New York Fever: Strutting with Travolta

This is a talk I gave at the British Film Institute last night at the launch of a new book series on World Film Locations in major cities. The books pick 1 key scene and its locations from each film set in that city. I contributed 3 sections to the book on New York which is out now.

Unconsciously I chose a combination of women focussed films set in pre-feminist New York: The Best of Everything and Pillow Talk — both 1959 — and the epitome of macho swagger:  John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever (1977).

The Best of Everything has suddenly been noticed again, since the hit TV series  Mad Men referenced it so deliberately. The fact is that the original novel, just reprinted by Penguin, is poorly written schlock. The film, while equally prurient, but with the phone sex, promiscuity and abortions carefully sanitised, is much better. It is, as someone recently observed on Twitter, like being sexually harrassed non stop, while drinking martinis. Like Working Girl (1988) and Julie/Julia (2009) the insight into office sexual politics is fascinating. Especially in the book, Julie’s experience working for a government agency helping bereaved 9/11 relatives shows the women dealing with the draining emotional casework, while the male executives jockey for promotion.

The opening titles of The Best of Everything, the scene I chose to write about, draw you into a promised land or a fairy tale kingdom where dreams might come true. Hordes of secretaries emerge from the subways of Manhattan like pilgrims, or perhaps miners; an underclass of badly waged and exploited workers, in beautiful dresses and immaculately done hair to service the ruling class — men.

Hope Lange, Stephen Boyd in the Arena

Fact: Boyd knew, but no one told Charlton Heston that it was a gay love story

The office drunk is not the impotent ageing sleazeball of the novel, but none other than Ben Hur’s Messala (Stephen Boyd), somehow transported through time into a straight man in a sharp Don Draper suit with a broken heart; a worthy prize for our leading lady.

Saturday Night Fever is in its own way a film about being trapped by social boundaries and conventions. We could view it as a treatise that mirrors our current worries about low aspirations and the lack of social mobility for working class young men. Tony (Travolta)  works in a hardware store, where he can use his charm on the female customers, but isn’t going anywhere except to pour his earnings and his spirit into the tiny light up squares of the night club dance floor where he is Somebody.

Going through the famous opening titles — the Strut down the street — frame by frame, I realised that Saturday Night Fever was 3 films: One inside the next. First there is the public fantasy of what we thought the film was about in 1977 — an upbeat disco delight with still, I reckon, the greatest film soundtrack ever. Blue Peter’s Lesley Judd even showed a generation of children how to  do the Travolta moves. The “real” film which most of us never saw was an X (18) certificate profanity laden tale of hopelessness, gang violence, suicide and  sexual assault. Based on a supposedly “factual” Rolling Stone  magazine feature about the lives of young Brooklynites, writer Nick Cohn recently admitted that, like so much New Journalism, his piece was largely fiction.

But the third film is the one Tony Manero has constructed for himself. Like we all do, Tony, in the opening titles, is stepping out of the frame of his life — bullied at home, bored at work — strutting as the hero in his own movie. You notice the first shot of him is his red shoes, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz.

Anyone who’s ever been to New York City has experienced the strange hyperreality of feeling you know this strange city better than your own, so familiar are its streets and icons. Tony like us, knows that in New York, we are all in a living movie.

Further reading

Interview with Pete Padone the original Odyssey Club DJ about the real life Saturday Night Fever (NY Times 2010)

The original Chick Lit –Excellent analysis of  The Best of Everything re-issued by Viv Groskop (Daily Telegraph 2011)




About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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