Review Date: 8-6-09
Release Date: 12-16-77
Runtime: 118 min.
Period: Contemporary, 1977
Costume Designer: Patrizia von Brandenstein
Tony Manero is a nineteen-year-old Brooklyn paint store clerk by day, living with his parents. At night, however, he rules the dance floor at the 2001: Odyssey dance club. Saturday Night Fever describes his existence, straddling these two worlds, and coming to terms with the expectations his family has for him and his siblings. Saturday Night Fever is, in the end, much more than great dancing and an iconic soundtrack; it is about growing up, being accountable for one’s actions, and taking responsibility for one’s own life and happiness.
** NB: This film is rated R, and the plot described herein may not be appropriate for kids. **
The film opens with a shot of the Brooklyn Bridge. The stage is set. Italian stud-boy Tony Manero (John Travolta) carries a can of paint, strutting and swaggering through the streets of Brooklyn. He enters his place of work, the paint store, through the back, quickly dons his khaki work jacket, and offers the can for sale to an unsuspecting customer. Seems his store had run out of that color.
Tony’s relationship with his boss at the paint store is kind; his boss is paternal toward him. As the boss tries to explain why employees are paid on Monday (so they’ll have the money all week, for the future, and won’t spend it all on Saturday night), Tony scoffs. “F*ck the future,” he grumbles. Boss: “You can’t f*ck the future; the future f*cks YOU!”
Tony runs home where his mother (Julie Bovasso), still in curlers, is setting the dinner table. His crabby father (Val Bisoglio) wants to know why he’s late for dinner. Little sister gives him a drawing. It’s a “screen-typical” Italian family living in Brooklyn. Grandma lives in the home, too.
Cut to: Tony blow-drying his hair. He wears nothing but black bikini underpants, and he picks out his clothes for the evening. His bedroom is packed with pop culture references in the form of posters: Farrah Fawcett, Bruce Lee, Al Pacino, Rocky Balboa. He is a kid, living at home.
He puts on his “going out” clothes, and begins gyrating in the mirror. His father calls him to dinner. We see Tony at the table with a sheet tied around him so the spaghetti sauce doesn’t stain his shirt.
Dinner turns into a series of thinly veiled pot shots at Tony. His mother reveres his older brother Frank Jr. (Martin Shakar), a Catholic priest, and she crosses herself every time she says Frank Jr.’s name. The essence of the exchange is “Why can’t you be more like your brother”, and the ensuing argument turns into a slap-fight around the table. “Basta!!” yells grandma. Enough!
Mom tells Dad that she’d like to get a job. He (Dad) is unemployed, and it would make it easier on the family if she worked. This escalates the tension further, and seeing two pork chops on Tony’s plate (instead of one), Dad hits Tony several times around the head. Tony’s response: “I work on my hair a long time, and you hit it?! He hits my hair!” Dad leaves in a huff to go on a walk.
Later that night, Tony’s friends (Bobby C., played by Barry Miller, Joey, played by Joseph Cali, Gus, played by Bruce Ornstein, and Double J, played by Paul Pape) come to pick him up for a night on the town. The storefronts in the town still looks vaguely 1940s – 1950s, an unchanged façade in a rapidly changing world. Bobby C. drives like a maniac as his friends drink a bottle of vodka in the car. They park in a no parking zone and head toward 2001: Odyssey dance club. As they walk to the club, they discuss other minority groups (blacks and Latinos) in language so coarse and offensive it is shocking to modern ears. However, their racism and intolerance tell us about who they are. They are under-educated meatheads from Brooklyn. The kinds of guys who take turns using the car for a bedroom during their nights out at the club, if you know what I mean.
In the club, Tony Manero is king. He glad-hands and turns heads. Everyone is smoking, the music is pumping, the lights are blinking, the girls wear heavy makeup and low-cut dresses. They sit down at a table with a red checked tablecloth and red “Italian restaurant” candles, and take in the scene.
