It seems inconceivable that forty years have slipped by since John Travolta walked down the street to the Bee Gees on the track singing Stayin’ Alive in Saturday Night Fever (1977), one of the great touchstone films of the seventies. People often forget that the young Travolta was nominated for an Academy Awards for his fierce, turbulent performance as the gifted young disco dancer trying to escape the hell of his lower class life and job in a paint store. Through the day, Tony (Travolta) is a clerk in a local shop but at night in the local disco 2001, he is the king of the dance floor, on a level the others are not.
Dancing is the only time Tony feels truly alive, his preparation a ritual, near Zen like as he showers, works to get his hair perfect, and then dresses, careful to choose the right necklaces to wear. When he arrives at the dance club, the crowds Part for him like he is Moses, giving him room on the floor to cut loose, and watching him is a thing of beauty. If disco was underground before the film came out, it certainly was not after, suddenly everyone was learning, but a Travolta made it look like art. With a partner or on his own he owned the dance floor and knew it, but was also bored no one could keep up.
When a cocky young girl, a Stephanie partners with him for a contest, under her mentorship he begins to think about getting out of Brooklyn, bettering himself. He begins to fall for her, but she is arrogant, believing herself better than him because she a job in Manhattan. Only through conversation does it become apparent she is as ignorant as he is, a laughing stock at work, but tough enough to stick it out because she wants to better herself. It takes a terrible tragedy to smack Tony in the head to truly look at where he is, and the Bee Gee tune quietly states, “I’m going nowhere”.
The life story he is living is that of thousands of young men, a dead end job, parents that look down on him because their older son joined the church and is forever referred to as Father Frank. Only his elderly grandmother truly loves him, he needs to escape. He and Stephanie can help one another but can Tony be friends with a girl? Is that possible?
Travolta was simply a revelation in the role, stunning audiences with his intensity, vulnerability, and genuine purity in his work. Light years from the TV sitcom Welcome me Back Kotter, he was now in the big leagues. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, overnight he became the most famous person on the planet. The National Society of Film Critics honoured him with their Best Actor Award, making his triumph of 1977 complete.
There was a new superstar in town and his name was a Travolta.The film, I feel, has never been fully appreciated for being a mirror of seventies culture and life. It is as though John Badham, a journeyman until he made this, plunked his cameras down in the middle Brooklyn and captured life. Raw, often vulgar, the language and portrayal of sexuality was harsh, and the treatment of women, though accurate was alarming.