One dreary winter day 36 years ago, my sister and I walked around the corner from our house in Brooklyn to the Lowe’s Alpine theater to see John Travolta’s disco epic Saturday Night Fever.
The city was digging out from a recent snowstorm and since travel was severely limited, we figured, what the hell, let’s check out the hot movie of the day.
Saturday Night Fever had been shot in our neighborhood of Bay Ridge and people couldn't stop talking about it.
There were Travolta sightings every day during the filming and it seemed like half the people I ran into told me they had a part in the movie.
I had heard that Alex, the son of a local funeral director, who lived on our block, was an extra, but I didn’t see him and I assumed the story was bogus.
My sister and I were not disco types by any stretch of the imagination, and we laughed at these polyester louts tramping through our home turf and mangling the Queen’s English in their attempt to “tawk New Yawk.”
In fact, my sister tells me that she wanted to walk out on Vinnie Barbarino and company, but that I had insisted upon staying until the last dance. I have no memory of this whatsoever, but I’m sure she’s right.
We finally left the Alpine sneering at what we had just seen and I never looked at the flick again until recently when it ran on the Sundance Channel.
Since I had first seen the movie in the dead of winter, it seemed appropriate to revisit the saga of Tony Manero in the middle of a sweltering summer.
I sat down in front of my TV all set to let mockery repeat itself. I’m older and crankier now, so I was certain I could cut this movie to ribbons and send it scurrying back to the Seventies where it belonged.
But something strange happened as I watched Travolta slip into his white suit one more time. I realized that Saturday Night Fever wasn’t…that…bad.
There are several good scenes and the overall theme of trying to make something out of yourself in a heartless world still resonates.
If you can look beyond the hideous clothing—and that’s no easy task—you’ll find a pretty decent story about a young man looking for a better life.
For those of you who don’t know, the movie tells the story of Tony, a 19-year-old Brooklyn native who toils at a dead end job in a local hardware store during the day and transforms into a disco king when he hits the dance floor at the 2001 Odyssey club on Saturday night.
“Oh fuck the future,” Tony tells his boss at one point.
“No, Tony!” his employer responds. “You can't fuck the future. The future fucks you! It catches up with you and it fucks you if you ain't planned for it!”
You Should Be Dancing
How painfully true. The future has its brutal way with you, it never calls again, and it doesn’t even send flowers…until you’re in a casket.
The movie marked the debut of several actors, including Fran Drescher, who utters the infamous line “so, are you as good in bed as you are on that dance floor?”
Denny Dillon, a very funny actress who was a regular on Saturday Night Live in 1980-81, plays an adoring young fan who breathlessly asks to wipe the sweat from Tony’s brow and then clutches the soiled towel to her bosom like it’s the Shroud of Turin.
The movie accurately portrays the dream of many outer borough residents of escaping Brooklyn and crossing the river to the wonderland that was Manhattan—also known as “the City.”
I am still somewhat stunned at the film’s depiction of Italian-Americans, whose sole form of communication appears to be non-stop screaming.
I feel badly for Nina Hansen, who portrays Travolta’s grandmother and who was regulated to croaking “basta, basta!” and “mangia, mangia!” whenever the pasta fagioli hits the fan.
One particularly annoying scene occurs when Travolta emerges from his bedroom is his little black undies chanting “At-ti-ca! At-ti-ca!” in tribute to his idol, Al Pacino. The grandmother responds by covering her face and turning away.
Let me tell you something: I had an Italian grandmother and if I ever pulled a stunt like that in front of her, I’d be chanting “Am-bu-lance! Am-bu-lance!”
Women are treated appallingly, branded as either a “nice girl” or a “cunt” and this Cro-Magnon attitude explodes in a horrifying gang rape scene in the film’s most gripping moment.
Tony and his crew like to prove their manhood by driving onto the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and swinging from the cables.
I honestly don’t think this is possible because traffic is pretty heavy on the bridge, even late at night, and there’s a significant police presence on the Staten Island side.
Anyone trying to swing from the cables probably wouldn't be doing it for long, but I understand that the filmmakers needed to show how young guys will risk their lives by doing some pretty stupid things. And it sets the scene for a tragic climax.
I was enjoying my second viewing of the film and I did a double take when I saw Alex—the funeral director’s son—on the dance floor of 2001 Odyssey, right next to Travolta. He’s younger and thinner, just like we all were back before the future fucked us, but it’s definitely him.
Alex went on to take over his dad’s funeral business and he would bury both of my parents.
Disco died and 2001 Odyssey was reincarnated as gay club in the Eighties. I was working at a local newspaper at the time and Barney, one of our ad people, used to frequent the place. He cornered me one time by a side door and raved about the clientele.
“The people who go there are fuckin’ gorgeous,” Barney gushed. “They look like fuckin’ movie stars!”
The club shut down in 2005, the building was sold, and the spectacular lighted dance floor was put on the auction block.
People aren’t running off to Manhattan now. They’re coming to Brooklyn.
“We were right all along,” my sister said.
Yes, we were. And we’re still here, and we’re still stayin’ alive…