Review: Saturday Night Fever (1977)

It’s strange to think of a film like Saturday Night Fever as undervalued, but it is. People remember it for the dance scenes, which are marvelous, but they forget the rest of the movie that plays like a mix between Midnight Cowboy and a Martin Scorsese movie. Yes, the film is a celebration of the god that John Travolta becomes when he gets on the disco dance floor of the 2001 Odyssey club every Saturday night. But it’s also a depressing look at a man who is stuck in his circumstances, terrified by the dim prospects for his future, and saddened that dancing gives him his only outlet for hope.

John Travolta’s Tony Manero is one of cinema’s great portraits of the young chauvinistic man. In the famous opening credits he walks down the street in his dance clothes, grooving to a beat that only he and we (the audience) can here. As he passes one attractive girl after another, he shoots them smiles and moves closer to them. When the girls rebuff his advances, he walks away baffled, as if only dense people could resist his charms.

Tony is a beast of contradictions. He thinks himself a sexy beast, but he’s also crippled by his insecurities. In the film’s most controversial scene late in the film, he tries to force himself upon his dancing partner, Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), and gets harshly rejected. However, Tony doesn’t treat the attempted sexual assault as his ultimate low point: he sees it as just a stupid mistake he makes when he’s sad and desperate, and Tony, and the movie, move on from there.

A character like Tony probably couldn’t exist in cinema nowadays. He belongs more to an era where his form of chauvinistic, hyper masculinity was less questioned and more assumed of lower class folk. Not that such people are entirely absent in contemporary cinema, but it’s highly unlikely that a Hollywood film would explore such a person so fully or in so nonjudgmental a tone. Nowadays, Tony would probably be the asshole boyfriend of the heroine, the one she kicks to the curb near the climax so as to realize the potential of the love interest. But back in 1977, a character as complicated and troubled as Tony could be our hero.

Aside from its New York setting and its fixation on poor Italian American men, what makes Saturday Night Fever seem so much like a Martin Scorsese film is Tony’s attitude towards women. He suffers from the Madonna-whore complex, or simply put, he can only see women as untouchable virgins if he desires them, or tainted whores after he gets them. As he constantly asks the girl who’s crushing on him throughout the film, Annette (Donna Pescow), “Are you a nice girl, or [excuse the language] are you a cunt?” Annette says that she can be both, but Tony disagrees. “It’s a decision a girl’s gotta make early in life, if she’s gonna be a nice girl or a cunt.” This is a disturbing attitude, but it’s indicative of Tony’s entirely confusing outlook on life.

His inability to relate to women is an extension of his inability to truly understand life. He lives in the moment, the turn on the dance floor and the elation of that two and a half minutes where every woman in the club wants a piece of him. Or so he assumes. That disconnect between what Tony perceives and what the reality of the situation actually is is what makes this film so good.

When Tony dances, he is the king of Brooklyn. When he’s not, he’s just another Italian American schlep working at a paint store and living with his parents.

It’s the dances people remember about Saturday Night Fever because the rest of the film is so brutally honest and what it shows is so ugly. The film is the kind of definitive portrait of an individual that could only be made in the 70s: gritty, complex, and uncompromising. We don’t come away from the film loving Tony. But we come away understanding him, and feeling for this sad man who keeps delusions alive to make life bearable. We all live with such delusions and Saturday Night Fever makes us feel that brutal fact.

There’s a reason the film’s title uses the word fever in it. Tony isn’t experiencing reality on Saturday night. He’s high on the rush of the music, the swell of hips, the promise of a life that is out of reach. Only on the dance floor does women’s sexuality not scare him and his lack of prospects or an education not matter. It’s the fever of the moment he lives for. It’s the only way he can keep staying alive.

9 out of 10

Saturday Night Fever (1977, USA)

Directed by John Badham; written by Norman Wexler based on a story by Nik Cohn; starring John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller, Joseph Cali, Paul Pape, and Donna Prescow.