Thirty Years of Dancing Travolta!
It was three decades ago that a charismatic sitcom star named John Travolta crossed over into feature film fame with the cultural sensation Saturday Night Fever. In the years since, Travolta has seen his career wax and wane and regularly made choices that placed him on the dance floor post “Fever,” notably playing Danny Zuko in Grease and Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction. This year he returned as Edna in Hairspray.
This time out we serve up a different approach to a Smackdown: two critics, each on different sides, present the evidence and make their pitch — but you decide the winner by voting in our poll at the end. What do you think? Which is Travolta’s best film where the music and the dancing are what it’s all about — the time he put on his disco shoes for Saturday Night Fever or the time he put on the fat suit for Hairspray?
Mark Sanchez for The Challenger
It’s Edna all the way. Travolta made headlines for Hairspray by appearing in a secondary role as a woman in a fat suit. As Edna Turnblad he kept the buzz alive by performing the role so well. Travolta never descended into caricature or slapstick but showed remarkable sensitivity as a self-doubting hausfrau. She may have been self-exiled in her Baltimore apartment, but Edna noticeably blooms the more she gets out. Edna / Travolta provides one of Hairspray’s many highlights in a dance number with Christopher Walken that is extremely well-staged and graceful. I’m not the only person in the audience who gasped at how effectively they managed “You’re Timeless to Me.” Hairspray didn’t change my life but it mattered a lot more because John Travolta breathed life into Edna Turnblad.
Bryce Zabel for The Champion
According to Roger Ebert (who should know), “Saturday Night Fever” was his original partner Gene Siskel’s favorite movie and Siskel watched it at least seventeen times. I’ve seen it, like, maybe five times but if you dropped by the house with the DVD and wanted to screen it again, I wouldn’t complain.
Let’s start with the character of Tony Manero. According to the DVD extras, Travolta fought to keep Tony edgy and he won. Tony can be a real dick to the girls who adore him but, at the same time, he’s got a huge heart and tons of style. He is so cut and charismatic in this film it’s insane. Yet, he’s got a world of sadness beneath him because he senses that his days on the dance floor won’t be enough to get him out of Brooklyn or even to get him into a good life that a real adult can live in. What’s also progressive about this film is how it seems not interested at all in explaining Tony. It only wants to push ahead in its story and let Tony be Tony.
The story is mature, nuanced, powerful, joyous and sad. I remember getting dressed up to go out to discos and feeling like an inadequate fool and yet knowing that I had to go and compete. And I was just a nerd in Eugene, Oregon. He was a god of the 2001 Odyssey — imagine the pressure he felt!
This film is a musical except the characters never break into song. The soundtrack — dominated by the Bee Gees — was, in my few, the first flawless and pungent synthesis between film and song. The dancing is incredible. Travolta worked for nearly eight months in preparation for this role and it shows.
Normally, this is where our critic ticks off the pluses and minuses of the film they’re reviewing. In this one-off, however, it’s where our two critics each stand up for their pick and make the argument personally.
Edna Turnblad scores heavy points on-and-off the dance floor for John Travolta in Hairspray. Unlike Saturday Night Fever Travolta doesn’t play a young Italian guy from New Jersey which in 1977 was no great reach for him. Bryce, this takes nothing away from the film: It struck a chord and had a dynamite soundtrack featuring recognized hits from the disco era. Even so, acting credibly and dancing well as a middle-age woman in a fat suit probably demanded more from Travolta as a performer. He can no longer squeeze into that white disco suit..but as Edna Turnblad demonstrates on the dance floor Travolta still has the moves. As a film Hairspray is a compelling hybrid: It takes the “Here comes the 1960s” storyline from the original movie, but owes more to the Broadway musical. The newest Hairspray features several specially-written songs. It also deals — breezily, for sure — with serious issues of racial intolerance and coming of age that still have meaning today. I guess — for me — some themes resonate more deeply. And here you have Edna/Travolta singing and dancing in the middle of it. Bryce, you’ll see that for yourself as Hairspray is now available on DVD.
Honest, Mark, Hairspray’s a fine film and it’s a pretty harmless diversion for an evening. But it’s no singular achievement like Saturday Night Fever. That film single-handedly kick-started disco into a white hot phenom even as it was starting to wane in 1978. I guess I could concede that both films capture that excitement that goes with wanting to take whatever skills or magic you have and take them as far as they’ll go. But SNF added to that by showing that even that isn’t enough. At the end of the dance, at the end of the audience cheers and adulation, you still have to go home with yourself. Every time I see this film, it moves me. Even more in SNF’s favor, I think, is that the music is chock-full of songs that define a time perfectly. There really aren’t any songs (I don’t think) in Hairspray that exist as mega-hits outside of the film. SNF was a marriage of a huge film and a huge soundtrack. There was a time in my life (yes, I’ll admit it) when I listen to that album every single day. But, no, I never did own a white suit…
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you only want to judge this on the dancing, though. There’s no question that Travolta still has the dance chops in Hairspray (as do others in the film), but his work in Saturday Night Fever is passionate and powerful. The solo number he does at the 2001 Odyssey is probably the best dance sequence in film ever.
Okay, then, you’ve heard our passion. Now it’s your turn to weigh in. Please vote your choice in our MOVIE SMACKDOWN! Vizu poll and let us know how you feel. We’ll give it a few weeks, then post back with what the people’s verdict is, and we’ll ask all our Smackdown! critics to give us their opinions.