John Travolta’s Breakout Hit Was America’s Best Dance Party

It’s been 40 years since ‘Saturday Night Fever’—a gritty film powered by music, machismo and masterful footwork—became a cultural phenomenon

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is home to a photograph of Travolta by Douglas Kirkland, (above, detail), striking his characteristic dance pose. (NPG, gift of Time magazine © Douglas Kirkland)
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For many Americans of a certain age, the film that provides the singular most refreshing dose of 1970s nostalgia is director John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever. In its most memorable scene, John Travolta, as the smooth-talking Tony Manero, swaggers down the street to the sounds of the Bee Gees’ incomparable hit “Stayin’ Alive;” and the audience travels back to when the four-year-old Twin Towers in the Manhattan skyline evoked only American success with no hint of tragedy.  

Powered by music, machismo and masterful footwork, the gritty low-budget film lured crowds to theatres, record stores and discos after it premiered 40 years ago this month. At a cost of just $6 million, this new incarnation of the traditional movie musical grossed more than $100 million domestically and $300 million worldwide. In fact, the film earned $31 million in its first 31 days. It was the third highest seller that year, surpassed only by George Lucas’s Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And the soundtrack, which sold 30 million copies, topped the album charts for six months and set a record as the biggest-selling album ever. (Michael Jackson’s Thriller subsequently broke that record.)

Saturday Night Fever’s long life in the American consciousness springs “primarily from a brilliant soundtrack that connected vast audiences with infectious, anthemic and imminently danceable hooks,” says the Smithsonian’s John Troutman, curator of American music at the National Museum of American History.

“The inner tension that Travolta captured in Tony Manero's underdog, working-class character—his stunted, bleak and occasionally dark emotional development weighing against his earnest aspirations and locally celebrated triumphs on the dance floor—came across to audiences throughout the country as not only relatable, but intensely believable,” says Troutman.

The film’s plot centers on the 19-year-old Brooklyn youth Tony Manero, who lives with his parents and works as a salesman in a paint store. Like a pinball driven from point to point by outside forces, Tony follows the path set by his parents and others around him. The inspiration for this character arose from a New York Magazine article, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” by Nik Cohn. Published just 18 months prior to the film’s release, the article described a young man much like Tony, although Cohn later claimed the character was a composite of disco habitués. Cohn described the differences between the youth of the 1970s and their older 1960s siblings by looking at the economy. Because teens in the 1960s faced no recession, “they could run free,” Cohn wrote. In contrast, he argued, “the new generation takes few risks. It goes through high school, obedient; graduates, looks for a job, saves and plans. Endures. And once a week, on Saturday night, the great moment of release, it explodes.”

Many praised Travolta for embodying Tony’s character through skilled dancing and equally intense acting. To handle the role’s physical demands, Travolta had rehearsed dancing three hours each night for five months in studios and often tried out his routines in discos afterward. One reviewer felt that his acting made the film “more honest and intelligent” than James Dean’s Rebel without a Cause. After seeing the finished product, a Washington Post reviewer wrote that “he sports the most true blues since Paul Newman, the most profound chin dimple since Kirk Douglas and the most authentic Italian punk since Sylvester Stallone or possibly the Fonz.” There was no doubt: A new star had strutted onto the big screen.

While critics typically gave Travolta credit for a multi-faceted performance, the Bee Gees and the often-melodramatic script received mixed reviews. Despite the obvious popularity of the Bee Gees’ performances, one reviewer commented on their “peculiarly piercing falsettos.” Author Alice Echols has noted that many critics tended to rate falsetto performances on the level of masculinity: “Falsettos were ‘virile’ or, by contrast, ‘flaccid’ and ‘wimpy.’” New Yorker critic Pauline Kael believed the music played an important role in engaging moviegoers. The relentless tempo, she wrote, kept “the audience in an empathetic rhythm with the characters.”

In Tony’s culturally and economically limited life, that explosion generates rare moments of clarity and triumph. He moves with practiced precision on the dance floor, but few would call him “graceful.” He is a mass of jagged edges. His contradictions—machismo vs. vulnerability, racism vs. fair-mindedness, violence vs. peacemaking—define him. He acts admirably in one scene by giving up a dance trophy when he feels that prejudice stole the prize from a more deserving Latino couple. Then, almost immediately, he shows his brutish side by trying to rape his dance partner. A Film Quarterly review compared Travolta to Fred Astaire, saying both men could transform a single body movement into a compelling moment; however, Astaire’s on-screen persona gleamed with the polish of sophistication, while Tony and his life are coarse and unvarnished.

