I was around 10 or 11 when I first saw Saturday Night Fever on pay cable. Though I wasn’t exactly innocent (my favorite playtime activity was having Ken mount Barbie, interspersed with dialogue I’d copped from The Young and the Restless), this film was unlike anything I’d seen before.
I remember staring wide-eyed at Travolta as Tony Manero in his cut-to-the-danger-zone black bikini briefs, applying his gold chains and blow drying his mane while the camera hovered lovingly about a half centimeter below his left ball. I’d never seen a man on film preening before a night out. I was fascinated. I almost felt like a peeping Tom, seeing something I shouldn’t — the muscles, the chest hair, the crazy-perfect coif.
In cutting between Tony and the infamous Farrah Fawcett “nipples” poster on his wall, the film seemed to be winking at the idea that it was now the ladies’ turn to gaze upon a sex object. This time, male. This was a guy who managed to make zipping the fly of polyester pants hot. He even displays himself later in the film, same black briefs nearly falling off, to his own grandmother. My mind was blown. You could say he had me at “Attica!”
But Saturday Night Fever offers far more than eye candy. If you look closer, this movie is actually a fascinating sex primer for a young, impressionable female. Specifically, since Tony and his gang make Don Draper look saintly, there are some great tips for how to deal with men behaving badly.
First among these lessons is that desperation doesn’t cut it. Tony was used to random women drooling over him (“Kiss me! Oh my god, I just kissed Al Pacino!”), so throwing oneself at him was clearly a loser move. Annette, who follows Tony around like a groupie the entire film, learns this the hard way when she casually utters the Bay Ridge mating call, “I been thinkin’, maybe I’ll make it wit ‘cha.” Instead of taking her in his arms, Tony lectures Annette on the decision he says all girls must make early on, asking her, “Are you gonna be a nice girl or a cunt?” (Thank you, Mom, for defining the c-word for me mid-film: “It’s a bad word for your pee-pee.” Priceless.)
Undeterred, Annette shows up outside the dance studio to proudly show Tony a fistful of condoms. The result? Crushing rejection. I paid heed, that is, as soon as I found out what those little square packets were. My first thought was some sort of candy — again, thanks for clarifying, Mom! (Because of this movie, my poor mother had to creatively define at least 30 bad words, phrases and actions for me. I don’t remember how she navigated “pussy finger,” but her response satisfied me at the time.)
A better alternative to the Annette method, as we’ve recently learned from George Clooney’s fiancé, is to play it cool. In this regard, Tony’s lust object and dance partner, Stephanie, was my hero. I’ll never forget the scene where Tony enters her private rehearsal space with his Tony grin, thinking she’ll fall at his feet because, well, she owns a vagina, and instead she asks if he’d mind “just going away.” She isn’t harsh or angry; she says it like you’d say no thanks to a Saltine. Stunned, Tony lamely mentions that they share a last initial. Her response? “So if we get married I won’t have to change the monogram on my luggage.” Brilliant! Note to self: always have darkly funny yet emasculating putdowns at the ready. Apparently hot men lap this up like mother’s milk.
My favorite Stephanie line from this scene is when she tells Tony that her looking at a guy longer “than a millionth of a second” should not produce “delusions of grandeur.” Whoa! Who talks to Travolta/Vinnie Barbarino this way? And, in the ultimate in preparedness, she c-word blocks him. “You know what you are?” he begins, only to be cold cocked (pun intended) with, “I bet it begins with a C, Mr. P.” This was one ballsy Brooklyn broad.
Tired of being “teased” (which in Tony’s world simply meant that a woman looked in his direction with no follow-through), he forces himself on Stephanie in the back of his friend Bobby’s car. But she delivers a strategic shot to the nuts, shutting Tony down and making her escape. I remember wondering if I could get away with this the next time a boy teased me at school. Practicing on my sister proved fruitless.
Horrifyingly, Annette has a similar experience in that same back seat. After drinking and taking at least three ludes, Annette seems game, but then she says no at the last minute. Tony’s two pals proceed anyway, assaulting her while he sits in the front seat looking asleep. Then in the ultimate devastating blow, Tony blames her for the whole thing. For me, this sequence was like a “Scared Straight” episode about date rape. My key learning? Never attempt to make the man who rejected you jealous by going after his friends. It rarely ends well. For months I refused to get in the back seat of our family station wagon.
However, Annette’s fate might not be the worst in the film. Minutes after her ordeal (Spoiler alert! Then again, if you haven’t seen this film by now you have far bigger problems than a spoiled ending), Bobby offs himself. Yes, even Bobby — the short, baby-faced wimp in platform heels that would make RuPaul shudder — had much to teach me; namely, that I should always use birth control. The alternative could be finding myself pregnant by a guy with outdated 8-track tapes, questionable fashion sense, and an I.Q. so low, he thinks the pope can give him special permission for an abortion.
Fresh out of ideas, the thought of marrying the girl he knocked up seems so awful to Bobby that he “accidentally” falls off the Verrazano Bridge. Hence, more lessons for my still-forming mind: 1) Sex can destroy your life, put you in a constant state of anxiety and then kill you (seriously, with this movie, who needed Catholic school?) and 2) Marriage sucks. After all, why end up like Tony’s parents, fighting over pork chops and slapping each other during dinner while an old woman yells “Mangia!”
Instead, how about a woman and a deeply flawed but salvageable attempted rapist being just friends? In the end, Stephanie convinces Tony that the platonic route is best. It’s her way or nothing, and he accepts. Stephanie had her issues, to be sure (she thought tea with lemon represented refinement), but she stuck to her guns and refused to let Tony manipulate her into what he thought she should be. Not a bad female role model for a disco movie, right?
When I was a kid, this film was like an ABC Afterschool Special directed by Satan on speed. Now, I count it among my all-time favorites. One thing’s for sure, I’ll never look at a pair of black men’s bikini briefs the same way again. Can you dig it? I knew that you could.