Runstedler’s DVD Pick of the Month: Saturday Night Fever

Magill wrote a fun piece on this film a couple years ago, but I really wanted to revisit Saturday Night Fever (undeniably one of my all-time favourites and my favourite musical) in the wake of the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements. Regrettably, it doesn’t hold up well with the times, and although I still love it, there were many cringe moments, even in the classic opening sequence where Tony’s walking through the streets with the paint cans and possibly harassing (?) some of the beautiful women who pass him by. John Travolta is at the peak of his powers here, the film has a killer Bee Gees soundtrack (also at the peak of their powers, although their pre-disco stuff is worth checking out too), the screenplay is riveting, subversive, and compelling, the dance scenes are the best ever (I always tried to mimic his dance moves when I was out dancing pre-pandemic) and I really identified with Tony Manero (for the most part). He works a dead end job, but he’s found something he’s good at (dancing), and he dreams of a world beyond his fairly boring neighbourhood. The discotheque offers him that gateway to something more, beyond his seemingly indifferent and out of touch family and his “friends,” a couple guys who literally act like animals (barking at the diner) and treat their friend Bobby (who is a bit of a loser but really needs a friend who cares) like crap and just use him for his car. And Tony can dance, and he knows it too! The story focuses on his trials to become something more, a chance to be great, against his family and friends, who seem to hold him back, and it does a great job of showing us how his weekends really epitomize who he wants to be and dreams of being, rather than the drudgery of the weekdays, where he works at a paint store. For me, Saturday Night Fever really stands out from the other musicals of its time for its raw, brutal energy and holds nothing back – it deals with rape, suicide (?), unwanted pregnancy, the death of a friend, unrequited love, gang fights, and dysfunctional family life, whereas Travolta’s other big musical Grease is fairly tame in comparison. Saturday Night Fever feels more adult and more real. But I think Saturday Night Fever has a problem with misogyny, homophobia, and racism, and it’s hard to talk about, but they are topics that need to be confronted and discussed. It was filmed in late ’70s New York City, and I imagine much of it tries to capture the gritty and disturbing aspects of the time and it also has different ideas on sex and gender back then, but its treatment of these topics is still troubling and problematic, even for its time and place.

Donna Pescow (The Sopranos, Fantasy Island) plays Annette, who is deeply in love with Tony, but he is not interested at all. That’s fine – it hurts and it sucks, but if you’re not interested, you’re not interested. They were dancing partners at one point, and maybe she thinks she can rekindle that magic, but the magic was never really there, and Tony has his sights set on his attractive new dancing partner Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), who is also an excellent dancer. I can understand both points of view during Annette’s repeated attempts to reconcile with him and her heartbreak, but towards the end, she is driven to madness as Bobby is, albeit for different reasons. She is repeatedly gang raped in the back seat of Bobby’s car by Tony’s low-life friends at the end, drugged and heartbroken, and left broken emotionally, physically, and psychologically. The movie seems to downplay this horrifically traumatic scene, and Tony’s response is even worse – he offers no sympathy and in fact looks down on her. I thought it was a vile response from Tony, and the fact that the film seems to trivialize or normalize such an experience is very disturbing and misogynistic. In addition, when Tony wins the dance competition, he becomes disillusioned and insecure about his win, and after giving the award to the Puerto Rican couple (who did dance better), he tried to sexually assault Stephanie in the back of the car. Thankfully, Stephanie fights him off, but this seems to kill most sympathy and likeability we had for Tony’s character, and again seems to normalize rape as a normal impulsive response to such disillusionment, which is obviously not okay. Tony crosses a line and can’t go back from it. While I appreciated Tony and Stephanie reconnecting in the final scene, it seemed completely unrealistic, especially since he attempted to rape her the night before. And the fact that she is willing to accept him back is troubling too. I didn’t find the female characters in the film very likable either. We feel and care about Annette because we know what it’s like to be rejected by your crush, and we feel her hurt and sympathize (especially with the traumatic experience at the end!!), but since the narrative focus is on Tony, she isn’t provided enough dimensionality as a character to actually get to know her. And I found Stephanie a bit arrogant and offputting and also a bit of a hypocrite, as much as I wanted to like her. On a side note, I was wondering what happened to Gorney’s career after this movie? There is an inexplicable, mesmerizing charm about her (Tony sees her as a sexy older woman with experience and the possibility of freeing him from his current lifestyle and fulfilling his dancing dreams) and she gives Tony something to look forward to, but does this objectify her a bit? Or does she have her own set of agency? She claims to have all of these established connections, but it seems like a bit of a ruse. She has high hopes and ambitions, but it seems to parallel Tony’s own life and wishes rather than exert her own agency. Tony’s mother is too dependent on God to think for herself, and such a devout Catholic that she loses touch with her family’s needs and identities. And the father is a loser who takes it out on his family, a desperate need to assert his masculinity and dominance, and unsuccessful with this as well. Tony’s priest brother appears as a filler character halfway through – I think he’s meant to provide consolation to the family, but we see that he is just as flawed and a bit lost as they are. Frank Jr. does enable exposition from Bobby to explain his dire situation, but otherwise, I’m not really sure what his purpose is.

Tony’s friends are also guilty of homophobia too, particularly in one scene where they heckle and hurl homophobic insults at a flamboyant couple in the park. Tony doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t react against it either. Maybe it was a product of its time, but watching it today, it’s unacceptable and cringey and distasteful. Same with the racist jokes his friends make about Hispanics and blacks. Maybe it shows how crude they are, but it doesn’t sit well with post-#BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo audiences. Saturday Night Fever is a masterpiece of a film plagued by these faults, but I still think it is an excellent musical, and Travolta’s dance scenes in this movie are some of the very best. There’s a PG cut of the film for children to watch, but it dilutes the essence of the story. The director is trying to portray an R-rated New York City from times past, an NYC that no longer exists but as a memory of a rough, unforgiving, and sometimes dangerous and sleazy city. That doesn’t justify its trivialization of rape and lack of consent in the film though, and if we watch this with the young ones, we should educate them about consent and treating women properly. As much as I look up to Tony as a dancing king in the film, his attitude towards women is pretty poor and downright shitty, particularly in one scene at the dance club where he implies that a woman is “a lousy fuck” for her subpar dance moves. In another scene, he tells Annette that “I can dance with you, but you’re not my dream girl or anything” (honest but unnecessarily cruel). Coming at the film with an ambivalent is important but extremely difficult. I think it’s possible to still love this film despite its problematic aspects, and I encourage most of my film buff and dancing friends to watch it, as long as they are aware of and can handle the content. It’s a classic film that is still really watchable for the most part despite not having stood the test of time very well.

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