Saturday Night Fever belongs to Travolta
By Claire Martin – The Capital-Journal (Salem, Oregon) December 20, 1977
You CAN make a silk purse out of a sweathog’s ear, and John Travolta proves it in “Saturday Night Fever,” playing now at Lancaster Mall. “Saturday Night Fever” belongs to John Travolta. It belongs to him, and he knows it, in his cock-of-the-walk swagger, carefully blown-dry hair, his cool appraisement of pretty Brooklyn women, and, most of all, in his dancing.
Oh, how that man can dance! He is the Fred Astaire of boogie, a 1977 Elvis Presley with the supple grace of a snake and the rhythm of the sea, and some of his own effervescent spirit.
Travolta steps on a crowded dance floor, and almost melts into the frantic gyrations of the other dancers, until slowly the other couples draw back, and he is alone and on stage. And he takes the stage, with the whole-hearted approval of his followers, mesmerized by the music, drunken with dance, choreographing his name on the floor.
When he walks off the floor, it is as a performer strides to the curtains. Only the curtains here are throngs of young, approving faces who smile and call him the king of the dance floor, a title that he rightly accepts as his due.
That is Travolta, or, if you’d rather, Travolta playing Tony, a 19-year-old Brooklyn kid who sells paint during the week and dances Saturday night. The Brooklyn kid lives at home with his very Italian Catholic family, “rumbles” at night with his Italian buddies (here, against the “Spits,” although their prejudice engulfs all races and sexes), and “does” drugs.
Tony’s home life is grim. His parents view him as a failure, measuring him against his older brother, a priest. He is constantly at odds with both mother and father, a point that is made overly clear by screenwriter Norman Wexler. He mostly dances for his high at “2001,” a garish discoteque where the main floor is lit by changing colored light patterns and an overhead mirror-plated globe throws diamond reflections on the dancers. His partner is a chubby Brooklyn girl who longs for Tony with unrequited love.
“Saturday Night Fever” is the story of how this polyester-suited Adonis comes of age, and realizes that all life is not a stage, or even a dance floor. His road to enlightenment is lit by Stephanie (Karen Gorey), a Brooklyn colleague who is rapidly moving up in magical Manhattan, with the help of a promotion firm.
Stephanie, the female dance counterpart of Tony at “2001” and his future partner for a dance contest, embodies refinement, ordering tea with lemon between the snapping of her chewing gum. She used to drink coffee, she confides to Tony, but switched to tea because that’s what the other girls in the City office did. Manhattan is In. Brooklyn is Out.
She has Tony, the stud who has women begging for his favors, curled around her manicured little finger. It is an interesting and unique subplot, unique because it avoids the near-mandatory consummation of Travolta’s longing for Stephanie, leaving us to wonder: will they or won’t they?
It certainly works better than writer Norman Wexler’s other plots (one about a gang fight, one about the priest-brother). Both subplots are cliche-ridden — the ex-priest brother embodies the word poignant as he gives advice, and it takes the death of a gang buddy to effect a catharsis for Tony.
“Saturday Night Fever” is alive and pulsing on the dance floor — why bother with the maudlin stories? It is easy to imagine “Saturday Night Fever” bombing in the hands of another lead. Tony could easily become a caricature instead of a character, an insufferable egotist, but Travolta pulls him into a very human person.
Travolta is a skilled actor, creating an unlikely aspiring prince from a character that others could have turned into a toad. He uses his whole body to communicate Tony’s vibrant, sensual self, especially his face, a page upon which his Brooklyn soul is written, blazing from his intensely blue eyes.
Saturday Night Fever movie trailer
Stayin’ Alive: From Saturday Night Fever (Bee Gees)
John Travolta a hit in Hollywood, too
By Kevin Thomas – Asbury Park Press (Asbury Park, New Jersey) Dec 20, 1977
Surprisingly few TV-created stars have survived the leap to feature films. John Travolta, who has scored as the cement-headed Romeo of television’s Welcome Back, Kotter, has his first feature film starring role in “Saturday Night Fever.”
On the basis of the first feverish responses, Travolta looks to have a real shot at making it in movies, too. What is most striking about Travolta is an unexpected quality of innocence combined with a thoroughgoing professionalism.
