SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977) revisited

February 11, 2013

sat night Strutting, Smiling, Smirking, Sulking.  This was a young John Travolta at his best.  It was also director John Badham at his best, as he and screenwriter Norman Wexler adapted a New York Magazine article written by Nik Cohn entitled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”.  Their work, along with Travolta’s dance moves, changed the way young adults spent their weekend nights.

Given his recent disturbing mentions in the news, it might be difficult to imagine, but in the mid-1970’s, Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino on “Welcome Back Kotter” was idolized (and lusted after) by just about every teenage girl on the planet.  At the peak of that TV show’s popularity, Travolta exploded onto the big screen as Tony Manero, the king of the disco dance floor.  It wasn’t long before every guy’s wardrobe included multi-colored polyester shirts and maybe even a white 3 piece suit.  This movie now serves as a time capsule of the disco era.  But it’s also much more.

Saturday Night Fever can be viewed from a couple of different perspectives.  Many view it as a snapshot of the short-lived disco era, replete with the clothes, music, drugs and preening.  I have always found it even more effective as a coming-of-age story for working class youngsters trying to make sense of the world as they head into adulthood.  Tony realizes he won’t fit in much longer living with his family, but the tough love and advice provided by his paint store boss (Sam Coppola) falls on deaf ears. When Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) starts spouting off her “whole other world” stories from Manhattan, Tony realizes brawling with his buddies is no answer to life’s mysteries.

sat night4 Tony is a 19 year old living at home with his traditional Italian parents. His mother, played by Julie Bavasso, is a religious woman who takes great pride in her eldest son Frank Jr (Martin Shakar) being a Priest.  His father, played by Val Bisoglio, is a recently unemployed emotional man who takes his anger out on the family by lashing out. Their family meals are loud and aggressive events filled with pride, physicality and hurtful words. Tony’s joy in receiving a raise at work is quickly shut down thanks to the belittling reaction from his father. Dancing at 2001 Odyssey is Tony’s escape from the realities of his world … and the only place where he is admired for being something special. It’s a feeling he relishes and one everyone should experience.

As viewers, we recognize that this little world of Tony’s threatens to lead him down an obvious path where he will wake up 20 years later as a bitter 39 year old, not so different from his father.  Hanging out with his friends, each searching for their own path while trying not to appear desperate, provides momentary escape but no promise of a brighter tomorrow. When Stephanie enters the scene, Tony sees her as a guiding light to a new world. As viewers, we easily see her insecurities and faux-cultural maturity, but to Tony she offers a ray of hope.  A way out.

sat night5 Tony’s buddies are entertaining in their own ways. Joey (Joseph Cali) and Gus (Bruce Ornstein) are just good, solid guys.  Double J (Paul Pape) is the quietly aggressive one.  He’s the guy that views every day as a chance to seek revenge on anyone who might have done him wrong, even if accidently. Mr. Pape went on to become a prolific voice actor (more than 500 credits).  That’s a bit ironic since he is the quiet one of the group.  Bobby C (Barry Miller) and Annette (Donna Pescow) are the ones who break your heart. Bobby’s girlfriend is pregnant and he is desperate for a magical solution, while longing to be as cool as Tony … or at least not invisible.  Annette is a sad creature who just wants to be loved.  She misreads Tony’s signs and covers her grief with booze, drugs and regrettable sexual activity.

John Badham was mostly a TV director when he assumed the helm for Saturday Night Fever.  He had some Hollywood success the year before with a Negro League baseball comedy featuring Richard Pryor and James Earl Jones called The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. Mr. Badham, the brother of Mary Badham (Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird), went on to have some box office success with War Games and Stakeout, but in 1997, he returned to TV projects and has remained there since.  The film is also known for launching the hugely successful soundtrack, which was the top selling album of all-time until passed by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in 1983.  Many of the Bee Gees songs are still played on classic stations today, and “Stayin’ Alive” became the title for the film’s sequel.  The 1983 movie followed Tony’s attempt to break through on Broadway and was directed by Sylvester Stallone. It received brutal reviews and has since faded into oblivion.  In another example of how small the Hollywood community is, Stallone’s girlfriend in Rocky was played by Talia Shire.  Ms. Shire’s first husband was David Shire, who composed the score for Saturday Night Fever.  When they divorced, Mr. Shire married Didi Conn, who co-starred with Travolta in Grease.

