SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER
MUCH MORE THAN JUST WHITE DISCO SUITS AND POINTY DANCE-MOVES, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER REMAINS DARK, MOVING AND SURPRISINGLY RELEVANT. THE FILM’S MAKERS REVEAL THE UNLIKELY STORY OF HOW HIP-SWINGING HERO TONY MANERO MADE IT TO THE SCREEN
Looking back at the making of John Travolta’s disco drama. Side effects of reading may include bouts of strutting.
ONE COLD, RAINY DECEMBER night in 1975, a young man who was dressed to blend in — flared brightcrimson trousers and a sheer black body-hugging shirt — made his way across the dancefloor of a Brooklyn nightclub, through the strutting and writhing crowd, and out to get some air.
The scene on the sidewalk was no less lively: a full-on brawl was enthusiastically playing itself out. But in the middle of the familiar flying fists and knees was an entirely unusual sight. Just starting to get out of a cab was an older man wearing, of all absurdities, a tweed suit. The pair’s eyes met and they studied each other briefly, aliens from distant galaxies establishing tentative first contact. As well as the tweed, the man was wearing an expression of heightened anxiety, which deepened into panic when one of the fighting youths turned and unleashed a generous gout of vomit over his trouser leg. The younger man on the sidewalk watched as the tweed suit slammed the cab door and roared off into the Brooklyn night. He shrugged. The weird shit, he might have thought, you see round here.
Back in the cab, Nik Cohn pondered the events of the evening as he sped back to the safety of Manhattan. An Irish rock journalist who had only relocated from the UK to New York in late 1975, Cohn needed to make a mark, and was on the hunt for a scene to call his own. He had pitched a piece about the growing disco craze to his distinctly unimpressed editor at New York Magazine, and tonight’s trip to the famous nightclub 2001 Odyssey was meant to be the first recce. It had not been a success.
But something about that guy in the crimson trousers stayed with him. “[He was] standing in the club doorway, directly under a neon light and calmly watching the action,” Cohn would write 20-odd years later. “There was a certain style about him — an inner force, a hunger and a sense of his own specialness. He looked, in short, like a star.”
When Cohn’s piece was finally published on 7 June 1976, its rococo title, ‘Tribal Rites Of The New Saturday Night’, gave it away as an example of New Journalism, a form pioneered by the likes of Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe in which journalists employed novelistic techniques to tell factual stories. It is, in truth, a middling example of the genre. But at its centre was a compelling character: ‘Vincent’. Though the people that surround him have a flimsy, ghost-like aspect, Vincent feels real. “He owned 14 floral shirts, five suits, three overcoats and had appeared on American Bandstand,” Cohn wrote. “Only one thing bothered him, and that was the passing of time. Already he was 18... soon enough he would be 19, 20. Then this golden age would pass. By natural law someone new would arise to replace him. Then everything would be over.”
Cohn was aware that one of the fringe benefits of New Journalism was that, with their strong narrative hooks and richly sketched locales, these stories occasionally made it to the big screen. He folded a copy of the article into an envelope which he addressed to Robert Stigwood, a big-time music mogul moving into films who Cohn knew from his days back in London. Was there, he wondered, a movie here?
THE DRIVING FORCE
behind Saturday Night Fever was Robert Stigwood’s unshakeable belief that John Travolta was destined for huge things. Stigwood had first come across Travolta five years previously while casting Jesus Christ Superstar for Broadway. Then just 17, the teenager was, Stigwood judged, just too young for the lead. But he wrote on his casting notes, “This kid is going to be a huge star.” A half-decade later he put his money on the line, and signed Travolta to an unprecedented $1 million three-picture deal, with the plan being he would star in Grease once Olivia Newton-john became available as his co-star. That left a tantalising, shootshaped gap — and, happily for Nik Cohn, the Australian impresario was thus in the market for something quick.
