Manero, a 19-year-old from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Tony toils at a dead-end job, lives for the weekend, and eventually realizes that — as his boss warns him — his future will be worthless if he doesn’t start building it now.

This simple plot becomes complex and compelling, and its setting is as important to the story as its characters. Brooklyn in 1977 wasn’t filled with overpriced homes occupied by yuppies (that term didn’t even exist until the next decade) who commuted to corner offices in Manhattan. Tony Manero’s Brooklyn is working-class, tough, and not always welcoming. “Wrong neighborhood,” snarls one of his friends to anybody who doesn’t fit the area’s traditional demographic.

Tony is constantly belittled by his position in the Manero family as a disappointing son. He’s happy about getting a modest raise; his father says it isn’t enough. The single bright spot in Tony’s grim life is 2001 Odyssey—the club where, every weekend, he’s a king who rules the dance floor.

Like the real-life Studio 54, which opened during the same year that Saturday Night Fever was released, 2001 Odyssey is a glitzy refuge within a crumbling city. It’s where crowds dress in clothes they can barely afford, show off their feathered hairstyles, and are hypnotized by a four-on-the-floor beat. Ironically, disco’s origins are African-American, Spanish, and gay — the very groups that Tony’s friends unapologetically deride. But that’s forgotten during Saturday nights filled with dancing, drugs, alcohol, and the casual sex of a pre-AIDS era.

Tony effortlessly attracts women. Their admiration of his appearance and dancing skills is part of what draws him to the disco, which is the only place in all of New York that makes him feel important and respected. He does not, however, always extend respect to women — and neither do his friends Joey (Joseph Cali), Double J (Paul Pape), and Bobby C (Barry Miller).

Tony, his buddies, and most of the young people in the film often seem like an early generation of Jersey Shore. Feminism isn’t popular in their neighborhood. Tony tries to help with the family’s dinner dishes, but his father (Val Bisoglio) stops him by saying “Girls do that.” When his mother (Julie Bovasso) tells her unemployed husband “I might even get a job myself,” he is furious and appalled. “All of a sudden you’re talking back,” he says, as if he’s speaking to a child instead of to his wife.

She seems perpetually downtrodden, with an identity that is defined solely by her children. After Tony’s older brother, Frank Jr. (Martin Shakar) leaves the priesthood, Mrs. Manero is devastated. She disregards Frank Jr.’s needs in favor of her own. “They turn you into what they wish,” Frank Jr. tells Tony as they discuss their parents’ oppressive expectations. “You can’t defend yourself against their fantasies.”

Mrs. Manero insists that Frank Jr. will return to the Catholic church. Tony tries to convince her otherwise, finally exploding with “You’ve got nothing but three shit children now.” He quickly apologizes but his mother rejects him, and her obvious depression makes the constraints of her own generation sadly clear. She has been locked into domesticity for years, unable to achieve anything outside of marriage and motherhood. Her only worth is tied to sons who, in her mind, have failed.

Julie Bovasso, Val Bisoglio and John Travolta

It seems that Tony has been raised with strict gender roles, and he harbors a disdain for women to which he seems unaware. “You make it with some of these chicks,” he says disgustedly, “and they think you gotta dance with them.” He’s also repulsed by the starry-eyed admiration of Annette (Donna Pescow). “Are you a nice girl?” he asks, confused by her aggressive advances. “What are you?”

He doesn’t know how to categorize Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney), either. She’s a newcomer to 2001 Odyssey who catches Tony’s attention but initially rebuffs it. She angers him as much as Annette does, because he wants to call the shots. It seems that if he desires a woman, she should wait silently until he makes a move. And if he does, she should accept his affection or expect to be told that she is “practicing to be a bitch”.

“Bitch” is frequently used to describe both Stephanie and Annette. When Tony asks his friends their opinion of Stephanie, Double J calls her a “snotty bitch”. Later, Bobby C shoots Annette a hateful glare and mutters that she’s a “stupid bitch”. His comment, however, seems to be directed more toward his pregnant girlfriend — and to parental, religious, and cultural expectations that are pressuring him into an unwanted marriage.

Bobby tries to talk to everyone about his problems. He screams for help. Yet nobody pays full attention, and he’s ultimately destroyed by society’s indifference and rigid rules. His subplot, and his feelings of subjugation, inferiority, and isolation support the film’s motifs. Bobby’s unfortunate fate, and a volatile but evolving relationship with Stephanie, push Tony to change. “There are ways to kill yourself without killing yourself,” he realizes.

Throughout the film, Tony’s dissatisfaction with Bay Ridge intensifies. He’s increasingly frustrated by his longtime friends’ lack of growth. Early on, he implies that Bobby is stuck in the past with his “bargain basement” cassette tapes; he doesn’t join in when the guys harass a gay couple at a local park; and he escapes a car ride during which his friends dismally agree that they are cemented into their blue-collar life. “They got it all locked up,” Joey gripes. “Ain’t nobody gonna give you a chance.”

Tony finds solace by gazing at the Verrazano-Narrows bridge. It’s symbolic of a way out, a path to someplace better. He realizes that the “high” dancing gives him can’t last forever, and he wants something more. “I’m getting older,” he tells Stephanie, seemingly fearful that growing up equals losing joy. “Does that mean I can’t feel that way about nothing else in my life? Is that it?”

