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Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Staying alive in Brooklyn, New York, Tony finds himself competing in a dance competition, not expecting to fall in love.

Pop culture consciousness tends to remember Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977) for its starched polyester collars, the irresistible soundtrack by the Bee Gees, and John Travolta’s swaggering strut. But beyond the glittery disco iconography, Saturday Night Fever is a scummy traipse of class tensions and antagonistic sexual difference.

Based on the 1976 New York Magazine article “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” and directed by John Badham, Saturday Night Fever follows an aimless 19-year-old, Tony Manero (John Travolta). He endures life under the roof of his Catholic Italian family in Bay Ridge, New York, but lives for the ecstasy of dancing at the discotheque on Saturday nights. Tony’s clique of man-child ruffians are reminiscent of the West Side Story Jets – with all and more of the Jets’ hostile racism – as they spit, kick and hurl slurs around Brooklyn. But it’s Tony and the gang’s inability to comprehend women, beyond what they offer as fantasy, that is the impetus for Saturday Night Fever’s most compelling moments.

Banham places women at the centre of the metaphorical and ever-looming Manhattan Bridge that dictates Tony’s class mobility. Travolta’s performance is generous, and his baby blues are at delicate odds with Tony’s Madonna–whore complex – most shamelessly brandished towards the doe-eyed admirer and dance partner Annette (Donna Pescow): “That’s a thing a girl has got to decide early on. Are you gonna be a nice girl or are you gonna be a cunt?” The film’s ending ties a saccharine bow around Tony’s difficulty with women in the form of a garishly ’70s, soft black vignette shot of Tony embracing his ultimate love interest Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney). Banham’s prescription for the film’s fever is clear – to escape the arena of dirty dancing, dirty violence and dirty dialogue, Tony must learn to see the “two” in tango.

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