Thursday, February 18, 2016

Birthday Take: John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" (1977)

John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: John Travolta
Born: February 18, 1954 (62 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor - Saturday Night Fever (nominated) as Tony Manero

The Take

No really. John Travolta was a great actor. It may not entirely make sense, especially as he's graduated to  becoming the punchline at every Oscars ceremony for his illiteracy. However, there was a time when I would argue that he embodied a certain coolness that few actors could pull off. I am talking specifically about Saturday Night Fever: a film that feels like it has improperly been undermined due to its disco subject matter. I'm thinking that in part this is due to Grease painting a more wholesome picture of the actor, but Saturday Night Fever's reputation as a goofy disco movie is immature and only held by those who have either seen parodies, or have seen everything else that Travolta has done in the decades to follow. 

So, what makes Saturday Night Fever so integral to understanding Travolta's status? The answer is simple. Saturday Night Fever is probably not the movie you think it is. Yes, there's a lot of dancing and plenty of Bee Gees to spare. However, there's so much more than "Stayin' Alive." There's Travolta as Tony: a teenager who loves to dance while  not working his job or hanging out with a gang that have their own series of problems. To put it bluntly, it is is a dark film and the subjects expressed within range from rape to suicide to potential abortion. Underneath its surface, it's a religious guilt movie that poses the question as to whether or not someone should do right in favor of making others happy.

For the most part, Travolta isn't the center of these conflicts. He is merely to the side of them, watching them in between his boastful dance sequences. What he does here is observe the chaotic world of adulthood and contemplates what's important. Should he keep doing this childish thing of dancing, or should he finally accept that maybe there's other things to do. In a move familiar to the time, Tony's eventual catharsis comes in the form of a loss, or a sacrifice that forces him to see that there's other people out there. This comes through dancing, but also through his observation. For a film predicated on a silly concept (and one that decries the thing it loves), it is an effectively emotional film because of how a young man learns to care about others outside of his own vanity.

I am not going to suggest that Travolta should've been the greatest actor alive, but you rarely understand why he was a hot shot 40 years ago. Maybe audiences today look at Pulp Fiction and get a whiff of the singular confidence of which he delivers here. However, you can also turn to the hammier stuff that he is better lampooned for. As it stands, I've only seen enough great Travolta movies for one hand, but he definitely has a cool that is definitive and makes you disappointed that he doesn't have too many performances like Saturday Night Fever. He was so cool and confident then. It's a shame that he's evolved into a joke ever since.

Hopefully when Travolta's career comes to a close and we're forced to do retrospectives of his work, Saturday Night Fever will get its due as the classic that it is as opposed to the goofy movie everyone thinks. Speaking as disco hasn't aged well, it is likely intimidating to get someone new to watch it. However, it's a great coming of age story with a lot of edge and plenty of charismatic moments that make you believe in the youthful spirit. There's something to that opening walk that is undeniable. He has something that is necessary to be a star. The only wish is that he still could pull it off. Though who knows. As Pulp Fiction proved, he could still surprise us.

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