Wayning Interests

Random thoughts on and of the modern age

Travoltography: MOMENT BY MOMENT (1978)

MomentPoster

Synopsis: The story of a romance between a young drifter named Strip Harrison and an older wealthy woman, Trish Rawlings.

I’d like it known at this stage that I ain’t writing these synopses, I’m getting them from themoviedb.org, but believe me when I tell you that the above is all this movie is about. No subtext, no hidden meanings, to veiled allusions to the current affairs of 1978. It’s just Trish and Strip.

When impresario Robert Stigwood signed Travolta up to a three-picture contract, I doubt either of them imagined it could turn out like this. After the scorching one-two megahit double punch of Saturday Night Fever and Grease, all I can imagine is that they thought they were invincible, and that the public, salivating for anything Travoltish, would literally pay to see anything. That’s the only explanation I can think of for Moment by Moment…I mean, what did we ever do to them?

You know something’s up purely based on the poster. Not only are Travolta and Lily Tomlin victims of the worst cut-and-pasting this side of Photoshop, take a closer look – Travolta’s the one lying down! John’s gone from two iconic posters that existed purely to showcase him to this. You can barely tell them apart! In fact, they look as though they’re in the midst of some ghastly fusion, nearly ready to come out the other end as…Johnlin.

Stayin' awake.

Stayin’ awake.

But onto the movie. The intro is like a perverse parody of Fever’s, with Tomlin, as the well-to-do socialite Trish, strutting down Rodeo Drive to David Jones-esque muzak. That’s…that’s not how it works, folks. Eventually, she and Travolta “meet cute” in a pharmacy of all places. Gee, we need a romantic backdrop to really sell the idea of our two mismatched leads hitting it off. Any thoughts?

In fact, it’s not even really a meeting in the traditional sense. John rudely interrupts Lily’s attempt to purchase sleeping pills, and his presence brings with it a special brand of irritation that seems to transcend the screen. I don’t know if it’s by Travolta’s design, or it’s just a by-product of his ubiquity in the late 1970s, but there’s no denying he’s annoying as hell throughout this movie in a way he never was previously, even when Danny was singing about dem summa nightz.

Wwwhat? Wwwwhere?

Wwwhat? Wwwwhere?

There’s a strange feeling that permeates this movie that something’s amiss. Even in the most insignificant exchanges or details, something seems off. When Travolta interrupts at the pharmacy, it’s to ask why his friend isn’t working there that day. When the pharmacist tells him that the friend was caught stealing and that the matter was referred to the police, Travolta can’t accept it. He literally can’t believe the pharmacist would do that. It’s almost as if he was looking for an excuse to pull his most incredulous expression, perhaps to give the audience something to model theirs after. After all, there’s, still 140 mins to go.

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He’s like the herp, Lily. You’ll never be rid of him.

It’s hard to know whether Travolta spends the first third of the movie trying to be charming or creepy and annoying, and even harder to know what the filmmakers thought he was doing. Just when you kinda get a sense that he’s trying to charm his way into Tomlin’s life, he does something so irritating that it must be intentional. And then she falls for him anyway. Nothing adds up, and it leaves you questioning your own life and everything in it once it’s over.

I feel like it’s impossible to consider this movie without considering its context; it’s 1978, the end of Travolta’s three picture deal, he’s coming off two massive hits and he has an incredibly high profile. Here he is making his last one for the 70s, the decade he at this point practically defines, and it’s a romantic drama. A romantic drama starring a teen heartthrob, okay, fine. But a romantic drama where the audience’s (young girls) surrogate is an older woman. An older woman who spends the first half of the film annoyed by John and mostly unable to tolerate him. It’s more than a case of overexposure, so I don’t think Travolta can shoulder the entire and considerable weight of the blame for this one. But I’ve gotta know – what were they thinking?

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That was my expression for most of it, too.

The reason movies like Twilight provide such bland heroines (through casting if not characterisation) is for the precise reason that the audience can easily insert themselves into the narrative. In 1978, young girls loved Travolta. They recut Fever to be PG just so they could show it to them. To follow it up with this, a movie where he plays an annoying, borderline Aspergers hustler – named Strip (“Think Sunset”) – who’s completely uninterested in the kind of girls who want to see him…it just defies belief.

And all this would be forgivable if it was an entertaining movie in its own right, but no. Moment by Moment drags on moment by agonising moment. Conversations between the two leads go on and on, achieving nothing. They’re the conversational equivalent of a World War I battle. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, the movie sets out to document this romance moment by moment, and oh how it achieves that goal.

The only reason I can imagine Travolta being attracted to this project is because the romance between an older woman and a younger man mirrors his real life relationship with actress Diana Hyland, which ended with her death at age 41 in 1977, when John was 23. Hyland was best known for her role as ‘Susan Winter’ in Peyton Place, and as ‘Mickey Lubitch’ in The Boy in the Plastic…

Hm.

Anyway, Strip’s courtship of Trish dominates the first half of the movie, and includes such winning tactics as him following her to the beach, stripping (see what I did there?) down to his Speedos in front of her and coyly asking to borrow a towel. But then again, this is a man who doesn’t believe the law should be involved in a robbery case, so he has no qualms excessively stalking the poor woman.

