Is Saturday Night Fever (dir. John Badham, 1977) a classic? The image of John Travolta in his white leisure suit striking a pose under a mirrored ball has certainly become an iconic film image. But the film itself has become eclipsed by this image, and by its attendant details; more people under the age of thirty probably know that the film is about Travolta dancing to the Bee Gees than have actually seen it, and until this week I was in the former category. Saturday Night Fever is a wonderful movie—certainly as good as such 70s “classics” as Cabaret or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Network…or All the President’s Men. Yet it has become cultural shorthand for 70s kitsch and for all things out of style (disco music, dance movies, John Travolta).
Earlier this week I tried to figure out why All the President’s Men has endured; why has Saturday Night Fever (which was initially well-received and garnered award nominations, and to which the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson have paid homage) not attained “classic” status? Or, rather, why has it gone down as a pop culture touchstone rather than a great movie? Some thoughts:
A forgotten director. The otherwise lackluster career of director John Badham makes it difficult to place this film within the body of work of an auteur. In spite of some very good direction here (particularly during the dance numbers) Badham’s name is not likely to mean much to most film watchers.
Badly behaved characters. Those who like movie characters to be good role models are not likely to approve of Tony Manero and his buddies, who casually drop racial slurs, engage in some light fag-bashing, attack the patrons of a Hispanic dance club, and dabble in date rape. (The film briefly circulated in a PG-rated version in which many of these scenes or references were cut.) These characters are not model citizens—they’re ignorant and deeply flawed, and all the more compelling for it. But their behavior doesn’t jive with most modern viewers’ liberal sensitivities.
Cultural shame. Seriously, 70s fashion has come, gone, come back, and gone again, but disco music (and disco dancing…and discos, period) haven’t been cool since the early 80s and will perhaps never again be appreciated un-ironically. And that’s sad, because the Bee Gees music in this film is legitimately great. Nevertheless, disco remains a blight on American pop cultural history, a fad that can now only be appreciated guiltily. (Cf. the 70s/80s dance film subgenre itself as a guilty pleasure [Dirty Dancing, Footloose, Lambada, etc.].)
A weak sequel. I haven’t seen Staying Alive (1983), but it doesn’t sound good, and the thought of Sylvester Stallone behind the camera also doesn’t help.
John Travolta’s train wreck of a career. Most intelligent people will concede that he has done good work either here or during his mid-90s comeback period (Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty), but I defy you to find me a sincere Travolta fan.