From 1977, this morning’s movie:
As the original tagline on the film’s theatrical poster reads:
Nineteen-year-old arrogant, but immature Brooklyn guy, Tony Manero, works in a paint store, lives at home with his parents, grandmother and little sister, spending his weekend nights out with equally arrogant but immature pals at a local disco, where Tony’s earned a reputation as the best dancer in the neighborhood.
Hoping to win the disco’s upcoming dance contest, Tony persuades a slightly older young woman, Stephanie, to be his dance partner. Taking a romantic interest in her, Tony’s rebuffed, as she thinks he’s not worth knowing that way. After all, he’s an arrogant, but immature kid, while she’s escaped the neighborhood for the classier environs of Manhattan, where she lives a more sophisticated life as a secretary for important people.
At one point Stephanie tells Tony that he’s “nowhere going no place”. Infatuated with her, Tony persists, agreeing to keep their relationship within the confines of their dance practices.
Through his interactions with Stephanie, along with a series of increasingly scary episodes with his pals that end in bloody violence, sexual assault and death, Tony grows to realize he needs to get out from under the dead-end life he’s been drifting through all these years. It’s time to move on and grow up.
I was a little kid when this film was first in theaters. To my knowledge, no one in my immediate family saw it in theaters and it wasn’t a movie that my friends really cared to see, so it was easy to miss for the majority of my youth.
It wasn’t until reading Roger Ebert’s review of the film years later that I became aware that it was more than just the glossy, superficial disco movie I’d been led to believe. A few years after reading the review, I picked it up on VHS through the now-defunct Columbia House Video Club…and, to my surprise, found that I really enjoyed it.
Though it was later trimmed from an R to a PG rating to better pair it with Grease for a double feature reissue in 1979…
…Saturday Night Fever‘s got more in common with Scorsese’s Mean Streets than it does with the light-hearted, bouncy fun of Grease.
Sure, there’s plenty of Bee Gees music, flashy disco dancing and overtones of romance, but Saturday Night Fever also features foul language, nudity, racial bigotry, domestic strife, gang violence, rape, and sudden death.
Perhaps it’s because I didn’t watch the film until I was nearly 30, but I never viewed Tony Manero as a character intended to be idolized. I always viewed him as an immature, cocky dumb-guy…who had an unmistakable talent for dancing.
The fact that the character recognizes the limitations of his talent within the confines of his narrow existence in the neighborhood was the main quality that made him at all interesting.
To me, it was obvious, from the first time the character opened his mouth, that this was a young man who had a lot of growing up to do. The only time the character feels truly alive, when he’s able to transcend the limitations of his day-to-day life, is when he’s on the dance floor, but even Tony admits that it (dancing) can’t last forever.
And that– not the dancing, not the fashions, not the music– is, ultimately, what the movie’s about: The beginning of Tony Manero’s adulthood, of turning his back on the shallow, dead-end life he’s been brought up in, of refusing to settle for being a miserable product of his environment.
Like other lead characters in films from the 1970s, Tony Manero was not only not perfect, he was colorfully flawed, a crude, swaggering, superficial jerk who initially embraces his negative traits, then, once he meets Stephanie, starts to reconsider his choices, his friendships, his ambitions, his life.
Unlike, say, Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver, who appears to remain just as deranged as he was at the beginning of that movie, Tony’s not the same at the end of Saturday Night Fever. While Saturday Night Fever doesn’t draw the story out for another 10 minutes to give us a montage illustrating how the character improved over time, it does indicate there’s hope for him yet.
I’ve always seen Saturday Night Fever as ending on a subtle note of restrained optimism. The unpleasantness the character travels through, and frequently participates in, on the way to that ending is what gives the movie its dramatic impact.
Saturday Night Fever has been one of my wife’s favorites since she first watched it as a kid in the late Seventies. It’s been one of my favorite films for just over 20 years, but it’s a motion picture she and I both have an appreciation for.
Interested to see how this late Seventies pop culture/cinema milestone stands up under the scrutiny of younger contemporary viewers, I’ve recently been perusing user reviews and blog posts for the film.
One such blogger, shell-shocked by the dramatic impact of the gang rape scene and Tony Manero’s response to it, felt that the picture should have provided the audience some sort of ‘trigger warning’, either at the beginning of the film, or from her friends who were recommending it to her.
When I sit down to watch a movie, any movie, the first thing I take notice of is its MPAA rating. The ‘R’ tells me to expect something with either a) foul language, b) sexual content, including nudity, or c) graphic violence, or a combination of all three.
One viewer’s ‘trigger warning’ is another viewer’s ‘spoiler’.
As a first-time viewer, I prefer to be surprised by what I see in a film, even if it’s distasteful or unpleasant. If it moves me, riles my emotions in a negative or positive way, then the filmmakers have done their job. If not, then the filmmakers have merely wasted my time.
When I’ve mentioned Saturday Night Fever to people who haven’t seen it and they reply with “You mean that cheesy Disco movie?”, I’ve always made a point of telling them, “It’s more than that. In fact, the movie’s a lot rougher than you might think”.
It was written by the screenwriter of Joe (1970), after all.
Despite its lack of graphic detail compared to other Seventies cinematic rape scenes– Straw Dogs, anyone? No? Last House On The Left?– Saturday Night Fever‘s rape scene is nonetheless undeniably disturbing, depicted primarily through sounds and expressions. Tony’s passive-aggressive inaction during the scene is the lowest point for his character, the bottom of the spiritual barrel…
…until Bobby C. starts dancing on the railing of the Brooklyn Bridge and falls screaming to his death, a horrific exclamation point on an already dark sequence.
All this darkness and tragedy underscore the character’s growing disenchantment with his dead-end existence and the crude, bigoted morons he’s associated with.
In his review, Ebert states “The most lasting images are its joyous ones, of Tony strutting down a sidewalk, dressing for the evening and dominating the disco floor in a solo dance that audiences often applaud. There’s a lot in the movie that’s sad and painful, but after a few years what you remember is John Travolta on the dance floor in that classic white disco suit, and the Bee Gees on the soundtrack.”
Saturday Night Fever is not a polite movie. Or a feel-good buffet of sunny escapism. It’s a frequently gritty slice-of-life character drama, stocked with complicated characters, illustrating some hard, uncomfortable truths.
Don’t let the disco dancing and the Bee Gees numbers fool you.