M'lady...

Fancy meeting you here…

He turns up at her house. When she goes for a drive, he’s there on the side of the road, smiling that creepy smile. She’s at the shops? He’s there. The filmmakers even allow you to pinpoint the exact moment that this stalking becomes comical – Travolta admits to Tomlin “I always feel like I’m overstepping my boundaries with you.”

Ya think?

Ya think?

It’s just so hard to believe this was never picked up at any point of the film’s production. This sequence culminates in a horrendous hot tub scene in which Tomlin finally submits to Travolta’s obsessive pursuit, and in a normal movie, this would be the point where you’d find out about his sinister motives.

In a normal movie.

In this movie, the two begin the fusion process promised on the poster.

MWWWAALLRRHGHARLLGARRGHLL

MWWWAALLRRHGHARLLGARRGHLL

Can YOU tell them apart?

Once they get together, they break up and get back together a bunch of times…moment by moment. Then it ends. Like this. This is how Travolta chose to end the decade he helped to galvanise.

It couldn't possibly last any longer.

It couldn’t possibly last any longer.

On the surface, a movie that features John Travolta in his underpants for three quarters of its running time should automatically qualify as a major disappointment, but what makes this so much worse is that up until now, Travolta seemed to have a clear idea of his place in pop culture. His choices were interesting because they said so much about where he felt his career should go, what his image should be. Moment by Moment suggests that this wasn’t by design at all. It’s hard to point the finger at Tomlin for any of the film’s failings, because even though she gets top billing, it wasn’t like it was her vehicle.

To say Moment by Moment was a financial disaster is an understatement: it made only $10m at the box office, and presumably it’s for this reason that the film has never been released on any home media of any kind. Nope, not even CED. It’s worth considering that by the end of the 70s, people were probably just very sick of John Travolta. He’d been so everywhere in the years leading up to Moment by Moment that audiences had had enough. He wisely took the following year off, and hopefully fired his script reader.

Travolta circa 1979

Travolta circa 1979

Again, it’s hard to imagine why, if not for contractual reasons, Travolta would agree to be in this movie. It did nothing for his image, and did nothing but hurt his career. If his films are hurdles (and believe me, some of them really are), this was a major stumble that he never really recovered from. If he’d directed his unprecedented post-Grease momentum into a great or even just a semidecent film, who knows how far he could have gone? Perhaps, heading into the uncertain future of the 1980s as he was, he was starting to worry about how long his fame would last and took what seemed like a safe bet.

Given what’s ahead, I’d say he was right to worry.

HIS FUCKING NAME WAS STRIP

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Travoltography: GREASE (1978)

grease-poster

Synopsis: Australian good girl Sandy and greaser Danny fell in love over the summer. But when they unexpectedly discover they’re now in the same high school, will they be able to rekindle their romance despite their eccentric friends?

With the incredible success of Saturday Night Fever, it seemed like movie musicals were about to change tack in a big way. Fever‘s very non-traditional dismissal of too-perfect choreography and irrelevant showstoppers combined with an effective blend of pop music and pathos, and the audience’s embrace of this, indicated a very different direction for future musical projects. The days of the movie musical, as it had existed for years on the big screen, seemed numbered.

Then Grease came out, became the highest grossing musical of all time, and everything went back to normal.

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Grease, producer Allan Carr’s nostalgia-fuelled attempt at revisionist history, is unapologetic Hollywood product: a shameless crowd-pleaser totally devoid of any relevance or substance. When people say that they detest musicals, Grease is why.   It’s an empty, soulless movie, following the late 70s lead of Star Wars and greasing up the audience for the kind of disposable “young people’s entertainment” we’ve been doomed to endure ever since. Have a look at today’s movie listings, and for every pandering, contrived blockbuster that stares back at you, remember to thank Grease.

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Its original songs (those written for the stage production) are the worst kind of theatresports-esque “sing about it” drivel, and it’s interesting that the biggest hits to come from Grease‘s wildly popular soundtrack were three songs designed specifically (and cynically) for the film: ‘You’re the One That I Want’ and ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’, both crafted by star Olivia Newton-John’s personal producer John Farrar, and the title track, written by Barry Gibb at the insistence of the film’s producer (and Bee Gees manager) Robert Stigwood.

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Stigwood’s other protege, John Travolta, is front and centre here once again, trading in the respectability he gained from Fever for a leather jacket and a spit-curl. Unlike Tony Manero, Travolta’s Danny Zuko is all image and no substance…kind of like Grease itself. In an all too characteristically obvious move, the film underlines the thus-far theatrical association between John and music by making him sing.

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One thing the movie does to its credit is steer Travolta away from being forever typecast as a disco king…by showcasing his intergenerational range. He makes for a pretty convincing Hollywood greaser, the answer to anyone who ever complained that the Fonz didn’t do enough ballads.

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If the film has a message at all, it seems to be “hey ladies, if you can’t get the boys to pay attention, pander.” (and to a lesser extent, “hey guys, give in to peer pressure.”) While it could be argued that it’s a subversive and ironic filtering of 50s attitudes through 70s progressiveness, I feel that any kind of subtext was missed by both the filmmakers and the audience, and all that remains is that message. It’s pretty creepy.

