Today is John Travolta’s birthday!
In honor of this day, here’s a scene that I love, the opening credits of Saturday Night Fever. Watch as John Travolta, playing the role of Tony Manero, walks down the streets of Brooklyn, not letting the fact that he’s carrying two cans of paint do anything to lessen his strut. Watch as Tony puts a down payment on a pair of shoes! Thrill as Tony buys two slices of pizza! Cringe as Tony bothers a woman who wants absolutely nothing to do with him!
This is one of the greatest introductions in film history. Not only does it set Tony up as an exemplar of cool but it also subverts our expectations by revealing just how little being an exemplar of cool really means. I always relate to the woman who gets annoyed with Tony and tells him to go away. I know exactly how she feels, as does any woman who has ever been stopped in the middle of the street by some guy who thinks she has an obligation to talk him. It doesn’t matter how handsome he is or how much time he obviously spent working on his hair. He’s still just some guy carrying two buckets of paint and acting like she should be flattered that he spent half a minute staring at her ass before chasing after her. For all of his carefully constructed attitude, Tony comes across as being a rather ludicrous figure in this introduction. He carries those cans of paint like he’s going to war and you secretly get the feeling that he knows how silly he looks carrying them but he’s not going to allow anything to get in the way of his strut.
The rest of the film, of course, is about presenting who Tony actually is underneath the disco facade and it’s not always a pretty picture. I actually discussed this with some friends this weekend while we were listening to combination of disco and punk music. Saturday Night Fever has a reputation for being a fun dance movie but actually, it’s an extremely dark and rather depressing movie. The opening song isn’t lying when it says that “I’m going nowhere.” Tony is lost and, despite what happens in the sequel, he’s probably never going to escape his circumstances. Even though he clearly wants to be a better person, you’re never quite convinced that he has what it takes to truly do that. At least he can strut a little while waiting for the world to end. It takes guts to give an honest performance when you’re playing as imperfect a character as Tony Manero but Travolta pulls it off. (We won’t talk about some of the films that he made in the years immediately after this one. Eventually, he did make a comeback with Pulp Fiction and spent several years again appearing in good films. And then somehow, last year, he ended up starring in The Fanatic. Oh well. 66 is not that old and I’m sure Travolta has more than one comeback within him.)
Anyway, happy birthday to John Travolta! And here is today’s scene that I love: