John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever—which just recently celebrated its 40th anniversary with a newly restored director’s cut on Blu-ray—is often remembered, and heralded, for being a kitschy snapshot of the excesses specific to 70s-era disco. Leisure suits. Lighted floors. Propulsive beats accompanied by falsetto vocals. Regarded even at the time as a gimmicky dance musical, the film launched the big-screen career of John Travolta. Its iconic imagery become so relentlessly recycled, parodied, and referenced over the decades that many people who haven’t seen the movie feel as if they have. They would be in for quite the surprise, as Saturday Night Fever is anything but a campy document of a long dead era. In fact, upon retrospect it remains frighteningly relevant.
Patrick Bateman. Alex DeLarge. Tony Soprano. Walter White. Tyler Durden. These characters are all typically recognized as intriguing but scathing excoriations of male egomania, curdled by nihilism and sadistic violence. Yet few regard John Travolta’s Tony Manero in this light, when in fact he’s always stood as an all-too-close cousin to these figures.
Tony initially has all the chops of a romantic leading man: hotshot wiseguy from Brooklyn, flaunting a trim figure and sweet baby face. This could easily be the tale of a good kid who’s just gotta growupaliddle, capiche? Yet, this is absolutely not that movie. Tony Manero is an asshole, and moreover, the movie makes very little effort to hide that fact. He and his friends are racist, misogynistic, homophobic, self-obsessed brutes going nowhere fast in a corner of New York City where the neighborhood is faltering economically. In the very beginning of the film, during his famous strut set to “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees, Tony directs unwanted advances towards a woman on the sidewalk by blocking her way, and it only gets worse from there. He repeatedly refers to Annette (Donna Pescow), his sometime dance partner who clearly has a crush on him, as a “cunt,” and generally resorts to harassment when he finds a woman attractive.
Tony’s beauty routine before heading out to the 2001 Odyssey disco is portrayed as preening and primping to the point of narcissism; he eats dinner with a towel draped over his clothes so as not to risk staining them, and no one is allowed to touch his hair. Tony decorates his room with the masculine heroes of the day: Bruce Lee, Sylvester Stallone, Al Pacino, reinforcing the tough guy image he and the other men in the neighborhood are expected to create for themselves. It’s not a dissimilar scene to Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, whose bikers engage in an eerily identical ritual of dressing for the evening’s events, surrounded by their favorite pop culture images of cool, prefabricated toughness.
On the dancefloor, it’s clear that Tony is extraordinarily talented. It also becomes apparent that his love of the disco nightlife, and especially of dancing, is his escape from the hopeless future which seems to await him. He has no other talents and the job market is drying up. He dreams of going to Manhattan or Staten Island, where a more fruitful life might await him, but has no tools or capital to believe he might get there. Dancing is the one thing which provides meaning.
But that very mode of escape also seethes in its underbelly with the same type of poisonous expectations of male behavior which blemish the rest of Tony’s life. He and his friends crack jokes about “spics” and “niggers” and make fun of gay couples on the street; this behavior does not turn off simply because they step into a realm of escapism. And when one of their crew is jumped and lands in the hospital, they violently beat up a rival gang who they (likely mistakenly) believe to be the perpetrators of the assault.
During the course of the film, he gravitates towards Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a professional dancer who agrees to be his partner for an upcoming contest at Odyssey 2001. She rejects his repeated advances, but Tony still finds himself trusting her despite his sexist expectations. Their routine at the contest nabs them first place, but it’s the events which follow that demonstrate what Saturday Night Fever is truly about.
Though they win the top prize, Tony knows that the Puerto Rican couple which placed second only lost due to racism on behalf of the judges. While he could happily accept the prize and move on, he admits the other couple was better, and insists on giving them the trophy. While the right thing to do, this infuriates him afterwards, and it becomes obvious that Tony is wrestling with who he’s supposed to be.
A conversation with Stephanie after the contest quickly turns into an attempted rape on Tony’s part, his male rage and sense of entitlement coming to the fore and reversing whatever good will he may have demonstrated when surrendering his first prize trophy. Stephanie narrowly escapes, and at this moment it’s difficult to see Tony as anything but a monster.
His friends, accompanied by a very intoxicated Annette, pick him up and they go for a drive, Tony sipping beer and glowering in the passenger’s seat. Annette had drunkenly agreed to a gang bang beforehand, but as things get underway in the back seat, she changes her mind and pleads to stop. Her wishes go unheeded and she is raped by two of Tony’s friends, Tony not intervening but instead sitting there in paralyzed discomfort, clearly not wanting this to happen but also not knowing what exactly to do.
This is, make no mistake, a horrific scene, and is intended to be so. Annette has been the object of verbal and emotional abuse from Tony since the beginning, and now that he’s listening to her rape, he’s confronted not only with his awful treatment of her but also what he almost just did to Stephanie. Yet despite this realization, there’s nothing heroic about him here, either. He does nothing to stop his friends.
The gang stops on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island, to engage in their usual antics of climbing the bridge’s cables. The bridge has become somewhat of a symbol to Tony, representing the escape from his life that feels unattainable. As his friends get out of the car, Tony first tries to comfort Annette, then again calls her a cunt, sliding ever closer to irredeemableness.