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Grease is a film of the 70s looking back all misty eyed at the 50s, the way Boogie Nights would do at the 70s from the 90s. The difference is that Boogie Nights was analytical where Grease is pure fantasy. I’m not saying a film has to have substance to be any good; it’s just that the foundation Grease is built on is so shoddy to begin with. Any statement it wants to make can be found in the animated credits sequence (the film’s strongest). Originally, that sequence was to feature a completely different song, until Stigwood replaced it with the Gibb track. I think that right there tells you everything you need to know about the kind of mindset that made this film.

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I think please is the word.

Travoltography: SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977)

fever

Synopsis: Nineteen-year-old Tony Manero lives for Saturday nights at the local disco, where he’s king of the dance floor. But outside of the club, things don’t look so rosy, and Tony becomes disillusioned with the life he’s leading.

The nearest we’ve come [prior to John Lennon’s murder] to rock and roll news that inspired the mass imagination, that momentarily melded a disparate, casual-to-fanatic audience into something like a community, was (don’t hold your breath) Saturday Night Fever. – Robert Christgau

A remarkable thing about John Badham’s iconic Saturday Night Fever is that it seems to have been made with an incredibly forward-thinking mindset. Whereas Grease (1978) coasts by on an artificial charm afforded it by the 50s-60s nostalgia that was all the rage in 1970s pop culture, Fever captures the spirit of its era with an arresting immediacy. Grease feels like both an attempt to showcase 50s kitsch that had up to that point avoided pop culture’s scrutiny, as well as a shameless cash-in on that wave of nostalgia, and as such it’s a film that feels like a 70s take on the 50s. Saturday Night Fever, with its prescient use of 70s iconography, feels like it could be made today, should someone feel like making a 70s youth-angst piece.

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Take the scene where, to the crystallised melancholia of the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever”, Travolta’s Tony prepares his glossy mane for a night at the 2001 Odyssey (itself a fantastically affected reference) disco. Intercut between shots of an underwear-clad Tony and his dimly lit, imperfectly synchronised disco fantasy are shots of posters he has up around his bedroom: Bruce Lee. Farrah Fawcett. Rocky. Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. Serpico.

As you read those names, the images that spring to mind are most likely the very same as shown in the film. In fact, if I were to describe to you a scene in a movie where John Travolta dances to disco music with posters of Bruce Lee and Farrah Fawcett all around him, you’d be forgiven for thinking I was describing some kind of 70s nostalgia sketch comedy skit; it’s just that iconic.

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Expanding upon this concept is a later scene where Tony reflects on the previous night’s disco adventure, during which he’s mistaken for Al Pacino. Unable to wipe the shit-eating grin (SEG) of flattery off his face, he proceeds to stomp around the house shouting “Attica! Attica!” ala Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon (1975).

Imagine a movie from this decade (2010s) being so immediately iconic that a key scene is referenced in another film just two years later, and not in one of those Disaster Movie parodies. And once you’ve done that, imagine the kind of filmmakers who could not only recognise that iconography, but channel it into their story seamlessly, without evoking any wanker hand gestures from the audience. And on top of THAT, imagine that the film that channels all this 70s pop culture iconography eventually becomes one that essentially defines the decade.

It’s just that iconic.

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In fact, almost everything you need to know about John Travolta’s Tony Manero is provided by the – there’s that word again – iconic opening scene in which he struts down a Brooklyn street to “Staying Alive”. As quickly as the film presents the image of a confident, cool, modern young man, it undermines it by adding a dark undercurrent of misogyny as he stops mid-strut to harass a young woman going about her day. He doesn’t get her number, but we’ve got his. And then, without missing a beat, he continues on his way, a journey that will lead him out of ‘da neighbourhood’ and into a wider world, one he only thought he knew. It’s incredible storytelling by all involved, we understand completely this man’s wants and needs, even if he doesn’t. You can imagine the audiences of the time torn between feeling repelled by Tony and wanting to be him (or be with him).

Travolta’s performance seems to come from a completely different place from either Vinnie Barbarino, still nasally inserting rubber hoses on the small screen at the time of the film’s release, or the trio of oafs he’d portrayed on the big screen thus far. It never once feels affected, and you get the sense that although he may not have lived Tony’s life, he’s channeling someone who has. Tony is completely without the mannerisms that tend to overwhelm Travolta’s characters since, and even when confronted by the film’s colourful supporting cast, he always feels intact.

