Sometime around the mid-1980s, it seemed like a race: Which could go farther and faster into oblivion -- John Travolta or the 1977 movie that made him a star, "Saturday Night Fever"?
The answer: It was a tie.
Now both are back from the dead. Travolta, of course, is big again on the strength of his Oscar-nominated performance as Vincent Vega, heroin-addict, professional killer and king of the twist in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." So, too, is "Saturday Night Fever," on a double bill with "Pulp" at the Charles, with the totally uninhibited 22-year-old Travolta cutting the rug as Tony Manero, Brooklyn man-child in the promised land of disco.
How does this old pop warhorse stand up after all these years, and what does one make of the old Travolta vis-a-vis the new and possibly improved version?
Well, the movie retains a good deal of its smoky punch. One must remember that it was disco that fell out of style with a resounding thud and not the proficient professional filmmaking of John Badham, who guided the piece through its many hoops and over its many barrels.
Derived from a New York magazine piece by Nik Cohn that charted new tribal mating rituals among working-class Brooklyn youth, it unspools in an odd meld of genres.
It's part old-style kitchen sink melodrama, with a vivid subplot about a brutal, dysfunctional and suffocating Brooklyn family ("Don't hit my hair," Tony yelps as his unemployed dad hauls back to deliver another cuff). It's part disquisition on the frequently anti-social dynamics of young men in packs. And it's part romantic ballad on the topic of love and yearning, the need to get free and make a new life for one's self. These issues are solidly dramatized by Norman Wexler's screenplay, which gets too melodramatic only at the end, with a bogus and completely unnecessary death.
Of course, no one remembers these issues, but to see "Saturday Night Fever" today is to be reminded how little of it is about dancing, and how infrequently they dance in its nearly two hours of running time.
But when they dance, they really let go and the movie starts happening.
Making his moves
So much of this is a reflection of Travolta's dynamism. By no means a trained professional dancer, he invented -- like Michael Jackson after him and Elvis Presley before him -- a way of moving that was incredibly charismatic in and of itself.
It was totally and unabashedly the movement of narcissism. In fact, his character is as obsessed with mirrors as he is with reality. More to the point, he'll frequently push a substandard partner away and simply commandeer the dance floor for himself. His dancing is not social, not prelude, it has no end beyond itself; unlike every young man who ever attended a dance in America, he's not trying to get sex. No, he's sounding a clarion for the New Age: It's about me, he's proclaiming, it's not about you!
This preening vanity would be insufferable were it accompanied in the mix by even a pinch of self-consciousness. What makes it not merely palatable but oddly compelling is the complete absence of self-awareness. He's so far beyond shame he's in some other zone. He's been seduced and abandoned -- by himself.
He's also oddly beyond masculine/feminine; he actually makes such distinctions seem arbitrary. When the pulse flickers up through his pelvis and down his oddly long arms and the dreamy look of a great jump-shooter clouds his abnormally long face, you feel him giving it all up. His cool is so reflexive it's not managed at all; he hasn't made a conscious decision to be anything at all except himself, whatever that is.
Travolta's power utterly transcends the somewhat banal story mechanics; it transcends the irritating (and soon to be obscure) Karen Lynn Gorney, who was his object d'amour and his dance partner. It was in and of itself becoming so iconic that even Travolta himself had trouble living up to this huge start. It took years before he could find a role this myth-sized. ("Grease" doesn't cut it, nor does "Look Who's Talking.")
But at last he's done so. Vincent is the man that Tony might have grown up to be, and one can see in "Pulp Fiction" something that feels almost like a sequel to "Saturday Night Fever."
Vincent is the Tony who ran afoul of drugs, money and the lure of crime, the natural milieu for all that narcissism, but at a price. His once sleek, chiseled beauty is buried beneath pudge; his bright, blue eyes have grown foggy with narcotic indulgence; his slim, ++ ribby body is weighted down; he doesn't walk, he shuffles. He doesn't talk, he mutters.
But underneath, that same grace still lurks, and one of the neatest tricks in "Pulp Fiction" is the way Tarantino manipulates his story to get Travolta back into a sexual situation and then back onto the dance floor. Tarantino even nearly replicates the personal dynamic of the relationship: Like Gorney, Uma Thurman considers herself many levels above him, and assumes command. Yet she cannot deny his sultry animal magnetism and the odd directness of his chatter. He's not brilliant, but in some extremely seductive way he's very real.
It's one of the most compelling and weirdly satisfying sequences in an American movie in many years: the dance contest at the Jack Rabbit Club, where Travolta and Thurman take off their shoes and get down. There's such intensity in them; they could be gunmen blazing away in "The Wild Bunch." They're not dancing, they're fighting, and the frail vessel of their contest of wills is the Twist -- that graceless and least expressive dance of them all. Yet they bring tremendous expression to its closed form, and Travolta has the same snake-hipped, oily jointed power in his loins. You feel him reaching out and taking over.
I think the reason this works so well is that there's also a sense that the character -- and possibly Travolta -- has somehow triumphed over his narcissism. He's no longer a beautiful boy. He's become an actor.
'SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER'
What: Showing in conjunction with "Pulp Fiction" at the Charles, 1711 N. Charles St.
Stars: John Travolta and Karen Lynn Gorney
Director: John Badham