Annette (Donna Pescow) approaches the table, and is immediately spurned by Tony. Annette is a bit on the heavy side (not fat by any means, but robust, more filled-in than the rest of the girls) and she has a profound crush on Tony. Tony evidently could care less about her, but he dances with her anyway. Tony is truly a wonder to watch on the dance floor. You can’t take your eyes off of him. He is in the groove, feeling the music, and the man can really move.
They return to the table and a meek, unattractive girl named Doreen (Denny Dillon) offers to wipe the sweat off Tony’s forehead with her handkerchief. Bobby C. tells Tony that he should ask her to dance. They hit the dance floor, and Doreen throws her arms around Tony in a clingy bear hug. The DJ changes to music to a salsa disco song. Tony breaks with Doreen, and storms up to challenge his choice. The DJ points out that there is someone dancing up a storm to the music. Tony looks to the dance floor and sees Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) dancing with a man in a sport coat. He is mesmerized.
Tony gets a drink at the strip-bar-area of the club, and Annette is hot on his heels. They talk about the fact that though they dance together, there is no (sexual/romantic) relationship. Annette desperately wants to be with Tony, and Tony tries to tell her it is not going to happen.
The next morning, Tony awakes in his black brief underwear. He walks into the hallway and gives his grandma a fright. She screams and covers her face with a dishtowel; she can’t look at her grandson in his underwear!
Later that day, Tony hits the street with his boys. They harass a couple of gay men as they walk underneath an overpass. They stop to admire a Mercedes and a Cadillac, while musing about how it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. It’s clear that they all yearn for something bigger and more important than the world they’re stuck in; they just can’t seem to find a way out.
Back at work, Tony’s boss decides to give him a raise. He comes home for dinner and tells his father. Much to his father’s chagrin, Tony clears dinner plates from the table. “Don’t do that; girls do that,” groans his father. When Tony mentions the raise, his father says, “$4 doesn’t even buy $3 these days”. This enrages Tony, who is upset that his father takes a piss on his good news, his accomplishments, everything. He calls him an asshole, and leaves.
The big dance competition is coming up at 2001: Odyssey. Tony and Annette have competed together before, and both of them could use the $500 prize money. Annette waits for Tony on the sidewalk outside the dance studio. “Why outside?” he asks. “Because I wanted to watch you come down the street. I like the way you walk,” says she. The desperation is rearing its head. As they walk into the studio, she suggestively offers, “Maybe I’ll make it with you…” Tony turns her down, explaining that while they are working together (dancing) it would make the relationship too difficult. Finally he says, “So what are you – are you a nice girl, or a c*nt?”
Tony and Annette practice their dance routine, and he becomes frustrated with her when she doesn’t take it as seriously as he does. He hands her her clothes and tells her to leave. He sees Stephanie in another studio, and approaches her. She turns him away, bluntly.
Tony arrives home to find his mother, grandmother and father sitting on the couch. The women are crying. “Frank Jr. is upstairs,” says his mother. Turns out that Tony’s prodigal-son brother, Frank Jr., has decided to leave the priesthood. This has created great shame for the family. Later that night, as they lie in their beds, Frank tells Tony that parents “turn you into what they wish at the time; you can’t defend yourself against their fantasies. All I ever had any belief in was their image of me as a priest, that’s all.” Tony begins to feel comforted by the fact that his brother, the golden boy, is human after all.
The next day, Tony goes back to the dance studio. He works up the nerve to approach Stephanie. She lets him know that she’s skeptical of dancing with him – he’s just a kid – but she agrees. They walk together to get a coffee, and she launches into a cockeyed diatribe designed to make him think she’s cultured and intelligent. We, the audience, see right through it, but Tony, crippled by his circumstance, does not. At least not at first.
Stephanie tells of seeing Romeo and Juliet, the film, you know, by Zeferelli. Tony counters with, “Yeah, I read that at school. Shakespeare, right?” to which she replies, “No, Zeferelli”. It goes on, and gets better. She talks about having lunch with Eric Clapton and Cat Stevens, as a side benefit of her work as an agent’s assistant. She mocks Tony for not knowing immediately who Laurence Olivier is. It’s a bit of a pissing contest, what Stephanie is doing. You begin to feel sorry for Tony. Stephanie says, “My life is so completely different from yours – (it’s) better – I’m growing…” When Tony asks her if she’d like to know what he does, she retorts, “It’s not necessary… you’re a cliché, on your way to nowhere, going no place.” They leave the café, and Stephanie won’t let Tony walk her home. This burns him.
