I was delighted this evening (Wednesday 24 August 2022) to introduce John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever as part of the VIFF Centre’s Ragged Glory: Summer in the 70s season in Vancouver.
My intro ended up being improvised rather than read, not least because there was a hitch with the projection, which meant that the film started 30 minutes late.
All the same, I am posting here the written intro that I might otherwise have given, and a truncated version of which I did give, combined with greater enthusiasm for the film (I got a bit nervous that the below is too disparaging).
I shall add a bibliography at the end, although the main text, not being entirely academic, does not include direct references. All the same, the work of those in the bibliography was immensely useful, even if not directly referenced.
And so… the intro as would have been! Starts:-
The Bridges of New York play a key role in Saturday Night Fever, especially the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge – with one scene in particular, featuring John Travolta’s Tony Manero and Karen Lynn Gorney’s Stephanie Mangaro, finding some sort of respite from the endless pressure of the city while looking out at the bridge from the Shore Parkway Greenway.
The shot announces Woody Allen’s Manhattan (USA, 1979) two years ahead of that film’s release; and yet, where Allen unashamedly takes us into the rarefied milieu of New York’s educated elite, John Badham’s film keeps us much more firmly in Brooklyn, specifically the Bay Ridge area where Tony and his friends live, work and go balling on Saturday night at the 2001 Odyssey nightclub.
Where Allen’s film is resoundingly white in its privilege and outlook, though, Badham’s walks a very narrow bridge between exposing the racist, homophobic and misogynistic white world of Bay Ridge, and effectively endorsing it. For, while many might think of Saturday Night Fever as an upbeat jaunt thanks to the iconographic status of its central dance moves and its soundtrack, as brilliantly celebrated and lampooned in Airplane! (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, USA, 1980), it is in fact a very downbeat film, and in the manner of contemporary trigger warnings, it features two scene of sexual violence, as well as a near-constant stream of abusive invective that make it almost an extreme version of the street cinema to which many 1970s films aspired – with Fever explicitly referencing films like Rocky (John G. Avildsen, USA, 1976) and Serpico (Sidney Lumet, USA/Italy, 1973) – as well as Bruce Lee.
As Rocky in particular saw the resurgence of the Great White Hope in a sport then-dominated at the heavyweight level by black athletes, so do the Bee Gees in Fever take disco and make it a white form, with Travolta also openly acknowledging the influence that black dancing, and even black walking, played in helping him to develop not just Tony’s moves on the dancefloor, including moves of black origin like the Scooby Doo, but even the famous strut with which the film opens.
The low angle shots of Tony, creating odd diagonals across the frame, perhaps also tell us that while Rocky and Serpico are Tony’s cinematic points of reference (and while Stephanie aspires to Franco Zeffirelli’s high brow Romeo and Juliet, UK/Italy, 1968), director Badham is drawing more upon Blaxploitation fare like Shaft (Gordon Parks, USA, 1971), which opens with similar movement and framing.
Read in the light of Spike Lee’s later Jungle Fever (USA, 1991), itself about the impossibility of bridging the racial divide in Bensonhurst, one of the main thoroughfares in Bay Ridge (where, in fact, we first see Tony in Saturday Night Fever), one might even conclude that the ‘fever’ of Saturday Night Fever is an otherwise disallowed blackness, which is characterised, in a language appropriated positively by a rapper like Nas, as ill.
Or, as dance scholar Sima Belmar has written of the film, repeating what one of the crowd members says of the African American dancers in the film’s climatic dance competition, there is ‘no way’ for blackness to be allowed into a film that is structured around the white male individual, a story that we have seen repeated afresh this year in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (USA/Australia, 2022).
Come the final dance competition, then, audience members can themselves decide whether the number put together by Tony and Stephanie, of course all dressed in white and dancing to ‘More Than a Woman,’ performed in rehearsal by Cape Verdean-American group Tavares, but here by the white Gibb brothers, is better than the other performances that we see from the African American and the Puerto Rican dancers. Without wishing to give too many spoilers, Travolta’s movements in the film are magnificent, but Karen Lynn Gorney is alas no dancer – only making her task in giving life to Stephanie all the more difficult, if not impossible.