Stigwood, who died in 2016, had careened into the middle of the staid British pop scene in the early 1960s and upended it, smashing down the barriers between manager, promoter and publisher in much the same way the new independent producers were currently remaking Hollywood in their own image. Working for him throughout the ’70s was Kevin Mccormick, an American student in London who’d got a job as Stigwood’s assistant to assuage his parents more than anything else. “I ended up staying for about a decade,” Mccormick, now Executive VP at Warner Bros. in Burbank, tells Empire. “Finally I was made executive in charge of film and television in New York. I asked Robert, ‘Well, what do I do now?’ And he said, ‘You buy projects.’ One of the first things I acquired was this magazine article by Nik Cohn.”
Thus Cohn got his payday — $90,000 for the rights to what would become Saturday Night Fever. He had also been promised a pass at the screenplay. It was, by Cohn’s own admission, a trainwreck. “The alpha and omega of bad screenplays” was the view of Don Simpson, a newly arrived junior executive at Paramount who resolutely opposed the studio’s involvement in what he considered a doomed project, a rare bad call from the future super-producer.
Meanwhile, Mccormick had been given the job of finding a director, a task for which he was woefully underprepared. “I was 25, didn’t really know anything,” he recalls. “So I went out to California and went around to various agents and asked if any were interested. No-one was. Finally one grizzled old guy said to me, ‘Listen, kid, my clients do movies, they don’t do magazine articles.’ I went back to my hotel rather dejected.”
But a few hours later Mccormick got a call from Marvin Moss, the agent who had just sent him packing. The kid was in luck, Moss said. A client of his had picked the article up while Moss was trapped on a long call, read it and liked it. “This guy’s had kind of mixed reviews,” Moss told Mccormick, clearly not one to oversell his clients. “You should see his latest before you commit.”
And so a couple of days later Mccormick and Stigwood sat down to watch a very early screening of Rocky. And John G. Avildsen, whose decade of mixed reviews was about to come to a glorious end, became the director of Saturday Night Fever.
With Cohn’s screenplay rejected by absolutely everybody, Avildsen brought on screenwriter Norman Wexler. It was a stroke of genius. Wexler had worked with Avildsen on Joe in 1970, and with Sidney Lumet on Serpico in 1973. Both screenplays had been Oscar-nominated, and both sketched gritty, believable characters with box office-satisfying aplomb. But Wexler was a complex and troubled man. He suffered from a ferocious paranoia, often circling the block several times before a meeting to make sure he wasn’t being tailed. He had been known to brandish handguns. Flights were a particular source of stress. On one he bit a stewardess on the arm. On another he announced he planned to assassinate President Nixon and was arrested by the FBI.
“Later I discovered he was suffering from what would be diagnosed as bipolar disorder,” remembers Mccormick. “And literally every time he had been successful he had gone through these manic episodes and really put a truck through his career and his family life. When I met him he was estranged from his kids and his ex-wife and was living in a one-bedroom apartment with a table, a few chairs, a bed and a typewriter. I’d come down at two in the afternoon and he’d just be getting started. I’d read the pages he’d written the night before. And it was the most incredibly exciting experience for me.”
Wexler was getting even more of a rush from the material. “I wrote Saturday Night Fever wholly organically, scene by scene,” the writer, who died in 1999, told Travolta’s biographer, Nigel Andrews. “I was trying to imagine this boy’s life. I thought there ought to be a bit of a message: that with a little bit of luck and guts you can break out of your social and family programming. When I got to the final period of writing I got that glow I’d barely ever had in my life and that I only get when I look at a few things like a Vermeer or a Magritte.”
Wexler’s words may sound hyperbolic, but his confidence was not entirely misplaced. His screenplay is an object lesson in screenwriting. Gone is the ‘Vincent’ of Cohn’s piece, replaced by Tony Manera, a richly complex character: charming, boorish, often dumb but possessing flashes of insight, wit, humanity and even a ragged nobility. Above all Wexler understood that Tony was trapped — hemmed in by a bickering family and a dead-end job — the pulsing lights and hazy glamour of the 2001 Odyssey proving an escape, albeit one that is temporary and chimerical.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm,
apart from Avildsen who thought it was all over the place and not cool enough,” says Mccormick of Wexler’s screenplay. “And so there became a revolving door of other writers.”