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More importantly, he’s sympathetic, even if we’re constantly faced with his character flaws and poor treatment of women (much of which seems to be informed by his father, around whom the Manero family seems to revolve). I’d argue that this sympathy is entirely Travolta’s contribution, as it’s easy to imagine Tony as a completely unlikeable brute in the hands of a more severe actor like Pacino or Robert De Niro. Travolta’s natural charm and charisma go a long way in making believable a young man who is “king of the disco”, and even that such a position could exist. That by the end of the film, even after his totally indefensible behaviour, we feel his sadness and get a sense of hope that he might be able to change speaks a lot to the depth of Travolta’s performance. We don’t just see the lad of the surface, but we glimpse the man he could become. Funnily enough though, it’s never at all what’s depicted in the sequel…

Whether or not Tony is a character deserving of such a performance is another matter entirely. To its credit, this film highlighted a particularly disenfranchised section of society at the time – young, second or third generation immigrants, specifically Italians, overlooked by the grand operatics of The Godfather or the comic-book miracles of Rocky. Fever instead depicts those who went to see those films (Tony’s Rocky poster and Dog Day Afternoon impression), the kind of people who model themselves on what’s hot and popular. Tony Manero is defined by his disco prowess – that’s just who he is, and it seems like that’s all that he’s happy to be. As the viewer, it’s hard to understand how this would be enough for anyone. When he’s not at the disco, he’s a non-entity, albeit a charming one, at his worthless job, and he’s a burden and a failure at home. But as soon as he hits that lit-up multicoloured floor, he’s the man.

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For a movie that so defines the era in the public consciousness, it’s amazing just how contemptuous of disco Fever is. The movie’s tagline, ‘Where do you go when the record is over…’, positioned on the poster just above the indelible image of the white polyester-clad Tony with one arm in the air, unsubtly suggests that the film’s very purpose is to question Tony’s existence, and in doing so, that of anyone who identifies with him and his passion. It’s tough to imagine a movie in modern times being so unafraid to openly question not only its protagonist, but any viewer attracted by the platform shoes and stylised logo. It’d be like if the tagline of the latest CGI blockbuster read ‘Are you really this stupid?’

Travolta’s dance moves in the film are impressive, and the disco scenes are filmed with an electric intimacy that makes them a glossy highlight. There’s no effort being made to glamourise the place though: the movie just captures the disco, in all its drab, tacky, fire hazard glory, as it existed, and thanks to the great work of the filmmakers, as it will always exist.

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I’m always fascinated by an early disco scene in which the crowd seems to fall into line all at once. As “Night Fever” once again permeates the disco like a smoke machine, the dancers, most looking almost bored in their procedural technique, begin to dance as one. The movements aren’t in perfect sync either, a neat little detail which gives it an added sense of realism. Some, like Tony, are better at it, some aren’t. You don’t feel that there’s some Hollywood choreographer off-screen yelling at people to get it right, it’s just what people did back then. It’s not even like they’re following anyone’s lead – they just fall into place. That’s the kind of dancing they were doing in the discos, it’s a routine, and they just do what they know as the cameras roll.

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It’s in the disco that Tony meets Stephanie, a Brooklyn gal who’s trying to make it across the bridge in the big city, and who represents the kind of progress Tony would like to make for himself. Tony and his buddies are dazzled by her dance moves (although I have no idea why), and he wastes no time trying to get to know her. He can see that they come from the same place, and he calls her out on her pretensions just as she calls him out on his lack of sophistication. She’s a little older and a little wiser, but that doesn’t stop Tony from trying to turn her into an object. You get the sense that that’s the easiest way for Tony’s kind to be able to deal with women; if they’re not actual people, they’re much simpler conquests and there’s none of that messy emotional stuff to deal with. But he sees Stephanie as a way out of his rut, whether she wants to be or not.

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On the other end of the scale is Annette, a pathetic groupie from the disco. Whenever Tony’s on the scene, she’s there, trying her best to convince him to be with her. The desperation disgusts Tony, and he’s not the slightest bit interested… but his friends are. Tony complains that on their one date together, all Annette could talk about was her married sisters, and this adds a tragic degree to Annette’s struggle. So desperate is she to get what she wants, she’s willing to lower her own sights from marriage to purely sex in a hopeless attempt to get Tony’s attention. On the other hand, Tony’s callous refusal to have anything to do with her stems from her representing the ultimate commitment, one that would seriously cramp his style at the 2001. At one point, Tony directly asks Annette if she’s “a nice girl, or a cunt?” Immediately, Tony’s view of women is galvanised, and it’s easy for the viewer to guess which category the film’s other women fall into in Tony’s eyes. To Annette’s credit, her (perhaps unwittingly) challenging reply: “I dunno. Both?” Tony’s quick to dismiss the possibility.

The way he reacts to these two very different women is a fantastically canny observation and interpretation on the part of Travolta and the filmmakers of how young men like this operate. As often as he rejects Annette, Tony doesn’t see the parallels in how often he’s rejected by Stephanie, and never tries to understand that the same reason the rejection makes him even more persistent is the same as it is for Annette. Tony aches to turn, to downgrade, a symbol of progress and sophistication into a fuck, while a girl who presents herself as nothing but a fuck holds zero appeal for him because there’s nothing for him to work with. Yes, it’s disgusting, but it’s also honest.

Eventually, jealousy turns out to be his weakness in both cases – Annette is able to temporarily tempt him into sex by threatening to have sex with his friends instead, while Tony becomes enraged upon learning of Stephanie’s FWB. The jealousy immediately serves to turn both women into objects he feels he’s entitled to control, and both scenes have some truly horrid ramifications down the track for all involved.

