break out the Night Fever nostalgia, but don’t forget: Cranky is where it’s at, baby
I LOVE “SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER” (1977) AND NOT JUST because I’m a 65-year-old, gay, former disco bunny* (though that nostalgia certainly is a factor). I love it because it is one of the great movies of the 20th century. Yes, you heard me right. If you haven’t seen it, see it; I guarantee it’s not what you expect.
*former disco bunny: Thank your lucky stars that I was blessed with enough self-loathing, thanks mom, to realize that what the world most needs right now is nothing like another sixty-five year old fag with his ass hanging out of leather hot pants prancing down Church Street in thigh-high gladiator boots, so that the rest of the gay community can show their “solidarity”, i.e. rolling their eyes so that only the whites are showing and snickering, “she hasn’t looked good in that since, well, NEVER;” Or worse, “Why can’t gay men just suck it up and dress like Fred MacMurray in ‘My Three Sons’ so straight people will TOLERATE US?” It’s OK guys, I’d rather, and do, prance up and down my living room instead, though this often involves a bottle of gin, Donna Summer CDs and maudlin fake suicide notes in my Secret Diary. And don’t worry about the fake suicide notes, as long as there’s even the possibility that I might be the centre of attention for even a gnat’s lifecycle, I’m safe.
What I love about this movie is its rawness and its sometimes shocking honesty, because the disco dancing and the glitter are not the whole point nor are they just empty set decoration or filling in time. They speak to aspiration, to the sense that “there’s gotta be something better, something beautiful in this life, but how to find it?”
This movie finds it, or rather, by the time it reaches its tender and moving conclusion—(an ending that refuses to tie up the loose ends, a deft touch), it finds the seed of something that we hope will grow to be beautiful.
The disco is the imaginary kingdom where Tony rules, where for a few glorious hours on a Saturday night he’s not a loser: an underpaid employee at a hardware store or the son who can’t live up to his older brother’s vocation of priest. On the dance floor he’s an unchallenged star, not the put-upon de facto head of a broken household, the unwilling focus of two generations of neurotic energy. No wonder he craves a new identity.
I love Saturday Night Fever for the way it captures an era, but it does more than that: it perfectly summons up the restlessness, bravado-masking-fear, and vulnerability of adolescence-on-the-cusp-of-maturity, particularly macho male adolescence with its wild bipolar swings from aggression to arrogance to uncertainty.
Its musical score by the BeeGees is the nostalgic, concentrated essence of disco, a much misunderstood and maligned musical style. Disco was gay to rock ‘n roll’s het; solipsistic sentiment vs. preening entitlement.
Above all, disco was a romantic style. Like a tiny after-shock of the Romantic movement in art and music of the 19th century, it wallowed or it soared, nothing in moderation; above all it had Sehnsucht— longing—for connection, grandiosity and guilt-free sex, it wore its heart, and a few other body parts, on its sleeve, and its throbbing beat and schmaltzy chord progressions masked the ache of loss at its core; even, with hindsight, tragedy, in light of what was to come… This score, together with the Bee Gees’ masterpiece, “Guilty,” forever, in my heart, mind and soul, are the seventies.
The heart and soul of Saturday Night Fever is the character of Tony, in Travolta’s break-out, star-making performance. Travolta is nothing short of genius in this role; the way he inhabits and realizes this character—the moral centre of his group of friends, the cock of the walk who realizes how abysmally he treats his sexual conquests, and who is made to reckon with this by a strong woman who, by her refusal to be just another conquest, effects his change from boy to man—is, well, iconic. It’s a role that he could never surpass, and doesn’t need to. But every single performance in this ensemble movie is just about pitch perfect.
Karen Lynn Gorney, as Stephanie, the only woman who can match Tony on the dance floor, who re-awakens in him the idea that there is a bigger, better world to aspire to, is every bit Travolta’s match, though for whatever reasons her career never topped this particular role and she left acting for nearly twenty years. Her climactic scene with Tony is essentially Tony’s attempt to date-rape her, a struggle from which she barely escapes.
I don’t want to sugarcoat this: It’s a shocking scene and the stakes are high enough—another character dies in the unraveling of the plot, after all—that you are genuinely afraid for her.
Tony, after a distraught night of solitary angst, seeks her out at her home, and it’s not at all certain what her response will be. I know in cancel culture it’s one strike, you’re out, and, as a male, I’m not qualified to pass judgment on what a victim of attempted rape should or should not do.
But in this particular universe, Tony is allowed a moment of, not quite forgiveness, but a period of probation, a second chance where he will befriend a woman instead of “conquering” (abusing) her.
And what moves my old guy eyes to dampness at that point is this: She has every right to reject him, but she doesn’t.
Not doing what you have every right to do is normally my definition of “class,” but this is way, way more than just class. Stephanie looks beyond his violent act, sees his pain and, through claiming her inner authority and re-writing the rules of their friendship, redeems him.
This is Hollywood at its best: touching, funny, real, tragic and ultimately transcendent. Whatever your situation, wherever you live, whatever your age, Saturday Night Fever will speak to you about the possibility of love and self-respect in a world that does everything it can to crush both.
I hope they put it in the time capsule for the aliens to find; it’s that human.
The pandemic lockdown is making me distressingly positive. It’s an interesting experience, but then, so would walking down Yonge Street in pink rayon tights, high heels and nipple rings be an interesting experience, which is to say that interesting experiences are easily cooked up but not always entirely comfortable or mandatory. Still, it’s one more under my belt, though I don’t necessarily recommend it.
Oh, and I suggest NOT putting “no limits” in your online sex ad. There’s always one limit you never counted on, and you can’t always wiggle out of the handcuffs and ball gag without someone calling the fire department.
Which is another interesting experience.
After being so positive and Obama-like (yes, David, you’re just like #44, except for the being black, the Yale education, the brilliant legal career, the highly-praised memoirs, the creation of the beginning of universal health care for the desperate citizens of the US and the eight years of class and taking the high road as President of the United States; you’re just like Obama—without the Obama) I hate to be cranky—but…
Oh, who am I kidding.
It’s WHAT I LIVE FOR.
I have a new phone. And as all of you know, these days we barely remember our own numbers let alone everyone else’s, since we’re effectively on permanent speed dial thanks to “smart,” excuse my hollow laughter, devices.
So why, in the name of Thomas Alva Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and every other saint of technology who became famous on the backs of the five hundred thousand unnamed scientists who came before them and did the actual work of discovery,
do all my friends insist on texting me
so that I have to text back,
“Hi, who is this (new phone) <nervous apologetic titter>!” ?
If this isn’t you, sorry to lump you in with the other white trash.
(and I specifically mean just white trash; I exclude POC because they are usually brought up more strictly and tend to be more politely behaved, even though the irony of that is that they are taught to be polite so they can get along in a racist white society by not making waves, out-whiting white people in politeness and deference, which turns out to be a tragic awakening for them when they eventually realize it’s not working and the only thing that will break white hegemony and racism is burning the fucking house down, which I would encourage POC to do, and please can I be next after all of you light your matches.)
Thanks for hearing me out, you’ve been Awe-sooooooooome!
PS: To the person who texted me just the words “Stouffville days inn” this morning, can I respond by saying:
“Well, a very happy Stouffville days inn to you, too! Murgatroyd McGraw! You—cracker!”