In fact, with the buzz on Rocky
building to deafening levels, Avildsen appeared to be getting more and more antsy about Saturday Night Fever. Maybe Travolta should be a painter as well as a dancer? Shouldn’t he work in a chic clothes shop rather than a hardware store? Could he organise a raid on the Odyssey? Wasn’t Travolta too fat?
“John had failed big in the past,” says Mccormick. “Now he was seeing what success was. And he didn’t want to do something that was small and dark and not triumphant. It all culminated with Stigwood, who had been in France trying to sign the Rolling Stones, calling me and saying, ‘What’s going on?’”
Mccormick explained to his boss that Avildsen had brought in another writer who had delivered yet another draft. It was awful. “Oh, and I should also let you know that John has asked me to tell you that he’s not using the Bee Gees,” Mccormick continued. “He says they’re over.”
“Tell him to meet me at 145 Central Park West tomorrow at 7.30am,” said Stigwood. “You should be there too.”
The next morning, in Robert Stigwood’s palatial digs overlooking Central Park, the producer asked Avildsen if he intended to shoot the Wexler screenplay. Avildsen said no. Stigwood left the room to take a phone call. “John, I’ve got good news and bad news,” he told Avildsen after he returned. “The good news is you’ve just been nominated for an Academy Award for Rocky. The bad news is you’re fired from Saturday Night Fever.” “STIGWOOD HAD BALLS
of steel,” says John Badham, the director who found himself inheriting a star and a screenplay, but very little else, with only weeks until shooting. “He had worked with musical artists who could be difficult, and just wasn’t going to be told what to do against his better judgement.”
Badham, who at that point had one small film (The Bingo Long Traveling All-stars & Motor Kings) and some highly regarded TV work behind him, had been in bed with a high fever when his agent called to tell him a screenplay was en route to his apartment. “An hour later, I’m cured,” he recalls. “I thought it was wonderfully funny and real. What do I know about Brooklyn? Like, nothing. But if this thing is speaking to me, it’s gotta speak to other people too.”
Two days later the Alabama-raised Badham met with Travolta, who offered to give him a crash course of the mooted locations. “Let me be your guide,” he said. “Let me take you by the hand and show you the real New York. I know this town.”
To Badham, Travolta was a revelation. “I often think of what a different kind of actor would have done,” he muses. “God love him, I love Richard Gere, but just for a moment let’s imagine Richard Gere had done it. Would he have brought the charm to a character who had so many negative things going for him? You know, mean to his parents, rebellious, sexist. But somehow John overlaid it with this charm that he had.”
Travolta, for his part, was delighted that Badham took both the music and the dancing seriously; they were elements to which Avildsen had never really been committed. Badham hired Lester Wilson, a flamboyant dance champion, to refine Travolta’s moves, including the iconic solo sequence that would anchor the story. And, happily for Robert Stigwood, Badham was blissfully unaware the Bee Gees were meant to be over.
“I had not heard any of the demos, so when I walked into Stigwood’s office the next day, he handed me a cassette and said, ‘Here’s five songs from The Bee Gees and three of them are number one hits,’” Badham says. “I thought that was so arrogant. Who knows what are number one hits? And I said, ‘Well, Robert, this is great, but where do they go?’ He said,
‘You’ll figure it out.’”
In fact, Stigwood was wrong. Four
of the songs on the tape would chart at number one.
Badham filled out the cast with young relative unknowns. Donna Pescow had been working at Bloomingdale’s when she got the role of Annette, the girl whose adoration for Tony is callously rejected and whose brutal rape is still almost unwatchable today. Karen Lynn Gorney, who plays Stephanie, the aspiring sophisticate whose determination to get out of Brooklyn might offer Tony the glimmer of a future, had appeared on soaps but little else.