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One misstep in the film is the subplot about Tony’s brother, a priest who is having doubts about his faith. There’s a very subtle indication that the reason for his troubles may be because he’s gay, but the whole thing is dealt with in such an uncharacteristically wishy-washy manner that it makes you wonder why they bothered, especially when the film’s vitriol is purely directed at Tony and his ilk. On top of that, the actor playing Tony’s brother looks nothing like Travolta, and significantly older than him to boot. Just…why?

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Speaking of ilk, the most repellent characters in the film are Tony’s friends, three creepy, completely one-dimensional louts who accompany Tony to the disco as part of their weekly ritual. They swear, they laugh, they drink, they fight and they fuck (consensual or not). Like Tony they’re racist, but unlike Tony, there’s no redemption or self-improvement on the horizon. Many of Travolta’s best and most subtle moments are his wearisome reactions to his friends’ antics. It’s clear from the first scene in which they appear that Tony knows they’re a dead weight, but ‘guyz gotta stick togetha’, and as a pack, they’re integral to his effectiveness at the disco. It could be that Tony’s complete effectiveness as one of the great three-dimensional characters in cinema is in part due to the one-note characters who surround him, but it’s really all down to Travolta’s performance.

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The soundtrack, so epic in its success, deserves a mention here. What I find interesting about the film’s use of the Bee Gees’ songs is how they alternate between being played as actual songs in the disco, as is “Night Fever”, to existing purely as an inner rhythm just for Tony, as is “Staying Alive” and  “How Deep Is Your Love”. It’s an effect powerful in intent and seamless in execution.

In its sole appearance in the film, “Staying Alive”, with its relentless beat, truly serves as Tony’s rhythm of life. The bleak lyrics seem to say as much about him as his cocky strut, and its fade-out coincides with Tony’s first appearance in his work uniform. As soon as he leaves work, it’s back at full volume, but once he gets home and is forced to conform to the rules of the household (read: his father), it fades out for good.

A rare non-Gibb related song plays when Tony first enters the disco – Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven”. The track’s inclusion at this introductory scene for the disco itself seems to suggest disco’s place within the culture: even Beethoven has had to bend over for this unstoppable juggernaut of a trend.

It’s followed up by “Disco Inferno” by the Trammps, suitably played as Tony and Annette exchange some sick burns before Tony turns his attention to burning up the dance floor, quickly stealing all the attention from poor Annette, who’s trying way too hard as usual.

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Everyone at the 2001 Odyssey’s impressed by Tony’s dancing, but the only dancing he wants to see is a stripper in the bar section. It’s a particularly well-staged scene, with Tony placed between the stripper and Annette, desperate to talk Tony into taking her to the backseat of his car. As Tony rebuffs Annette’s advances with barely a word, she’s forced to stare at his preferred object of lust, all while Yvonne Elliman’s wistful “If I Can’t Have You” plays in the background. It’s fucking cruel, and it’s to the credit of Travolta and particularly actor Donna Pescow (Annette) for making it so powerful. The scene ends with Annette seemingly content with the fact that she’s more top heavy than the stripper, and her self-satisfied smile reveals she’s paid no heed to Tony’s misgivings.

Rick Dees’ satirical novelty hit “Disco Duck” appears briefly in the dance club, further solidifying the underlying contempt the film has for disco. The music sets the pace as a sleazy dance instructor offers some particularly misogynistic observations of Stephanie to Tony, all while trying to teach some seriously unhip folks to dance disco-style. The message is pretty clear.

When the final song of the film, “How Deep Is Your Love”, appears, it seems to be a direct challenge to Tony’s character. While the song itself is a pretty sappy piece of work, its meaning in this context – Tony is endlessly travelling back and forth on the subway, forced to reassess his entire life after nearly raping Stephanie and witnessing the (overly melodramatic) suicide of one of his odious friends – seems to be asking if Tony has what it takes to rise above a life that’s gone past the point of no return. The ending, in which he enters into a friendship of equality with Stephanie, perhaps the first adult relationship he’s had in his life, seems to suggest that he has, while the film’s dire sequel suggests that he hasn’t. In terms of his performance, it’s also Travolta’s best scene in the movie.

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By the film’s end, it’s unclear as to whether or not the Bee Gees and their music exist in Tony’s world the way they do in ours. It’s not like he has any posters of them up in his room, and the majority – if not all – of songs performed by them are used like Tony’s internal monologues. While the other songs played at the disco are mixed into the soundtrack as if they were being played, the Bee Gees tunes all have a strange, dubbed-in ethereal quality to them, as if Tony and the audience are the only ones who can hear them. When Tony and Stephanie are practicing at the dance hall, the record he plays is a cover of the Bee Gees’ “More Than A Woman”. Why not use the original? Perhaps the reason for failure of subsequent attempts at this kind of film, including the lamentable Staying Alive, was due to a lack, or a poor understand of, this very technique.

It’s interesting that in these modern remake-heavy times, no one’s dared an attempt to remake Saturday Night Fever. When you strip away the tacky disco veneer, the story – a young man grows up – is timeless, and coupled with whatever music is currently popular, you’d think it’d be a no-brainer. In the decades that followed the original, where was Patrick Swayze in a new wave Fever? Will Smith in a hip-hop Fever? The dude out of Star Wars Episode III in a nu-metal Fever? Channing Tatum in a dubstep Fever?