In these moments, Tony evokes compassion. His plight resonates, and Travolta’s portrayal of this character is authentic as a complex, flawed young man who’s not always easy to like. He’s kind one moment and cruel the next. When a drunk and drugged-up Annette offers herself to Joey and Double J, Tony makes a valiant effort to protect her. But he does nothing as his friends take advantage of her in the backseat of Bobby’s car. Afterward, he blames the victim. “Are you proud of yourself?” he asks Annette. “Is that what you wanted?”

Much like the ’70s TV series All in the Family — which also addressed sexuality, gender roles, and race in a brutally honest, pre-political-correctness manner —

Saturday Night Fever has the courage to uncover ugly truths. It doesn’t condone the bigotry, misogyny, or homophobia of its characters; instead, it uses them to expose and subtly condemn. This is achieved especially well through the main female characters, Stephanie and Annette, who symbolize the evolution of Tony’s view of women and have a critical role in his ultimate rejection of everything that his friends, family, and community represent.

Annette once had a date with Tony, during which he says she spoke only of her married sisters and, according to him, she wants to become a “married sister” too. This does appear to be her goal as she relentlessly pursues him, even attempting to capture Tony in the same way that Bobby C has been trapped. Annette is old-school Brooklyn, constantly chasing Tony, trying to hold him where he is.

Tony runs from her. He wants Stephanie, although she tells him “You’re a cliché. You’re nowhere… on your way to no place.” She avoids Tony like he dodges Annette, because she sees him as a roadblock to the better life that she also wants. In Tony’s eyes, Stephanie is Manhattan — that sophisticated metropolis beyond the bridge, filled with opportunity and hope.

Like Tony and most characters in the film, Stephanie isn’t always likeable. She doesn’t have to be, as one of the major strengths of Saturday Night Fever is its portrayal of complicated personalities. Fortunately, Stephanie elicits sympathy through moments that reveal deep insecurity as the reason for her superior attitude —

which, it turns out, is merely a defense mechanism.

After Tony confronts Stephanie about allowing herself to be demeaned by a pretentious friend-with-benefits from her office, her façade finally cracks. “He helped me,” she says, unexpectedly painting a sad picture of how hard she has fought to survive at work and in Manhattan. “You don’t know what it’s like at that place. What do you expect me to do, man? What do you expect me to do?” she asks desperately, and this is a breakthrough for both the character and Gorney’s performance.

It leads to a pivotal scene in which Stephanie and Tony emotionally connect, and Travolta deftly expresses Tony’s soft side while he and Stephanie sit on a bench with a view of the Verrazano-Narrows bridge. An instrumental version of “How Deep Is Your Love” adds depth to their interaction, and every song contributed by the Bee Gees enhances the film. Travolta’s dancing is magnetic, and his sensual rise from an illuminated floor during “You Should Be Dancing” is a dynamic — and now, iconic —

moment of cinematography.

While the Bee Gees make a crucial contribution — and “Stayin’ Alive” is especially relevant to Saturday Night Fever’s themes — KC and the Sunshine Band, The Trammps, Tavares, Kool & The Gang, and Yvonne Elliman’s soulful rendition of “If I Can’t Have You” also add to an outstanding soundtrack that defines the film and its musical genre. Walter Murphy transforms a portion of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony into a dance tune that highlights Tony’s grand entrance to 2001 Odyssey, and David Shire’s ominous “Night on Disco Mountain” — a version of Mussorgsky’s 19th-century composition “Night on Bald Mountain” — is perfect for an edge-of-your-seat scene in which Tony and his friends attempt to terrify Annette.

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Disco is Saturday Night Fever’s alluring hook, but the journey of its characters gives the film timeless value. The 40-year anniversary Blu-ray edition (Director’s Cut) includes a theatrical version and a director’s cut that provides a few minutes of extra material. A scene between Tony’s parents doesn’t add to their storyline other than ending it on a somewhat positive note. But the scene in which Tony is alone, consoling himself by looking at the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, adds valuable dimension to his character — especially due to its early placement in the narrative.

Tony at the bridge, strutting around Brooklyn, taking over the dance floor, and even blow-drying his hair in his bedroom — which is decorated with posters of Pacino, Stallone, Farrah Fawcett, and Bruce Lee — is a wistful and intriguing glimpse into a slice of America and a difficult decade. Forty years later, Saturday Night Fever captures a gritty, glittering moment in time, and offers viewers so much more than just nostalgia.

The DVD extras contain interviews (from the 30th anniversary edition) with several cast members and with producer Robert Stigwood, who discusses the origins of the Saturday Night Fever script and the casting of John Travolta. Stigwood provides behind-the-scenes details about the making of the film, including his refusal to remove profanity from the script in an effort to portray its characters realistically.

Barry and Robin Gibb talk about the songs that the Bee Gees contributed to the soundtrack — which, amazingly, were written before the script was complete — and how Saturday Night Fever revitalized their career. Other bonus features include costume designer Patrizia von Brandenstein’s explanation of the clothes that were chosen for the film (Travolta’s famous white suit, for example); a deleted scene between Tony and Stephanie (it was wise to exclude it from the final version); a dance lesson; and “Back to Bay Ridge”, in which Joseph Cali visits Brooklyn to discover how much it has — and hasn’t — changed.

RATING 9 / 10
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