The boys arrive to pick Tony up. Their pal Gus is in the hospital, having been beaten up by a (and I am paraphrasing) gang of Latino guys. They broke his nose, leg, four of his ribs, knocked out four of his teeth, and stole his groceries. Why? Because (according to Joey), three of the Latinos did a “shove number” on him, knocking his groceries into the street. Gus let fly some racially charged epithets and they let him have it. Tony and the guys go to case out the Latino gang’s hangout – they are known as the Barracudas. Finding nobody there, they leave. As they drop Tony at his home, he tells them to cool off.
The Manero family gathers for dinner, with one noticeably empty place setting. Frank Jr. is nowhere to be found. Mom insists that Tony must have said something to Frank Jr. last night to make him not want to come home. Tony rejects the notion. They start screaming. Mom breaks down in tears, as her dreams for the lives of her children some to a screeching halt. Tony goes to comfort her, but she waves him off.
Annette waits for Tony outside the dance studio again. He tells her that he has found a new dance partner. Annette is heartbroken. “Why do you hate me so much?” she cries, “All I ever did was like you!” Tony disappears into the dance studio.
Tony and Stephanie’s first real dance rehearsal together goes well. Though (sidebar) she is not nearly as gifted a dancer as he. Anyone who watches So You Think You Can Dance knows that Tony would make it through, and Stephanie would not. Stephanie is, however, a better dance than Annette. Stephanie agrees to come to 2001: Odyssey to practice with Tony next Saturday night.
Walking home after rehearsal, Stephanie tells Tony about the lunch she had with Paul Anka. Tony says that he thinks she’s full of shit. She doesn’t get too offended, actually. He asks her if she finds him interesting or intelligent. She says, “Interesting, yes; intelligent, maybe…” She shuts him down again, and doesn’t let him walk her home.
Back at the disco, Tony arrives with his brother Frank Jr. and the guys. Tony is approached by a lithe young woman, Connie (Fran Drescher!) who asks if he’s as good in bed as he is on the dance floor. He takes her hand and heads out to the floor. The music changes, and Tony takes over the dance floor. The crowd parts, and he performs a magnificent solo dance, to the delight of the crowd, and especially his brother. No sign of Stephanie at the club.
During this dance number, Bobby C. attempts, in vain, to get Frank Jr.’s attention, calling him “Father”, even though Frank Jr. has repeatedly asked the guys not to call him Father. Finally, Bobby gets Frank Jr.’s attention, and asks him if the Pope would offer him special dispensation for his girlfriend to get an abortion. Frank Jr. is stunned and saddened at the innocent but yet absurd nature of the request. Frank Jr. excuses himself and leaves the club.
Annette approaches Tony and the guys at the table, and threatens to sleep with someone else if Tony doesn’t sleep with her. It works. Tony takes Annette out to the car. They are going at it, hot and heavy. Tony asks Annette is she has any kind of birth control. She answers no, that she loves him. Tony does not like this at all. He gets off her, somewhat disgusted, and asks her for oral sex.
The boys, by now very drunk, come out to the car. They all load into the car and drive to the Verrazano Bridge. Bobby C. and Annette remain in the car, while Tony, Joey and Double J climb the cables, play with spotlights, and pretend to fall off the bridge (landing on a platform).
The next day, Tony walks Frank Jr. to a waiting car. Frank Jr. is leaving. He tells Tony, “The only way you’re going to survive is to do what you think is right; not what they’ve been trying to jam into you. You do that, and you’re going to end up nothing but miserable.” Frank leaves Tony a souvenir: his priest dickie. Tony tries it on, and pretends to strangle himself with it.
