Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Written by Nik Cohn
Cinematography by Ralf D. Bode
Starring John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, and Barry Miller
The deafening clatter of an above-ground subway interrupts a series of graceful helicopter shots of NYC, bringing us into a vision of the city that’s surprisingly gritty, although not nearly as explosive as a Scorsese movie. The glossy BeeGees soundtrack and Travolta’s iconic strut and disco garb tell us that Tony doesn’t quite belong here; or at least he doesn’t quite want to belong. Still, we know he’s comfortable and confident on his home turf when we see him order a pizza and stuff it down his throat, harass women on the street, and charm customers at the paint shop where he works. The portrayal of Italian-American family life is more humorous than I’ve ever seen it before, but it never resorts to stereotypes. In fact, it’s the universal problems like parental pressure and sibling rivalry that provoke laughs more so than the cultural particularities of Tony’s household. The patriarchal structure of his family is clear from the start, but it’s presented as an inevitable fact of life which Tony never questions.
Tony’s POV shot provides us with a first glimpse of the 2001 disco better than an establishing shot ever could, because what we see through Tony’s eyes are expressions of approval and respect; this is his territory. The film may be a vehicle for the somewhat dated music and dance of the period, but even so the disco scenes here capture the excitement of the club better than most of it’s contemporary MTV counterparts. The fact that Travolta’s performance never comes off as parody is a testament to his earnestness and liveliness; he feels completely present in each moment of the film, the way we like to think most 19 year olds experience life. The fact that we are inclined to let him off the hook when he nearly rapes his new dance partner and later stands by complacently while his friends rape his old dance partner is definitely a disturbing aspect of the film, but it’s also a testament to Travolta’s ability to welcome his character’s flaws into the performance without overplaying them. Ultimately, Tony realizes the dangers of his self-centered ambition when his friend commits suicide by jumping off the Verrazano Bridge. When he achieves his first semblance of a friendship with Stephanie, we don’t know how long it will last, but even the fact of his trying feels like an accomplishment.