Megan Wood, 35, of Allenstown, NH, was less than two years old when Saturday Night Fever opened in December, 1977. She grew up to be a dancing fool, but never heard of Hollywood’s last great dancing movie until an older friend talked about it in July, 2011. She watched it, and decided she wants to dress up in designer polyester clothes, go to a discotheque, and dance that way to that music.
“If necessary, I’ll revive it myself,” she said.
Coming of Age Drama
Saturday Night Fever is a coming-of-age drama, set in a poor section of Brooklyn. It is as light as a barrage of mortar shells. Serious things happen to those kids while the Bee Gees reel off one hit song after another, in what is still considered one of the best movie musical scores ever.
At one point, four songs from the movie were on top of the pop charts. It was hard to tell if the movie was pushing record sales, or the records were pushing the movie.
In life, Tony Monero (John Travolta in the role that made him a movie star) is a nobody from a dysfunctional family, with no education or prospects, in a dead-end job in a neighborhood hardware store. He’d do anything to break out of this life.
On the disco dance floor, he is the star, white-suited, strutting amid flashing lights. Girls swoon over him, and compare him to Al Pacino . Tony’s ambitions are mirrored in his relationship with his dance partner, Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a secretary moving into the glamorous world of Manhattan.
The Other Girl
Donna Pescow was almost considered ‘too pretty’ for the role of Annette, the dancing partner Tony drops for Stephanie, who is sophisticated, better looking, a better dancer, and not impressed by him. Annette adores Tony, who barely talks to her,except to insult her. He shows her no respect. She’s always talking about her married sisters, he says, and wants to be a married sister herself.
Pescow put on 40 pounds for the movie, and trained herself back to her native Brooklyn accent, which she trained herself out of while studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After production ended, she immediately lost the weight, and the accent.
Coming of Age is No Joke
Other serious things happen to the young people in the movie. For instance, Tony’s brother, Father Frank, leaves the priesthood, which devastates his mother.
Tony’s gang, and a Puerto Rican gang in the neighborhood, mess each other up, and one of Tony’s friends goes to the hospital.
The shrimpy, clueless nebbish in Tony’s crew, Bobby C., played by Barry Miller in platform shoes, gets his girlfriend pregnant and has to marry her because her family is Catholic. He asks former Father Frank to help him get a dispensation from the Pope to get his girl an abortion. Frank, who has problems of his own with Church policies around sexuality and celibacy, responds without words to the Church’s inhumanity toward poor, ignorant kids like Bobby. To make matters worse, Tony forgets to call Bobby C. because he is absorbed in his own issues, leaving Bobby alone with his problems.
Annette, presumably saving herself for marriage, offers Tony unprotected sex, and he rejects her. She gets loaded on Quaaludes, and lets Tony’s friends gang bang her in a car. She becomes hysterical, and Tony calls her a c..t.
The boys and Annette drive to the middle of the Verrazzano Bridge, then the world’s longest suspension bridge, between Brooklyn and Staten Island, high above the gateway to the Atlantic Ocean. The boys get out and play on the bridge’s cables and railing. Annette sits in the car, still sobbing, and scared that they will fall to their deaths.
Annette flies out of the car when they lose their grips on the cables and fall. She runs to the railing and sees them on a ledge, safely laughing at how they fooled her. Then Bobby C., also loaded on ‘loods, starts climbing too high on a cable, scaring everyone. Tony tries to talk him off the bridge, but Bobby falls into the water and dies.
Unable to endure his Brooklyn life any longer, Tony takes the long subway ride to Manhattan. It’s a trip from one world, one class, to another.
Language and Society in Saturday Night Fever
Screenwriter Norman Wexler had a dead-on accurate ear for the angry, ugly way those angry people talked in that poor, ugly Brooklyn neighborhood. It almost rises to the level of a dialect, characterized by promiscuous use of “F-words.”
In one climactic scene, there is even a “c..t” word, which today is even more dirty and offensive, especially to women. It is used much more rarely than the F-word, whose shock-value has been diluted through over-use. Even in the context of a dialect, even among people in that neighborhood, it is extra nasty and insulting, particularly to a woman’s sexuality.
Wexler uses the F-word as it is really used, as part of the dialect, nor for shock value or the punchline of a joke, but when Wexler chose realism, including the C-word, he drove away some people in the audience who objected to the cussing.
“Disco Demotion Night”
Saturday Night Fever was the high-water mark of the disco era. Eighteen months later, the whole era was blown to smithereens in Chicago’s Comiskey Park between games of a double-header, in one of the most infamous ballpark promotions in baseball history..
Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck invited local DJ Steve Dahl to blow up a dumpster full of disco records in center field between games of a doubleheader. Any fan who brought a disco record could see two games, and the big explosion for 98 cents. Veeck sold thousands of t-shirts that said “Disco Sucks.”
On July 12,1979, 75.000 fans (20,000 more than the park’s capacity) overwhelmed security, scaled the walls, and pushed past ticket gates to see disco go up in flames. The rowdy crowd tossed disco records, cherry bombs, beer cups and whatever down toward the players through the first game.
Between games, with the crowd chanting “Disco Sucks!” Dahl cued the technician, who shot records and flames hundreds of feet in the air.. Fans stormed the field, tore up grass, climbed the foul poles, knocked over the batting cage, and started bonfires with the smoldering record sleeves lying on the field. .The Chicago Police dispersed the crowd.
The White Sox had to forfeit the second game because the field was too torn up, and the crowd was still throwing things down on the players.
Saturday Night Fever was the high point of the disco era. The most glamorous people in the world including Mick Jagger’s wife Bianca, and the style-setting wife of Canada’s Premier Pierre Trudeau, danced at the world’s hottest disco, Studio 54 in Manhattan, while hundreds of lesser mortals stood in line outside, dressed in designer fashions, hoping to get in.
Rarely has anything so “in” gone so far “out” so fast, but that was in 1979. What chance does Ms. Wood, who has no personal memory of the disco era, but was first exposed to it in Summer, 2011, have of bringing it back with people her age and younger, who now control pop culture?
Nik Cohn (magazine article “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”)
Norman Wexler (screenplay)
- Mandich, Steve. “Disco Demolition Night: A Midsummer Nightmare.” Steve Mandich.com. Retrieved August 3, 2011.
- Rovi, Hal Erickson, “Saturday Night Fever (1977).” Rotten Tomatoes by Flixster. Retrieved August 3, 2011.
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.