Somehow such qualities would seem contradictory, yet they are not in him. This may be explained by pointing out that while Travolta has been acting since he was a child, he has remained close to his family.
One must remember, too, that Travolta is still only 23. However, he is already in his third season as Kotter’s Vinnie Barbarino and last year made an impressive movie-for-TV debut in “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” playing a youth born without natural biological immunities to disease.
At the same time, he shrewdly accepted a small but attention-getting part as a hood — “much meaner than Barbarino would ever be,” he has said — in the phenomenally successful “Carrie.”
In his first big screen starring role in “Saturday Night Fever,” he is cast as a super-cool king of a Brooklyn disco whose one-night-a-week reign contrasts jarringly with his futureless job as a hardware store clerk. “Saturday Night Fever” is the first of a three-picture deal with the Robert Stigwood Organization, for which he’s just completed the starring role in “Grease.”
Three years ago he was understudying the lead and playing a minor role in a road company of the ’50s musical. He hopes the third film for Stigwood will team him with Lily Tomlin. Already, too, he has recorded two hit singles and an album.
“Saturday Night Fever” is based on “Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night,” an excellent piece of sociological reportage by Nik Cohn that appeared in New York magazine. Happily, the film is true to its source yet has been developed by writer Norman Wexler and director John Badham into a full-fledged, thoroughly absorbing drama, at once poignant and pulsating, as infectious as the incessant disco beat that sets its rhythm.
Travolta has been most effectively teamed with another feature film newcomer, Karen Lynn Gorney, as the Beautiful Couple of their neighborhood disco. Travolta read “Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night” and immediately envisioned himself in a film based on it.
“I thought that if it ever could be a film it could be very powerful. It had images and values that were very strong. I wondered if I could ever come across as strong,” says Travolta after proudly showing his visitors around his West Hollywood apartment, which he has tastefully decorated himself in some antiques.
“A month or so later, the Stigwood deal came up, and I actually got the chance to do it,” he says. “That article was extremely well written and I think Norman Wexler did a terrific job with the script. I’m only speaking from the actor’s point of view, but the scenes are written so well that they’re easy to act. They have a beginning, middle and end — they’re brilliantly progressive.”
“I worked five months getting in shape for the picture, from the time I finished ‘Boy in the Plastic Bubble,’ From October 1 to February 18” — Travolta always seems very precise about dates — “I danced three hours a night, four or five nights a week. By February I wanted to run, so I started jogging. I was like a horse wanting to get out, and I dropped 20 pounds. I’m a pretty good dancer but that floor stuff — let me tell you! You really have to be in shape for that!”
“Each time when John is working on a project, he eliminates everything else from his life, working nights and days,” says Randal }Geiser, who directed him both in “Plastic Bubble” and “Grease.”
“He would call me at 10 o’clock at night to ask me whether he was better in take four or five. He’s very interested in being perfect. When he thinks he isn’t, he’s very frustrated. He can be depressed a whole day about it. He doesn’t have any objectivity as to how good he really is, and, because of that, he comes across so well.”
Originally, John Avildsen, the director of “Rocky,” had been set for “Saturday Night Fever” and, according to Travolta, had worked five months in preparation before being replaced by John Badham.
“John Avildsen wanted more of a love story concept for the film,” explains Travolta. “More like ‘Rocky.’ I like Avildsen very much, but I’m glad we didn’t go his way and instead went back to what Wexler intended.
“People get caught up in wins. If something wins for you, you’re going to go with it. Avildsen was in the height of the success of ‘Rocky.’ He needed to sit with the success of that picture. Maybe if he’d had one in between ‘Rocky’ and ‘Saturday Night Fever,’ it would have worked.”
In the course of shooting — entirely on location — Travolta met the young man who served as the prototype for Cohn’s article — and who appears in the film in the discotheque scenes. “He was a much milder guy than the article made him out to be. He was a kid dressed in a three-piece suit, with high heels, a blond Italian — I thought he’d be dark. He was very cool. His name was Vinnie. He was working for his father in some capacity.
“I sensed more of a maturity in the guy; he was not like the other guys in the discotheque. I know what it was about him: I didn’t sense the anger in him that I had expected from the article.”
Saturday Night Fever: John Travolta’s disco dance to the Bee Gees
They’re doing the Hustle!