How “Saturday Night Fever” Taught Me Everything I Need to Know About Love, Life, and Dancing

I originally wrote this in 2009, and decided to post it here so it didn’t just float around my Google Drive forever, unappreciated. You’re welcome.

Growing up, my mom was truly my best friend and my constant companion. We hung out on a regular basis, as she was a stay-at-home mom and my dad frequently worked nights. Also, I didn’t have too many friends my age.

Much of what I obsess over today comes from what my mother adored: music, movies, and random celebrity gossip.

I believe Mom had seen every movie there was to see (well, except the war movies, but my dad filled that gap for us). We had a VHS library well-stocked with films taped from television. Some Pellett family favorites were “Funny Farm,” “Money Pit,” “The Great Outdoors,” and the National Lampoon vacation series.

But the one movie that I will always relate to her is the John Travolta blockbuster “Saturday Night Fever.”

This is partially because my mother had a wicked crush on the man. She couldn’t look directly at the screen when watching “Grease” because his adorable face was too much to for her to handle. She knew many facts about him, including the debatable tidbit that he danced in every movie he made – even “Michael.”

It’s also due to the fact that the movie itself played such a huge role in her life. She’d tell me she and her girlfriends saw it a million times in the movie theaters, and that the lines stretched for blocks. When she’d go to the discos, men would attempt the Russian cossack dance that Travolta trots out in his famous dance floor number – often with disastrous results, including but not limited to split pants.

Quotes from that movie were bandied about for years as dinner-table entertainment.

“Aaaaaaal Pacino! Attica! Attica!”

“Hey… don’t hit the hair! I work hard on my hair and he hits it. He hits my hair.”

“One pork chop!”

Over time, however, I came to realize that this movie was more than just a Bee Gees soundtrack vehicle. In fact, I think of “Saturday Night Fever” as the one movie that truly has it all: music, entertainment, comedy, romance, and deep ruminations on social, ethical, and moral issues.

And for how very ’70s it is, it’s actually pretty timeless.

It’s easy to get hit over the head by the big, obvious parts of the movie. But there are many gems hidden here. For example, you want to know how to cook a good marinara? Make sure not too add too much liquid, or you might end up with the sauce Tony’s mother makes: “Your mother’s spaghetti sauce, it don’t drip. It don’t taste, and it don’t drip.”

Tony Manero is an excellent example of proper grooming, as well. As he gets ready for his customary Friday night outing to the discotheque 2001 Odyssey, he carefully coifs his hair, arranges his gold chains just so, and is conscious of what the aforementioned spaghetti sauce might do to his polyester shirt.

The sad state of the economy has plenty of exposure – from the early moments of the movie, when Tony puts a blue shirt on layaway for $5 and doesn’t wait for his receipt (“I trust you!” “Please, don’t trust me,” the shopkeeper responds) to Frank Sr.’s lackluster reaction to Tony’s raise at the paint shop.

“You know what 25 cents buys these days? It don’t even buy 25 cents.”

And then there’s Mr. Fusco’s invaluable 20-second lesson on personal finance and proper planning:

Tony: Mr. Fusco, can I have an advance?
Mr. Fusco: Payday is Monday.
Tony: I know, but everyplace else pays on Friday or Saturday.
Fusco: And they’re broke on Monday. Booze, whores, pissing away their money. This way you’ve got money all week. You can save for the future.
Tony: Fuck the future!
Fusco: No, Tony, you can’t fuck the future. The future catches up with you, and it fucks you if you haven’t planned for it.

We even have some commentary on the effects of a marriage that’s lasted too many years, when the family slap-fest at the dinner table ends with Tony’s mother muttering to Frank Sr., “You never hit me before. Never. Not in front of the kids.”

