For proponents of the theory that everything in the world exists for some good reason, disco music must present a conundrum. What higher purpose could possibly be served by this vapid, thrumping, affectless sound, dragging in its wake a subculture of narcissism, pill-popping, promiscuity both straight and gay, cheesy light shows, and the worst male clothing styles since slashed doublets and neck ruffs went out? Disco was so mockable it had barely got started before it was mocking itself — remember “Disco Duck”?
The answer to the first of those questions will readily be given by any of us Seventies survivors. Disco came into the world so that producer Robert Stigwood and director John Badham could create Saturday Night Fever, one of the dozen or so best movies of all time.
The Richness of the Movie
This year is the 30th anniversary of SNF. Filming was wrapping up just about exactly thirty years ago as I write, and the movie premiered on December 7, 1977. By way of celebration I bought a DVD of the movie — a thing I rarely do. I have been sitting here in my study watching it on my computer. (It is not a family movie, certainly not in the nothing-spared DVD version). I can report that 30 years on, it is as good as ever — a beautiful, beautiful movie, a great movie.
Most movies are garbage. We try to have a family movie night once a week, on a Friday or a Saturday, playing some rented DVD from Netflix on the family TV. Dad likes a couple of glasses of wine with his dinner, and a couple of glasses of port afterwards. The family joke is to open a book on how far the movie will get before Dad falls asleep. It’s a rare movie that keeps me awake all the way through. (The Devil Wears Prada was the last one.) SNF, however, will never send me to sleep. I watched it all the way through three times before writing this, and I’ll watch it again this weekend if I get time.
My high opinion was not shared by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The 1977 Oscars were dominated by: Julia, a leftie swooner about anti-fascists in the 1930s; Annie Hall, the first of Woody Allen’s 295 movies about Woody Allen’s neuroses; and the original Star Wars. John Travolta got a Best Actor nomination for SNF, but no Oscar. So much for recognition of merit.
The first thing that struck me, watching SNF again after a lapse of years, was the richness of it. There is so much going on. How did they get it all into 118 minutes?
At its heart, the story is just boy-meets-girl. The boy, Tony Manero (John Travolta), is 19 and works in a paint store. In his leisure hours he hangs out with a little group of coevals: Double J, Joey, Bobby C, Gus. These are all working-class youngsters in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, a scruffy white-ethnic district at that time, though considerably yuppified since. On Saturday nights they go to the local disco, where Tony is the star dancer. The girl, Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), is also an accomplished dancer. She shows up at the disco one night, catches Tony’s eye, and the main plot line is under way.
The richness of the movie is in the other stories being told. Tony’s brother, Frank Jr., leaves the Catholic priesthood, breaking his mother’s heart. The father, Frank Sr., has been out of work for months and the family is having trouble making ends meet — a problem not helped by Frank Sr.’s incomplete acceptance of the situation. He is, for instance, angry at the idea that his wife might get a job herself. (These are second-generation Italian immigrants. The grandmother, who lives with them, speaks only Italian.)
Stephanie herself is struggling out of her working-class chrysalis, trying to give herself an intellectual, vocational, and elocutionary make-over, with mixed results. Tony’s dancing partner, Annette, is afflicted with unrequited love for Tony, and is shattered when he takes up with Stephanie. Bobby C, a hopeless loser, has a crisis of his own, which ends horribly. There is a turf war going on between Tony’s friends and local Puerto Ricans. All this in 118 minutes! Hamlet doesn’t get so much more into four hours.
A Left-Side-of-the-Bell-Curve Movie
The second thing that struck me was that this is a movie about the left-hand half of the bell curve. Of the main characters, I would surmise that only Frank Jr. has an IQ over 100. A couple of the others — Bobby C, Doreen — come across as borderline retarded. All the rest are drawn from that big slab to the left of the mean: people with IQs of 80-something or 90-something. These are normal, unreflective working people who did not get much from their formal education, don’t read books, and don’t think in abstractions, or wish to.
In an age when most movies with any dramatic content at all are made for yuppies, by yuppies, about yuppies — an age in which nobody is supposed to go to work until age 25, after that long soaking in a warm bath of Political Correctness that we call “college” — this is wonderfully refreshing. The only yuppie in SNF is Stephanie’s slimy ex-boyfriend, a walk-on part. Political correctness? Fuhgeddaboutit. You can check off the violations: Homophobia? Check. N-word? Check. Hispanophobia? Check. Male chauvinism? Check, check, check, check, check. Everybody smokes, drinks, and cusses. (Tony’s drink preference is the “7&7,” i.e., Seagram’s 7 whisky mixed with 7-Up. He smokes Marlboros. His favorite cuss word is… well, use your imagination.)
It is true that Stephanie aspires to be a yuppie, but the script provides good and sufficient hope that she will never sell all her soul. You can take the girl out of Bay Ridge, Stephanie, but you can’t take Bay Ridge out of the girl.
Thirty years on, with the white working-class fast becoming an endangered species, their services no longer required, this second-quartile aspect of SNF is quite striking. White people with IQs around 90 are deeply uninteresting to our cultural content-providers, having no colorful ethnicity nor any anguished heritage of oppression to commend them. Our political and business elites find them bothersome, and are striving to replace them with cheaper, colorfully-ethnic and anguished-heritage-loaded, immigrants. White American proles are not favorites with movie-makers.
The SNF characters even look like ordinary people — as opposed, I mean, to looking like movie stars pretending to be ordinary people. Their teeth are not very white or very straight, they have bad haircuts and get bad shaves, they smoke cigarettes and eat crummy food, they wear cheap clothes and hang crucifixes on their walls, they are not very articulate or — away from the dance floor — graceful. They mumble, stumble, misunderstand each other, and tell little white lies.
SNF brings to mind Nathaniel Hawthorne’s comment on Trollope’s novel Barchester Towers: “It is just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were being made a show of.”
Furthermore, the characters look exactly as they should look, each in his role. There is no Academy Award given for Best Casting Director, or SNF’s Shirley Rich would surely deserve one. The faces are just right, just right — and memorable:
‐Most work produced on the fly like this is ephemeral, but now and then everything comes right. The hasty scribbler, the harassed director, the struggling actor, are kissed with genius. Then all is lifted out of the common plane, into the light of beauty and glory, up into the realm of true art — borne on the wind!