A despondent Bobby C. (Barry Miller)—who has been in deep despair since getting his girlfriend pregnant and trying to reconcile his Catholic faith with the urge to encourage an abortion—drunkenly walks the edge of the bridge. He calls Tony out for not acknowledging the depression which has clearly been wracking him, and flirts with suicide before accidentally falling to his death. At this point, the gang is so shaken by everything that’s happened, they all retreat from the scene in shell-shocked oblivion.
Tony spends the rest of the night getting to Manhattan. He finds Stephanie’s apartment and apologizes to her, which she reluctantly accepts after calling him a rapist. But things take a turn when Tony acknowledges that he does not want to go back to his existence in Brooklyn, and that he looks up to Stephanie for being someone who escaped their neighborhood and became a professional dancer, his ultimate dream. She agrees to be his friend and to help him figure out his life, and in that moment Tony experiences something that has not been available to him at any point before now: compassion.
What’s so remarkable here is that Tony doesn’t “get the girl,” a demand of almost any Hollywood film. Stephanie doesn’t determine Tony secretly has a heart of gold, and she doesn’t declare love for him. What Stephanie does realize is that Tony is largely doomed—by his economic situation, by his upbringing, by what he’s been told it means to be a man—and she wants to help. Likewise, Tony has spent the evening ping-ponging between admitting that he’s a piece of shit and giving in to that default setting.
Our cultural memory of Saturday Night Fever is inaccurate bordering on completely off-base. The movie has been reduced to a handful of camp images and a hit soundtrack, a film to be remembered but no longer experienced, distilled into a false, skewed reflection of itself. What’s strange is that the movie’s initial impact proved largely accidental. Inspired by a New Yorker account of the local disco scene (later revealed to be mostly fictionalized), the film was conceived as a low budget depiction of grimy Brooklyn lowlifes set against the emergent, flashy culture of dance music, an untried but popular sitcom star as the lead. Those irresistible Bee Gees numbers? Hastily added in post-production, as the filmmakers struggled to give the movie a more identifiable sound and identity. Though initially enjoying mainstream success, Fever is now arguably a cult film, as fewer and fewer people are likely to be aware of what actually happens in the movie, or what it’s even about.
The New York of the film is not Studio 54; it’s Last Exit To Brooklyn. And while it’s unlikely John Badham will ever be ranked alongside Roman Polanski or Martin Scorcese, Fever keeps company with such contemporaries as Chinatown and Taxi Driver in its relentless deconstruction of how men are portrayed in film.
Chinatown initially shows private detective Jake Gittes as a wily tough guy, but as he pursues a case that takes him deeper into a web of sexual abuse and murder, he is forced to confront the way men (including himself) not only hurt women but are enabled to get away with it. (Polanski is a convicted rapist, but has created two of the most effective cinematic portraits of abuse and rape, Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby, rendering both films all the more unsettling given his own predatory behavior). Like Jake, Tony is existentially razed once he sees the horror of the world around him.
And similar to Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, Tony is a man consumed by damaging illusions; they each live a seedy nightlife where they dwell in fantasy versions of themselves. While Travis is losing his mind and Tony is not, the two of them are NYC outliers who objectify and obsess over women while fetishizing their own brutal tendencies. Mirroring the conflict within him, Tony’s life as a dancer is an escape from the conventions of masculinity but also slyly enforces them.
While the disco setting is itself significant to the film, the movie avoids the moralistic stance of implying that Tony’s behavior is the result of his lifestyle. His issues are ingrained and well-programmed in advance. In fact, one could swap out the disco scene for any other subculture—punk, for instance—and still tell largely the same story about abusive masculinity.
Surely today, the film’s two rape scenes would be hyper scrutinized for their portrayal, and may not hold up for all viewers. The character of Annette is an emotional doormat for the entirety of the movie, and her rape is quickly shrugged off after Bobby C. begins flirting with suicide. (She even turns to the arms of one of her rapists for comfort after Bobby falls).
However, Annette’s portrayal is in keeping with the larger idea of the movie; she’s trapped just like Tony’s friends, but in this case as the abused as opposed to abuser. And many women are indeed assaulted by male acquaintances, in drunken incidents that are dismissed after the fact. The whole gang of people, including Tony and Annette, are shown as stoned, confused, and ultimately sad, caught in a machine of misogyny and economic bleakness that they don’t understand, unable to make sense of what is happening or why. This is not to imply the men aren’t responsible for their behavior, but instead gauges the fact that they don’t know how to take responsibility. They’ve never had to.
It is an immolating depiction of masculinity, exposing what these men really are, and revealing the perpetuation of their ignorance. In the end, Tony admits what he’s done, and asks how to be a better person. He sees his friends going over the edge and knows he’s inching closer. Tony wants to dismantle the rapist macho bullshit he’s been embracing, and as he lacks the emotional apparatus to navigate both that and the hopelessness it causes, he asks for help.
He is not a hero.
He is someone who has seen what he is and wants to do better.
Unfortunately, there is a PG-rated edit of Saturday Night Fever, mostly created so it could be shown to underage audiences during its rerelease in theaters. It’s the cut many of us saw on HBO when we were children, presenting a blunted version of the movie’s impact by focusing on the dance contest aspect of the story. But Fever is not PG. It is an R-rated, dark, and even confrontational film with an unflinching depiction of the grotesqueries of masculine entitlement.
That said, the dance moves are still pretty groovy.