Back at the dance studio, Tony confronts Stephanie about not showing up at the club; he is ticked off. They talk it out, and end up practicing. Later, Bobby C., Joey, and Double J are waiting for Tony at the studio. They take Stephanie with them to the White Castle, where she tells them about her recent encounters with David Boo-wie (horribly mispronounced) and Joe Namath. Tony eats his sliders whole, barely chewing. Joey makes fun of him, by jumping on the tables and barking like a dog, making a scene in the restaurant.
As they leave the White Castle, Bobby C. asks Stephanie if she would rather get an abortion or marry the guy. “Which guy?” she asks. “Me,” says Bobby. “Get an abortion, “ says Stephanie. Ouch. That stings Bobby. Later, the guys tell Tony that they think Stephanie is a snotty bitch.
The next day, Tony asks for time off work, just the afternoon. The boss refuses. They get into a fight, and the boss tells Tony that he’s fired. Tony and Bobby C. walk down the street together, Bobby C. telling Tony that his girlfriend won’t get an abortion, and that he is being forced to marry her. Bobby is desperate for support from the charismatic Tony – he sees Tony as put-together and in control. When Tony dismisses him, and tells Bobby he’ll call him, we don’t really believe he will. Bobby watches Tony go, and cries.
Tony straps a twin-sized mattress down to the roof of his car, and Stephanie emerges from her Brooklyn apartment. She’s moving to the city, and has asked Tony to help her. This is why Tony was fired. He tells her as much, and she doesn’t even seem to flinch. They drive into Manhattan.
When they enter the apartment, there is a man there, an older gentleman, who kisses Stephanie straight on the mouth, much to the dismay of Tony. They appear to have a history, as the man indicates that she picked out much of the furniture in the apartment. Tony stands, stony-faced, pissed.
When they get back into the car, Tony fires away: “Who is he to you?!” The best answer Stephanie can come up with is that he works at a record agency, and that he helped her. He helped her. He helped her. Stephanie breaks down and cries. She cries all the way back to the Verrazano Bridge, where Tony pulls over. They sit on a bench and talk.
Tony, it turns out, is a walking encyclopedia about the bridge. He can tell her how much concrete was used, how long each section is, everything. Perhaps Stephanie rethinks her answer regarding his intelligence at this point. In a tender moment, she leans in and kisses his cheek. Tony looks as though he might cry.
Back at the hardware store, bygones are bygones, and Tony gets his job back. The owner couldn’t stand the thought of it – look at these other guys who have been here eighteen years, fifteen years (shots of old guys rubbing their aching backs). Tony’s eyes go large as the idea of “the future f*cking him” sets in.
Tony arrives at the dance studio to find Stephanie dancing with Pete (Bert Michaels), the sleazy owner of the studio. He goes ballistic; he tells Stephanie that she disgusts him. As he leaves, Annette is waiting for him at the entrance to the studio. She chases him down. “What do you want?!” he asks. “Just look,” she says, and opens her hand to reveal several packaged condoms. “Oh, Jeezus,” is all he can say as he walks away.
The boys: Bobby C., Joey, Double J and Tony, are cruising in Bobby C.’s car, looking to avenge the attack on Gus. They arrive at the Barracudas’ hangout, and Bobby crashes his car into the building. A huge fight ensues, with Bobby dragging a man from his car as he drives away, leaving the other three to fight it out. Chairs are hurled, bottles shattered over the guys’ heads, and a girl even smashes Tony’s head into concrete repeatedly. It’s gruesome. After all is said and done, the three rush outside, and Bobby picks them up in the car, himself unscathed.
They visit Gus in the hospital. All of them are now bandaged and bruised, except Bobby C. Gus intimates that he’s not sure it was the Barracudas that beat him up. Bobby C. slams his fist into the wall, “You stupid f*cking bastard – you almost got our heads busted!” To which Double J replies, “Yeah? Not you, lover.” There is a long uncomfortable silence, and Bobby C. leaves the room. The guys berate Gus for misleading them.
