By R.J. Beaumia
Answered prayers can be very problematic, like when the U.S. cheered as communism gasped its last breaths in Russia and China adopted free market policies. But do those countries have democracy and capitalism, or do they have rampant crime, black market nukes, slave labor, and environmental disaster?
In December of 1977, when I believed in such things, a prayer of mine was answered in a way just as perplexing as world politics.
I was sitting in a packed movie theater watching “Saturday Night Fever,” which had just come out nationwide and recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. At the beginning of the film there is a scene where John Travolta has been out at the disco all night. Then there’s a dissolve transitioning to the next morning, the camera panning across his firm, fuzzy, almost-naked body lying prone on his bed, his tight, hot butt right in your face. Travolta awakens in his skimpy, (then) sexy black underwear, and then gets up and sits on the edge of the bed, facing the camera. I thought he was gorgeous (then), even though using the word “gorgeous” to describe another guy wasn’t yet in my vernacular. I’d known I was gay since age 5, but had yet to admit it to myself.
I thought my heart was going to burst from my chest; my 18-year-old hormones made me dizzy and I lost my peripheral vision. And then, I actually prayed – yes, prayed – to God to make Travolta stick his hand down the front of those underwear and play with his balls. To say that I thought I was going to faint when he actually did it couldn’t be less hyperbolic.
Five minutes later I felt a little queasy: I’d gotten what I’d wanted most in the entire world at that moment, and I also knew that I was absolutely, positively, a big fat homo, and that there was no turning back.
For those of us who grew up gay in small towns in the 1970s, “Saturday Night Fever” was a defining film in so many ways. We’d all read about and wished we could go to New York and mingle with the “beautiful people” at the hottest nightclub on earth – and the epicenter of all culture at that time – Studio 54. Disco culture of the mid-’70s itself was the demimonde of the privileged, as well as society’s outcasts and damned. We all learned later that Larry Kramer’s “Faggots” was less a novel than an archeological artifact.
“Saturday Night Fever” democratized, neutralized and popularized disco culture and music. But just as the Sex Pistols 1978 U.S. tour signaled the end of real punk rock, so, too, was “SNF” the end of an idyllic, exclusive 1977 disco world populated by blacks, Latinos, and gay men. By the time I encountered my first strip mall disco six months after I’d seen the film, I knew it was over.
While the film is now a thrill for cultural carbon-daters and connoisseurs of kitsch, it’s also a true reflection of the dystopia that was life in the ’70s and is glimpse of the honesty with which Hollywood, for such a brief time, was able articulate it.
Before “SNF” was a box-office blockbuster and watershed marketing tool, it was a film about the glum reality of being a working-class kid in a shattered economy, in a country that had lost all claims to moral purpose or heroism, post-Vietnam and post-Watergate.
Travolta’s Tony Manero is far removed from his idiot’s turn as Vinnie Barbarino of “Welcome Back Cotter.” Like Al Pacino’s “Serpico,” a character that Tony idolizes, he is trapped in a system where honor and human dignity have disappeared, and where friends deceive, disappoint and abandon you. Not being able to rely even on the support of family, Tony Manero, like Serpico, is all alone even though he’s surrounded by millions of New Yorkers.
When Tony compromises his principles and precipitates tragedy on several levels, the film asks the audience to make up its own mind whether he is strong enough to overcome it all.
“Saturday Night Fever” really is a brilliant film. The dancing and the photography are fantastic, and I’m not exaggerating by saying John Travolta establishes himself as an iconic presence and first-rate actor here.
The 30th anniversary edition of “Fever” is out now; go and “catch it.”