Roger Ebert’s Great Movies Essay on “SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER”
Each night I ask the stars up above:
Why must I be a teen-ager in love? — Dion and the Belmonts
“Saturday Night Fever” is an especially hard-edged case and a very good movie. It’s about a bunch of Brooklyn kids who aren’t exactly delinquents but are fearsomely tough and cynical and raise a lot of hell on Saturday nights. They live for Saturday night, in fact: They hang their gold chains around their necks and put on the new shirts they bought with their Friday paychecks, and they head for a place called 2001 Odyssey, and they take pills and drink and, as Leo Sayer put it, dance the night away. Occasionally they go out to the parking lot for a session in the back seat with a girl.
John Travolta is the center of the crowd: He’s Tony Manero, the best dancer, the best looker, the guy with the most confidence. His life is just as screwed up as everyone else’s, but they don’t know that, and they tell him: “You know somethin’, Tony? You always seem to be in control.”
He is not. He works all week at a paint and hardware store and comes home to a family that worships his older brother, who is a priest. The family’s sketched briefly right at the beginning in a dinner scene which, like the whole movie, is able to walk the tightrope between what’s funny and what’s pathetic.
We meet Tony’s friends and the girls that hang around them, and we are reminded that feminism has not yet conquered Brooklyn. Some of the girls, especially a spunky little number named Annette (Donna Pescow), worship Tony. He dances with Annette because she’s a good dancer, but he tries to keep her at arm’s length otherwise. He’s caught in a sexist vise: Because he likes her, he doesn’t want to sleep with her, because then how could he respect her? The female world is divided, he explains, between nice girls and tramps. She accepts his reasoning and makes her choice.