But these greenhorns were less problematic for Badham than the crowds that would turn up at five in the morning to catch a glimpse of Travolta, then receiving 10,000 fan letters a week as swoonsome guido Vinnie Barbarino in TV hit Welcome Back Kotter.
Complicating matters even further was the tragic fact that during the shoot Travolta’s then partner, Diana Hyland, a 41-year-old actor with whom he had met and fallen in love while filming The Boy In The Plastic Bubble (she had played his mother), was dying of breast cancer. The 23-year-old Travolta commuted between New York and her hospital bed in Los Angeles, making his final visit towards the end of March, two weeks into filming, when she died. Travolta’s plan to scatter her ashes on Santa Monica beach had to be abandoned when scores of Vinnie Barbarino fans descended en masse. Andy Warhol recorded in his diary seeing Travolta, a fellow passenger, crying on his return flight to New York. And then, back on set, he went back to work.
There were other stresses, too. “We were shooting in sketchy neighbourhoods,” Mccormick remembers. “We got into a little beef with the Mob shaking us down for money. I made the mistake of calling a lawyer who was working for the city government. We’re in a Mafia bowling alley and the phone rings and it’s the District Attorney saying would I mind wearing a wire? That was a mistake I wouldn’t make again. But everybody, from the lowliest PA to the most seasoned veteran, felt there was something special happening.” Saturday Night Fever
is not a forgotten film. Its fate would be, in some ways, much worse. It would become the ‘disco movie’, its raw, heartbreaking power, and Travolta’s mesmerising performance as a kid who might make it out of his slowly closing trap, occluded by its dusty glitter balls and they wore that!
polyester couture. It stands alongside The Outsiders and Rebel Without A Cause
as one of the most honest movies about the agonies of youth Hollywood ever produced. Its final shot — a gloriously old-school iris in on Tony and Stephanie bathed in the uncertain light of a Manhattan morning, offering a sliver, but no more, of hope — would soon be anathema to an industry moving towards the triumphal freeze-frame as the only possible conclusion to any movie at all.
“Could it have been made, in the form it was, three or four years later? “No, I don’t think so,” says Kevin Mccormick. “I don’t think anybody inside the studio system would’ve done it. Or if they had, it would have been much more mainstream and less truthful.”
Ah... truthful. Well, there it gets complicated. In 1996 Nik Cohn issued a wholly unexpected mea culpa.
The bulk of his original piece, he revealed, had been completely invented. He’d never talked to ‘Vincent’, as there was no such person. While he had visited the 2001 Odyssey again, he could never track down the figure in the crimson pants in the doorway, and the crowd he found inside were uncommunicative at best. The ‘novelist’s techniques’ that defined the New Journalism, had in Cohn’s case, been given full reign. “I was totally out of my depth. I’d just arrived in the States,” he said. “My knowledge of street kids was basically mods in Shepherd’s Bush who went up the West End at weekends. I couldn’t begin to come to terms with the reality, except that it was obviously the same thing with different accents.”
So he made it all up. “I went back to Bay Ridge in daylight. I walked some streets, went into a couple of stores. I imagined how it would feel to burn up, all caged energies, with no outlet but the dancefloor... And presented it as fact.”
It was, of course, inexcusable. A guaranteed career-ender in today’s more stringent climate. But ironically, despite his flamboyant disregard for accuracy, Cohn’s right on the money when it comes to truth. It is the same thing with different accents, and tastes in pants. Saturday Night Fever is as potent a movie now as it was 40 years ago, a tale of youth briefly escaping its bonds, joining whatever tribe is on the ascendant, and heading out into the darkness.
Every Saturday night.
Clockwise from above: Star attraction: Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) and Tony Manero (John Travolta) show off some moves; Choreographer Deney Terrio rehearses with Travolta; Director John Badham behind the camera on set with Travolta; Badham between...
Clockwise from above: Tony (Travolta) trips the light fantastic; Tony and Stephanie in dance action; Hands up who’s the greatest dancer; Time for some serious rehearsing; Tony beautifies himself for a night out on the dancefloor; An angry son makes his...