It’s the night of the big dance competition. The guys go to the club. All of them are wearing suits; it’s a special occasion. First up in the dance competition is a black couple, who energetically dance to Kool and the Gang’s Open Sesame. Second up are Stephanie and Tony. Upon hearing their names called, Annette asks Joey for some drugs. He gives her some pills and she pops them. Tony and Stephanie dance a romantic, if not languid, version of the Bee Gees’ More Than a Woman. As the dance is winding down, Stephanie and Tony lock lips in an embrace that is described by slow motion in the film. It stops time for a while. Sidebar: personally, I thought that their dance lacked sophistication and dynamism, but maybe I’ve been watching too much SYTYCD.
Third up is a Puerto Rican couple. They dance a Latin disco number that sets the house on fire. Tony even admits that this couple is dancing better than he and Stephanie did. Their moves are snappy, sharp and well suited to the music. They are definitely better than the underwater turtle dance that Tony and Stephanie did, and Tony knows it.
The winners are announced. Third place: a couple we didn’t get to see dance. Second place: The Puerto Ricans (who seem very happy to have won second place). First place: Stephanie and Tony. Tony is pissed. He goes up with Stephanie to claim the trophy and the money, but berates his friends for lying to him (saying that Tony and Stephanie were better, when they weren’t). He approaches the Puerto Rican couple, gives them the trophy and the money, and leaves, holding Stephanie’s hand.
Outside, he goes off to Stephanie about how he’s tired of everybody dumping on everybody else. They go sit in the backseat of the car. He kisses her. She tells him to leave her alone. He calls her a c*ck-teaser. She continues to say no. He tries to get with her. She knees him in the groin and gets out of the car, furious.
The guys come back to the car, Joey making out with a very intoxicated Annette. Tony, frustrated that Annette is making good on her promise to sleep with others, starts to shove his friends around. They call him out. “You don’t give a sh*t about her,” says Joey. Tony knows he’s right. They all get into the car and drive out to the Verrazano Bridge.
As they drive, Joey and Annette are going at it. First it sounds consensual, then the tone takes on a more disturbing timbre. They pull over, and Joey says to Double J, “You’re up-” Double J gets in the back of the car, despite Annette’s protestations, and has his way with her. Tony sits in the front seat, poker-faced, unmoved to help Annette or to stop his beastly friends.
Arriving at the Verrazano Bridge, Joey gets out and does a handstand on the guardrail. Double J soon joins him, with his pants still down at his knees. Bobby gets out, leaving Tony and Annette in the car. Tony says, “Are you proud of yourself now? Is that what you wanted? Good. Now you’re a c*nt.”
The boys roughhouse along the railing, and Annette gets out of the car, crying hysterically. Bobby climbs the cables of the bridge, and Tony watches with concern. Bobby screams, “Hey Tony! Look at me! Hey Tony! Hey Tony!” Bobby is high on adrenaline and grief. He climbs on to one of the bridge girders with nothing below him but water. The stakes are high now. He dances around and starts to cry. Tony tries to talk him off the ledge. Bobby wails, “How come you never called me?” Tony tries to grab him, and Bobby C. falls off the girder, into the water. Annette loses it.
The police arrive, asking if the guys thought it was suicide. One cop, discouraged by the murky darkness, mumbles, “We ain’t gonna find nothin’ out there tonight,” and, hearing that, Tony walks away. The guys get into their car with Annette, but Tony keeps on walking.
Tony rides the deserted subway, its cars completely covered in graffiti. He takes another train, and another train, and another train. The sun rises. He walks up to Stephanie’s stoop in Manhattan. She reluctantly lets him in. They have a heart to heart. He has decided to change his life. He’s going to get his own place; he’s not going back to Brooklyn. She asks if he thinks they can be friends. “Could you stand being friends… with a girl??” He thinks about it, “I dunno. I could try, Stephanie, that’s all I could say. I could try.” “Okay, let’s be friends,” says she. She grabs his hand, kisses his cheek, and they embrace. The end.
Next – Chris from the UK’s Clothes On Film and I discuss our own interpretations of these iconic costumes.