Travolta is clearly the most interesting story here. Seemingly at his peak, his career took another leap forward when Saturday Night Fever producer Robert Stigwood hired him for the musical Grease the following year.  In 1980, Travolta was again front and center in a cultural shift as his turn in Urban Cowboy shifted focus from disco dancing to the Texas Two-Step, and the subsequent trend towards mainstream “country” music.  Travolta’s career then went quiet until his first comeback with Look Who’s Talking in 1989.  His second comeback came thanks to Quentin Tarantino casting him in Pulp Fiction.  What many don’t know is that while filming Saturday Night Fever, Travolta’s love interest, actress Diana Hyland died of cancer.  Ms. Hyland had appeared as Dick Van Patten’s wife in season one of “Eight is Enough” and upon her death, his character was presented as a widower.

sat night2 It’s interesting to note that a substantial number in the cast were making their feature film debuts.  That includes Fran Drescher (“The Nanny”) who plays local girl Connie.  Her dancing skills, or lack thereof, lead Tony to make assumptions about her other talents. Also making quick appearances are Travolta’s sister Ann (as the pizza girl) and his mother Helen, who scolds him in the paint store for making her wait so long.  The posters in Tony’s room include Al Pacino in Serpico, Stallone in Rocky, and the iconic Farrah Fawcett swimsuit poster.  Travolta had a key role in the horror classic Carrie, and just missed out on being cast as Meadows in one of my favorite movies The Last DetailRandy Quaid was ultimately cast.  The great film critic Gene Siskel always said Saturday Night Fever was his favorite all-time movie and he even purchased and displayed Tony’s white suit from the film’s climax.

Regardless of how you view it, this little film certainly has its place in Hollywood lore. It launched the film career of John Travolta, changed the cultural nightlife for a generation, taught us not to play on bridges, to take only your allotted time when sharing the backseat, to always chew your food, and whether you are feeling up or down … it helps to strut.

watch a clip of dinner with the Manero’s:

BASEBALL MOVIES: Readers Poll Results

October 26, 2011

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.” —Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in Field of Dreams

Thanks to all of you who particpated in the Readers Poll for Favorite Baseball Movies. Although I sensed a minor conspiracy amongst women voters, the final results were pretty close to other published baseball movie lists.  I won’t name names, but the most creative write-in votes were for The Untouchables – noting the scene where Al Capone makes use of a Louisville Slugger, and Touching Home – a vote based, I believe, solely on the blue eyes of Ed Harris.








3. (tie) BULL DURHAM



















One can’t go wrong with any of the Top 5 as they are all quite entertaining. On the list are a few laugh out loud moments, some high baseball drama, a touch of historical significance, and a heavy shot (or two) of melodrama.

One of the frustrating things about baseball (and most sports) movies is that no matter how talented an actor might be, it’s very difficult to look like you can play the game if you really can’t.  Still, it’s the game, and the memories it creates that have such a grip on us.  Whether playing a pick-up game with our buddies (The Sandlot), watching our team play that magical season (Angels in the Outfield) or simply playing catch with dad (Field of Dreams), most of us carry a connection to the game of baseball and a corresponding special memory. That’s why there are more movies about baseball than football, basketball, hockey, golf and tennis combined.  It truly is the great game.

If you are interested in going a little deeper into the baseball vault, allow me to recommend a few that often get overlooked.

IT HAPPENS EVERY SPRING (1949) – comedy about a scientist who discovers a substance that makes baseballs repel wood. It stars Ray Milland and Jean Peters (who became Mrs. Howard Hughes)

THE WINNING TEAM (1952) – the comeback story of Grover Cleveland Alexander, starring Doris Day and Ronald Reagan.  Yes, the same Mr. Reagan who would go on to become Governor of California and President of the United States.

THE BINGO LONG TRAVELING ALL-STARS and MOTOR KINGS (1976) – comedy about a barnstorming Negro League team from the 1930’s featuring Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, James Earl Jones and directed by John Badham

EIGHT MEN OUT (1988) – the story of the 1919 Chicago White Sox (Black Sox) scandal. It features a couple of then 22 year-olds named Charlie Sheen and John Cusack, and is directed by the great John Sayles.

THE SANDLOT (1993) – a story about kids being kids and the role baseball can play in family, friendship and growing up

KEN BURNS’ BASEBALL (1994) – if you have seen Mr. Burns’ documentary work on The Civil War or Jazz, then you have some sense of the detail and level of research that went into his multi-volume history of baseball

SUGAR (2008) – following the story of a talented Dominican minor league pitcher who dreams of the major leagues.

Thanks again to all who voted.  Pass this along to any baseball and/or movie lovers you know.  The final pitch is two more quotes:

It’s a great day for a ball game, let’s play two!”Ernie Banks

I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.” — Annie (Susan Sarandon) in Bull Durham