Numero uno says director John Badham in a cameo role to the Puerto Rican couple, perhaps giving to us a sense of where the director’s sympathies lie, and how the film’s constructed whiteness itself demonstrates the racially rigged nature of cinema. And as we see the morally barren lives of Tony’s friends, Joey and Double J, emerge most clearly, perhaps we get a sense that Tony does not want to belong to this world in which white Italian American identity is built upon the backs of occulted black, Hispanic and other racialised and gendered labour (for example, Asian – as per the Bruce Lee poster that adorns Tony’s wall).
In this way, the film – much like Tony and his fellow so-called ‘faces’ (who include the afore-mentioned Joey and Double J, as well as Gus and the afflicted Bobby) – treads a precarious path across the bridge that separates affluent Manhattanites from the residents of Brooklyn as they live in the wake of Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, the Son of Sam killings and more. In this way, those low-angle shots, which will be repeated three years later in Kathleen Collins’ overlooked Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (USA, 1980), precisely about Puerto Ricans trying to make it in outside of New York, demonstrate to us the tightrope that Tony and others of his class walk, or strut, in order to make a better life for themselves.
But where the Cruz Brothers rise as, precisely, brothers – that is, collectively, in Tony’s white world, he is of course atomised, alone (thereby challenging the film’s pretensions to class analysis). And so while Saturday Night Fever promises to us that Tony can become repulsed by the sexist, racist and homophobic world in which he resides (indeed, much has also been made of how Travolta is regularly ‘feminised’ by the camera in his performances), it also cannot let go of the myth of white exceptionalism, even as Tony needs not sex but friendship in order to deal with his life.
Indeed, the film cannot let go of its masculine privilege, giving to Tony an interiority that he tries to express through his dance, both through point-of-view shots during his rehearsals with Stephanie and through his desire to discuss ‘how we feel when we’re dancing.’ It gives no such interiority, however, to the stripper presented to us frontally, and thus as a ‘mere’ display, in the back room of 2001 Odyssey, while Tony’s neglected partner Annette (Donna Pescow) suffers repeatedly through his emotionally neglectful behaviour. Tony’s most famous pose, arm pointing into the air, perhaps recalls that otherwise unseen icon of New York, the Statue of Liberty, but here expressed as the search for Liberty by the white male; this is femininity as appropriation negatively (i.e. downwards), unlike illness as appropriated ‘upwards’ by Nas. In other words, Saturday Night Fever offers us cinema as usual.
Indeed, Pablo Larraín’s brilliant Tony Manero (Italy/Brazil, 2008) perhaps points to the dark heart that is at the centre of Travolta’s Tony, as well as Saturday Night Fever more generally – and in the South American context, the film and its lead character do function as means for creating a psychotic whiteness within its own culture (even if ‘Latin’ functions as non-white within a North American context).
You’re turning God into a telephone operator, Tony says to his long-suffering mother. God is a medium, then, and his desire to be Pacino would suggest that this divine medium, cinema, presents to us a White God. But as Robin Wood identified that the 1970s saw a shift from seeing the repression of sex as horrific to seeing sex itself as horrific, so does Saturday Night Fever in its sometimes sincere, sometimes performed attempt to get past dancing as a prelude to sex, grapple acutely with the horrors of a New York ravaged by history and which lies just over the bridge from Woody Allen’s bourgeois, and perhaps ultimately more deeply corrupt, Big Apple.
Belmar, Sima (2016) ‘Behind the Screens: Race, Space, and Place in Saturday Night Fever,’ in Douglas Rosenberg (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 461-480.
Kinder, Marsha (1978) ‘Saturday Night Fever by John Badham,’ Film Quarterly, 31:3 (Spring), pp. 40-42.
Ramanathan, Geetha (2020) Kathleen Collins: The Black Essai Film, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Steven, Peter (1980) ‘Saturday Night Fever: Just Dancing,’ Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 23, (October), pp. 13-16.
Wood, Robin, and Richard Lippe (eds.) (1979) American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, Toronto: Festival of Festivals.