Speaking of relationships, I learned much of what I know from this film – and most of that consists of what NOT to do. For example:

  • Don’t overdo the commitment talk: Annette doesn’t get very far with Tony when she talks about her married sister, her other married sister, and her third married sister – in fact, he gets the impression that all she wants to be is a married sister.
  • Know your limits: When Tony asks Annette if she’s a nice girl or a … well, let’s just say “slut,” she responds, “I don’t know. Both?” Tony wisely advises her that you can’t be both, however. “A girl has to decide early on what she’s gonna be.”
  • Sometimes, it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission: When Tony asks Stephanie if he can walk her home, she keeps saying “no.” Finally, she says to him, “You shouldn’t have asked – you should have just done it!”

The dangers of social pretension and being something you’re not also plays a huge role in this film. Tony seems to be the only person who really has a sense of who he is – a dancer – yet everybody slams him for it. Then we’ve got Stephanie, who’s just happy to be out of Bay Ridge, lunching with such interesting people as Paul Anka and Laurence Olivier, “that English actor from television, from the Polaroid commercials.” Take this conversation between Stephanie and Tony, for example, as she tries to impress him and he tries to play into it – both rather unsuccessfully.

Stephanie: This week I had business lunches with Eric Clapton at the Côte Basque. And Cat Stevens at Le Madrigal.
Tony: Far out!
Stephanie: You heard of those restaurants?
Tony: No, I don’t know those exact restaurants, but I know the type.
Stephanie: But you must have heard of the artists.
Tony: No, I don’t know … Not really.
Stephanie: Why did you say, “Far out”?
Tony: It sounded like far out. Wasn’t it?

Stephanie plays her game of “I live in Manhattan now” with Tony’s friends later on, as well. But we see her true colors when her ex, Jay Langhart, drops by as she’s moving out. In a desperate move for approval, she tells him she read the book he suggested. When he asks her whether she read the Kerr or the Lawson, she responds “Kerr.” Ooooh … “Should have read the Lawson,” he responds dismissively.

(I always wondered, too, what Kerr and Lawson were writing about. My guess is they were history books, though they could just as well have been analyzing literature or translating Russian novelists.)

And when Stephanie and Jay part, she exclaims that something is “super!” “Stephanie,” Jay chuckles. “Nobody says ‘super’ anymore.”

Of course we have another biggie: faith. A big chunk of the movie’s plot involves Tony’s brother, Father Frank Jr. In the beginning of the movie, we see Tony’s mother cross herself at the mere mention of Frank Jr.’s name, and she later asks Tony to walk her to church so she can pray for her favorite son to call her. “I don’t believe it,” Tony says. “You’re turning God into a telephone operator.”

Frank Jr. is, indeed, the golden child, though we suspect they’re more proud of themselves than him (“When a family raises a priest, they think they’ve scored points in heaven”). Late at night, however, while staying in Tony’s bedroom during his visit back home, Father Frank confesses that he’s leaving the priesthood.

“One day you look at a crucifix, and all you see is a man dying on a cross,” he says.

This movie’s full of flawed figures. In fact, I’m not sure there’s one decent person in the bunch. Even the guy who runs the dance studio is a sleazeball, bedding a certain percentage of the females Tony’s crew brings over to “practice.” So what an odd thing to claim, that it’s a moral tale that really teaches you how to live.

Sometimes, though, the most effective morality tales focus heavily on the “don’t” side of the equation.

Perhaps the greatest example of this is Bobby C., Tony’s short little friend who buys last year’s hitmakers in the 8-track bargain bin and couches the panic over his girlfriend Pauline’s pregnancy in sad jokes about Communion wafers. He wants nothing more than to be Tony’s best friend, but the only reason the crew hangs out with him is because he has a car. Finally, at the end of the movie, terrified of marrying a woman he barely likes and feeling out of place, he tries to impress his buddies by drunkenly balancing himself on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. His pathetic last words before he tumbles into the bay? “Tony … how come you never called me?”

Ultimately, the moral of the story is that the drinking, the drugs, the indiscriminate sex, the hate crimes – they all catch up with you one way or another. When the police chief asks Tony and his friends whether they felt Bobby had committed suicide, Tony muses, “There are ways of killing yourself without really killing yourself.”

So true.

Oh, and if you want to know how to properly carry a paint can? It’s got that, as well.

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