With over $120m at the box office by the end of its eight month (!) run in theatres, and coming off a budget of $3m, Saturday Night Fever, the film, was a major success. The soundtrack, by comparison, was a phenomenon, remaining in the charts for over two years. John Travolta received an Oscar nomination for what was his first real starring role, and I believe much of the film’s success is down to him. He was so popular at the time thanks to Welcome Back, Kotter that Fever had a built-in audience from the green light, it just happened that that audience – teenage girls – weren’t able to see the R-rated movie.

The filmmakers were caught in a particularly volatile time in entertainment history – with the release of Star Wars in the same year, the path to financial success suddenly seemed crystal clear: get the young people in. The R-rated Fever was a movie created with that very 70s, story-driven, realistic mindset pioneered by Midnight Cowboy  and The Godfather, and perhaps this was overreaching for a film that could have – and did – become a blockbuster as a kid-friendly film. At the same time, had it been packaged as a cutesy Grease-style disco flick in the first place, it likely wouldn’t have inspired such a powerful performance from Travolta, nor would it have earned the critical accolades that helped more than just horny teens buy $120m worth of tickets. But, those Hollywood fat cats noted, those horny teens had cash, so…

fever pg

A 1978 re-edit omitting the rape scenes and foul language (and with them, a lot of the film’s pathos) was hastily rushed to cinemas in the hope of cashing in on the Grease phenomenon, and the money just kept rolling in. To the Hollywood execs, this was as clear a sign as any that films don’t particularly need substance to succeed, the effects of which we’re feeling all too often today.

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Just what was it about the role of Tony Manero that turned John Travolta into a legitimate superstar? Perhaps it was that the film gave disco – previously confined to an underground following mainly made up of blacks and gays – a white, hetero, male face. Suddenly, it was okay to be into it because that cool Barbarino guy was into it. And even if you were too young to see the movie, the image of Travolta in his suit was everywhere, and wherever it wasn’t, the music was. You didn’t really need to have seen the film to get the gist: Travolta played a disco superstar, and his soundtrack was everywhere. As I mentioned, the film’s clever use of the Bee Gees songs as Tony’s internal rhythm meant that when you heard the songs, you’d be able to channel your inner Tony and become a disco king (or queen) yourself.

sesame

Or perhaps it was that through his remarkable performance, Travolta completely loses himself in the role. He gifts Tony with his natural charisma, and lets the character do the rest. Unlike almost every other Travolta film (and certainly many recent ones), you never once feel like you’re watching John Travolta, you’re watching Tony Manero’s life play out. It’ll be interesting to see if he’s once again able to achieve such a transformation during this series.

Saturday Night Fever was pretty much confined to the relic pile in the years after its release. It’s that 70s movie, the disco one, that John Travolta Bee Gees shit. In many ways, Fever was a victim of its own success, and when it went down, it made sure to take a lot more with it. It’s a lesson Hollywood and the entertainment industry seem to have actually bothered taking on board, and with good reason.

In the wake of Fever‘s unprecedented and apparently wholly unexpected success, so many copycats – Thank God It’s Friday, the shameless Disco Fever, Disco Godfather, Roller Boogie – sprang up in its wake and eroded its power. Grease, often coupled with Fever, was arguably trying to bank on Fever‘s success – two Travolta musicals in as many years ain’t a coincidence – but at least it had the courage to wear a different coat of paint. As such, Grease’s reputation remained essentially intact during the years that Fever, and Travolta, became relics “of an era we were trying to forget.” The clones all make the same mistake – openly wallowing in campiness, which Fever never once indulges in. We can laugh now at the tackiness of the fashion and sense of style, but back then, this was it.

In fact, Saturday Night Fever‘s immense popularity and the tireless work of its at-the-time ubiquitous soundtrack to drag disco into the mainstream caused the death of the genre. By 1979, overexposure had led to backlash, culminating in Chicago’s infamous Disco Demolition Night in July of that year. The Bee Gees, arguably the most popular pop act of the late 1970s, were all but finished by 1980. So too was John Travolta, but that’s a story for another time.

It’s not enough to say that Fever was a victim of its own success. In becoming the match that started the Disco Sucks fire, yet still being an undisputed megahit, Saturday Night Fever‘s patricidal antics put it in a very unique place in pop culture history, up there with E.T. for Atari, Be Here Now, and Guitar Hero.

Travoltography: THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE (1976)

Synopsis: Based on a true story, Tod Lubitch is born with a deficient immune system (which is unlike being born with AIDS). As such, he must spend the rest of his life in a completely sterile environment.

Well, this a change of pace.

The Boy in the Plastic Bubble was John’s first starring role. It’s a made-for-TV movie, which makes sense given that at the time, John seemed like he was destined to be a made-for-TV actor. His hit sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter was still in full force at the time, but as we’ve seen, he hadn’t made much of a splash in the world of theatrical releases. Nevertheless, John’s popularity was growing ever higher, particularly with young girls. What better way to showcase him than through a…plastic bubble?