The final scenes are striking because Travolta shows us Tony at his most vulnerable and prettiest self—not frenetically cruising for chicks or rough-housing with his gang—but holding the hand of one woman after committing to be her friend and to change his life by escaping the unhappiness of his family, his dead-end job, and his knuckle-headed pals. At the end, Tony is still a boy; however, he has begun to set goals for his manhood.

Feminist cultural critics have contended that Saturday Night Fever represents an attack on the social construct of masculinity. Tony’s obsession with his appearance is at odds with an ultra-masculine identity. Furthermore, Tony’s route out of the neighborhood and into a new life requires that he abandon his macho rhetoric and walk away from his chest-thumping contemporaries.

He plasters his bedroom walls with posters of 1970s heroes and heartthrobs, such as Sylvester Stallone, Al Pacino, Farrah Fawcett and Lynda Carter. Ironically, during 1977 and 1978, posters of a white-suited John Travolta found places on the walls of many real-life 19-year-olds. As part of a marketing blitzkrieg, producer Robert Stigwood began selling the posters months before the film opened.

Saturday Night Fever represented the peak of the disco craze, which collapsed two years later. Rooted in non-white and gay communities, disco initially faced challenges among white heterosexual youths who had recently migrated from the rock of the 1960s to the soft pop of the early 1970s. Nevertheless, as Tony danced, the disco beat lit a fire among youths of all kinds.  

S_NPG_2005_132 Travolta R.jpg
Saturating the market when it premiered in 700 theaters on December 16, 1977, Saturday Night Fever triumphed. (Saturday Night Fever with John Travolta and Karen Gorney, unidentified artist,1977, NPG, gift of Saul Zalesch, ©1977 Paramount Pictures Corporation )

“Disco played a critical role in the history of American music,” Troutman contends. “Black artists like Nile Rodgers, Diana Ross, and Donna Summer had created lush, coming-out soundtracks that spoke to aspirations for optimism, opportunity, freedom and acceptance. While rock music of the 1960s had veered onto a course of psychedelic, ‘introspective,’ and otherwise un-danceable music, disco re-centered American pop around the importance of dance.” Troutman believes “dance music conceptualized over the last hundred years, primarily by or under the influence of artists of color, continues to frame our American musical experience.” 

“Disco remains fundamental to that story,” he says.

Beyond the film, the albums and the posters, the Saturday Night Fever phenomenon spread to include a sequel in 1983 and a Broadway musical in 1999. There is even a 2008 Chilean film entitled Tony Manero that tells the story of a madman who worships the disco dancing character.

At a White House dinner in 1985, First Lady Nancy Reagan gave the film a fairy tale extension by telling guest John Travolta that Diana, Princess of Wales, wanted to dance with him. They commanded the dance floor for about 30 minutes. “There really was something lovely and girlish about her, and I felt I had taken her back to her childhood . . . and for that moment, I was her Prince Charming,” Travolta later said.

Today, the Smithsonian’s American History Museum holds the white suits worn by the Bee Gees during their 1979 U.S. concert tour promoting their Spirits Having Flown album. The suits were donated by the Gibb brothers in 1983, and they feature in the museum’s collection of outfits worn by entertainers who influenced American culture. And the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery is home to a photograph of Travolta by Douglas Kirkland, and striking his characteristic dance pose, as well a film poster.

Memorabilia from the film and the soundtrack remains readily available on internet auction sites. Travolta’s white suit, originally bought off the rack, sold at auction for $145,500 in 1995 and was on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2012 and 2013. If anyone needs any further testament to the power of one iconic image, it can be found at doozycard.com, where President Donald Trump’s head swivels atop a cartoon re-creation of Travolta’s dancing body. 

About Alice George
Alice George

Alice L. George, Ph.D., is an independent historian with a special interest in America during the 1960s. A veteran newspaper editor, she has authored or co-authored seven books, focusing on 20th-century American history or Philadelphia history.

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