Why Saturday Night Fever Wouldn’t Be a Blockbuster Today

John Travolta on the subway in Saturday Night Fever
In the Seventies, films were often gritty and downbeat—and still popular with the masses.

In the closing minutes of Saturday Night Fever, the following events occur: A racist injustice, an attempted date rape, a gang rape, a horrific accidental death with an element of suicide, and (not least) a nighttime ride on the disco-era New York City subway. The film concludes with the hero getting rejected by his lady. Naturally it was one of the biggest hits of 1977.

Baby Boomers jammed theaters to see Saturday Night Fever (which earned the equivalent of over $350 million in today’s dollars) and Gen-Xers (like me) either sneaked in to see its forbidden R-rated depravities or watched it later on HBO, where it popped up frequently in the early 1980s. Today, with the film available on the Hulu streaming service and Paramount having just issued a 40th anniversary Blu-Ray director’s cut, it stands as an unusually vivid portrait of an era, one of the most singular and gripping dramas of the late Seventies.

At the time, kids yearned to be adults, and movies reflected that. Today, adults yearn to be kids, and movies reflect that too. In 2016, each of the top 13 films at the box office was either a superhero fantasy or a cartoon, seven of them released by Disney. Saturday Night Fever reminds us that even blockbuster movies used to carry young people the news that life was fraught with error, anguish, and disappointment. Today if a major studio decided to bank on a film like it, the climactic dance contest would have to be a path to, at least, a transcendent moment of fame on a TV show, and romantic fulfillment would be a given.

SNF, though, is a rags-to-rags story: John Travolta’s Tony Manero is no better off at the end than he was at the beginning. When he and his partner Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) win a disco contest, he knows the victory is undeserved and attributable to the judging panel being composed of his peers from an Italian-American Brooklyn neighborhood. Tony thinks a Puerto Rican couple should have won, and he’s absolutely correct: They’re dazzling. So he gives them the trophy and tries to rape Stephanie in a car. Later, a despairing buddy, who believes his life is ruined because he got his girlfriend pregnant, clowns around on the Verrazano Bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island until he falls to his death. “There’s ways of killing yourself without killing yourself,” Tony tells the police. Later the same night, with the sun about to come up, Tony takes the subway to Stephanie’s apartment, where she forgives him for attacking her but reiterates that she isn’t interested in him romantically. The end.

Those who haven’t seen the film sometimes assume it’s campy and silly, a pageant of bad taste. But if the bouncy Bee Gees songs typified a musical era, the crushing story typified a cinematic one. Films were generally muted, earthy, gritty, and downbeat in the 1970s, when even blockbusters frequently concluded with the defeat, compromise, or death of the hero, and any triumphs achieved were seldom unalloyed. Today such stories tend to be fenced off in independently financed films, usually with small budgets, that emerge during Oscar season and attract small audiences.   

It’s a commonplace to say that Seventies filmmakers were simply drinking the cultural water, which was infected with a sour tang left by Vietnam and Watergate. That isn’t what happened, though. Movies were reflecting the natural disposition of artists — gloomy and cynical — because 1970s Hollywood was being led by artists for the first time. Starting around 1967, 1930s-era Hollywood moguls, such as Jack Warner at Warner Bros and Daryl F. Zanuck at Fox, discovered to their chagrin that their long-cherished idea of what constituted dazzling, can’t-miss entertainment (Camelot; Hello, Dolly!) was poised to bankrupt them. Cheap movies made for hippies, like Easy Rider and M*A*S*H, were the new blockbusters. The Hollywood suits were scared that they no longer understood the audience, so for the first time ever they let the artists off-leash. The creative types went too far, though, and as the 1980s began, artist-driven disasters such as Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart made the executives realize that auteurist films could lose money as surely as glitzy family spectacles. The executives reasserted control and restored the happy-endings policy.

Instructing young adults that they couldn’t always get what they wanted wasn’t the main purpose of 1970s filmmaking, but it was a side benefit.

Instructing young adults that they couldn’t always get what they wanted wasn’t the main purpose of 1970s filmmaking, but it was a side benefit. The movies amounted to a generational warning about the perils and setbacks of adult life. We learned that the system was hopelessly stacked against us, that dreams rarely come true, that people are flawed and life will wear you down. Movies today, though, are calibrated to reach an audience raised with the certain knowledge that self-esteem is the most important trait, that young people will lead the way, and that you can have anything you can imagine, as soon as you can imagine it. Kids identify with childish superheroes who rule their environments. Deadpool, Iron Man, and Harley Quinn kick butt and crack jokes. Harry Potter can come up with a spell for any occasion. Katniss Everdeen is fierce and unbeatable.

Even when today’s movie heroes are in extreme danger, such as Matt Damon’s stranded-on-Mars Mark Watney in The Martian, they’re so cool and confident that quips never stop flowing out of their mouths. Successful movies reflect their audiences, but they help shape them as well. Kids imagine themselves getting lost in space a million miles from home and they think: That’s me in any situation — I got this. We’ve raised a generation of little superheroes. Small wonder that the intern in your office seems surprised that she’s assigned boring tasks, or expects a promotion after three months, or offers you advice on how best to reorganize the company.


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