The film opens in 1959, so it’s a fair assumption that as the Lubitchs learn they’re going to have a baby, Danny and Sandy are out there somewhere on the beach. In fact, this film was directed by Randal Kleiser, who would later direct John in Grease. Other connections include appearances by actors P.J. Soles (from Carrie) and Kelly Ward and Darryl Zwerling (both in Grease).

The tone of the movie is established pretty early on when Tod’s father shrieks at a crowd of reporters keen to get a look at the bubble boy, “My son’s not a FREAK!” This is almost immediately followed by a scene in which the young Tod begins choking on a toy, and his parents are forced to administer the Heimlich manoeuvre through the plastic bubble. “Hit him harder,” barks Dad as Mom slaps the toddler with a pair of rubber gloves. It’s all played very straight, which made me question why I was laughing.

The movie continues the Travoltography’s tradition of a long buildup before Travolta’s first appearance. Here, he doesn’t show up until 20 mins in. The filmmakers compensate for this delay by having him appear in a kind of giant woolly golf hat, replete with pompom on the top.

FORE!

FORE!

Now a teenager, the dude’s turned his bubble into a pretty swingin’ pad. No more choking hazards and rubber gloves for John, he’s got a fridge, a TV, even a pet mouse. It’s funny to realise that in the 1970s, this kind of living was supposed to be seen as a shocking degree of isolation and quarantine (the film goes so far as to heavy-handedly compare Tod’s living conditions to that of astronauts in Skylab). Nowadays, thanks to high density accommodation, people live their lives in less comfort and space than Tod, and pay fat coin for the privilege.

This level of comfort doesn’t stop Tod from having a hissy fit about his confinement. When his doctor tells him there may be a chance for a cure, Tod flips out, shouting about how he doesn’t care about the outside world. The doctor accuses him of using his condition as an excuse not to grow up, to which John replies “Oh, bull.” Real grown up of you, Tod.

Of course, any sympathy we might feel for him is negated when he pulls out his binoculars to spy on Gina, the girl next door, as she gets ready for bed. Who sterilised those ‘nocs for him?

When the miracle of closed circuit TV technology allows John to observe high school classwork from home, the first thing he does is zoom in on poor Gina, much to her embarrassment and the amusement of her class. Clearly he’s not immune to being a sex pest either.

Is there the token Travolta dancing scene? At one point, Gina comes over to invite him to a party, and there he is in the bubble getting his groove on while wearing that stupid hat. It’s not a quick thing, either – it’s a considerably lengthy showcase. Why did these pre-Fever films all feel the need to get him dancing?

When Gina plays a mean trick on him at the party, Travolta completely loses his shit…as far as the bubble allows him to, anyway. He rolls around, kicking and screaming to be taken to a hospital. When his parents comply, he’s shown to a room with a fellow bubble boy, Roy, as his roommate.

The scenes that follow are very funny, as Travolta immediately resents this attempt to get him a likeminded friend. There’s only one bubble boy in this town. John acts like a total dick to his rival, who puts in plenty of effort to be friendly. This assholery prompts a similar freak-out from Roy, who starts screaming into a pillow. At this point any argument that the film was to be taken seriously takes a real hit, especially when Roy becomes hysterical as he discusses his frustration at being unable to meet girls.

The scene descends into total ridiculousness as Roy essentially admits he’s a bug-chaser. He declares that as soon as he’s able to get out of his bubble, he plans to get a hooker. When John asks if he’s afraid of the germs, the rival replies that he wants the germs, and can’t wait to get “really dirty”. And just when you think it can’t get any worse, the boys share a lighthearted moment as they admit to each other they masturbate all the time.

Have you ever...gone without a helmet bro?

I tested positive for TMI. It sucks, bro.

It’s safe to say that any and all questions a viewer tuning into The Boy in the Plastic Bubble might have are answered, and then some. But I didn’t ask, John. Why did you answer?

Buzz Aldrin scores a cameo when he visits Tod in hospital for no apparent reason, other than to make some more heavy-handed allusions to Tod’s experience being akin to the isolation experienced by astronauts. Uh yeah, we get it.

It must be said that as slight as this film is, it does a better job than Carrie at making you forget about Vinnie Barbarino. It’s not genius characterisation by any stretch; in fact, it’s probably more to do with Tod having to deal with his bubble situation at every step of the way. But in its own hokey way, it works. It’s also based on a true story…but I don’t think the real bubble boy ever got a space suit to allow him out into the world. Or had someone jump over his outdoors bubble on a horse, for that matter.

Awwwwwww.

Awwwwwww.

It’s a pretty boring film all in all, an experience akin to…well, being stuck in a plastic bubble for an hour and a half. But John doesn’t end up melting or exploding, so that’s good for him I guess. As Lubitch, John’s likeable enough, carrying the film well enough and generating as much sympathy as the material allows. Of the cast, he’s the least “TV actorly” in his approach, but I don’t know if you’d have spotted a future megastar in the film’s midst. Story-wise, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that Tod would die at the end of the film, but you’re looking at it with today’s gritty eyes. This was the feelgood ’70s, so of course he gets a happy ending, albeit a morally grey one.

See, in some ways, the movie plays as a metaphor for the dangers of unprotected sex. When Tod falls in love with Gina, he must weigh up the risks and decide whether to stay in his protective bubble or to step out into the world with her. If this comparison seems like a stretch, consider this: the final scene has Tod stepping out of his bubble and riding away with Gina on a horse. That the horse is wearing a saddle is the only aspect standing in the way of a complete mockery of subtlety.

Travolta gets a lot of shit for displaying poor judgement in his choice of roles, but I think he was quite shrewd, especially early on. Here was a TV movie that plenty of people were going to watch, made off the back of his Kotter success, and that featured a concept that was an instant talking point. The phrase “in the bubble” entered the public lexicon as a way of describing someone overly sheltered, and if we’re to take the New York Times at its word, it’s become a particularly popular term in the world of US politics. In its own minor way, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble left a lasting impact on popular culture, even if as a film it’s largely forgotten today.

In the end, I feel like the most obvious foreshadowing apparent in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble is the most literal: John Travolta plays a character isolated from the populace. Likewise, with his fame skyrocketing  throughout the late 1970s, it’s easy to imagine that John Travolta the actor would have found himself in a similar place, at the very least mentally. I mean hey, it’s not like Epstein or Horshack were movie-of-the-week superstars.

However, it was John’s next film that would propel him into that most alienating of celebrity stratospheres – the cultural icon.

Travoltography: CARRIE (1976)

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Synopsis: Carrie may be ostracised, but the shy teen has the ability to move objects with her mind. So when the high school “in crowd” torments her with a sick joke at the prom, she lashes out with devastating – and deadly – power.

I thought it would be a long time before I saw a movie as unburdened by subtlety as The Devil’s Rain.

With the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter hitting its stride in 1976, John Travolta, now a household name thanks to his portrayal of the loveably underachieving Sweathog Vinnie Barbarino, once again branched out into the world of cinema, this time with a budget.

In Carrie, based on the Stephen King novel, John plays a kind of evil Barbarino. It’s a wimpish display of playing against type. If by chance you’re waiting to see Travolta in another adaptation of a book, you’ll have to sit tight until Get Shorty (1995), as unbelievable as that sounds. Oh, unless Staying Alive was based on Tolstoy’s version.

To date, this is John’s final horror movie (insert joke about ‘Bad Travolta Movie X being in actual fact A TRUE HORROR MOVIE HEH HEH’ here). It may have given him his start, but he was quick to abandon the genre. Movie stars, right? No top billing for Travolta here either, he’s still a few down the list. Amazing to think that in a year’s time he would be the biggest movie star on the planet.

Once again, it’s a bit of a wait for Travolta’s first appearance – 30 minutes in. When we’re introduced to his character, Billy Nolan, he’s rocking out behind the wheel of his car to the very 60s “Heat Wave” while on a date with the high school bitch.

In yer ear with...oh.

WHYITZAGREASEDLIGHTNIN!

Of interest is the strong association of Travolta’s image with pop music and dancing even this early on in his filmography (and even earlier, if you count his pseudo-waltz with Tom Skerritt in The Devil’s Rain). Nolan is the self-satisfied bad boy all the girls at school want to take to the prom. His boorish nature and cruelty have allowed him to rise to the top of the school’s social ladder, quite unlike his doppelganger Vinnie Barbarino. He’s as dumb as Barbarino, but that character’s inherent sweet nature is nowhere to be found. This creature resents being called out on his stupidity, so at least he’s self aware, but he still expects life to give him a free pass with just a flash of his boyish smile.

His introductory scene seems to exist purely to tear down the viewer’s expectation of a cinematic Barbarino, which it does quite well – in just a few minutes it manages to cram in pretty much every situation required to highlight the difference in nature between Billy and Vinnie. But as hard-edged as Nolan is (or as one of writer Stephen King’s stock ‘bully’ characters is able to be) – he drinks while driving, he says the F-word, he’s a bit too forceful with his girlfriend during foreplay, and hits her when she calls him stupid – Travolta’s natural comedic affinity never ebbs. Try as he might, director Brian de Palma fails to position him far enough from Barbarino to make him a credible, threatening presence on-screen.

In a way, this is to Travolta’s benefit: by simply repackaging his familiar Kotter persona in this minor role, he’s able to really shock audiences of future star vehicles with his substantial range. Well, you know, for a while.

Also of note is the hick accent with which John has chosen to imbue Nolan – it’s one Stetson away from Bud Davis.

After a bit of cartoonish villainy, Billy (spoiler) dies a fiery, telekinetic death. John, I’m telling you, just get yourself a plastic bubble and these things would stop happening!

The Pulp Fiction foreshadowing this time comes via actress Piper Laurie, who gives a brisk performance as Carrie’s fire-and-brimstone mother. Laurie had made her mark on Hollywood during the 1950s in a series of popular films, her career culminating in a Best Actress Oscar nomination for 1961’s The Hustler. Uninteresting roles in TV films followed, and so, promise unfulfilled, Laurie eschewed Hollywood and didn’t make another film for the next 15 years until her role in Carrie resulted in another Academy Award nomination and a career revival. Gee…sounds familiar.

Here's Johnny!

Let there be no doubt about it.

On a more visceral note, this movie gives us the striking visual of John Travolta beating a pig to death with a sledgehammer, so there’s that.