“Why do you hate me so much, Tony? All I ever did was love you!”
And with that line, my favorite scene from my favorite movie draws to a close. It occurs about halfway through the film, after Tony has dumped Annette as his dancing partner, instead choosing to hitch his chances to Stephanie, in more ways than one.
“Saturday Night Fever”, at its most basic inner core, is a story about the underdog finally getting a shot at greatness, at finally making it … and epically failing. I know that if you’ve never seen the movie, that sounds absolutely ridiculous. “Come on Stevo, it’s a movie about a guy dancing to disco music!” And in some regards it is. I mean, if I were to ask someone who has never seen the film, and just for shits and giggles, let’s call this person “Gregg G” or “Dusty J” or “insert yourself here if you’ve ever made fun of me for loving this movie as much as I do”, if you were to ask them what they know about “Fever”, I guarantee you four things would be mentioned:
1. The soundtrack.
2. The opening credits, when Tony struts down the promenade to “Stayin’ Alive”, and checks out his shoe in the store window.
3. The first major dance scene, when Tony captivates the discotheque audience on the checkerboard patterned lighted floor. And
4. The final major dance scene, Tony in the white suit, Stephanie in the white dress, trying to win Long Island’s biggest dancing competition to “More Than a Woman”.
And to those pop-culture driven, Youtube! inspired clichés about the film, I simply say this: if you believe that those three scenes, along with a disco-heavy soundtrack, are what this movie is actually about, then you truly have no idea what this movie is all about.
That scene I quoted to open this post, from Annette’s angry confrontation with Tony outside the studio where they had spent years rehearsing together, to me encapsulates everything I love about this movie. And the reason why is this, and it’s … well, it’s Stevo logic at its finest.
Nothing is ever attained, without being willing to risk everything to get it. Tony didn’t hate Annette – far from it. As much as I hate a lot of the movie post-dance competition (ok, just most everything leading up to the final minute after said competition) … you can tell from Tony’s reaction to her post-competition actions that he loves her. That he deeply cares for her. The problem with Annette for Tony is that, in the words of This Day and Age, she’s a “second place victory”.
And for Tony, that’s not enough. He wants it all, right now, with a bag of potato chips to boot. What he doesn’t realize for the first 141 minutes of the movie, is that sometimes the second place victory is better than coming out on top.
Which makes the final scene so, uuh, well, confusing for me.
Not every underdog breaks through in triumph. There’s a reason why they’re the underdog – they’re simply not the best thing on the field, in the case of sports teams. Or they aren’t as big or as funded or capitalized as the corporation in the business world. Or maybe they have a handicap or something else holding them back. But whatever the reason, you’re the underdog FOR a reason.
Sometimes, your best simply isn’t good enough.
For the first 140 something minutes of this movie, Tony rails against the notion of a “second place victory”. He alienates everything and everyone in his sphere of influence pursuing the impossible dream of a meaningful relationship with Stephanie. For almost two and a half hours, Tony literally pushes away everything – EVERYTHING – in pursuit of said impossible dream. Because he believes it’s possible.
And by the time he realizes that a “second place victory” is what is best for him, what’s the damage? This is part of the reason why I love this movie so much – it’s so gut-wrenchingly honest. Most movies of this type, you’d have a redemptive storyline. “Fever” goes from dark, to pitch black. His folks have thrown him out. His older brother Frank, in the only beyond awful plotline of the film, has quit the priesthood for … well, no idea why. Tony’s shown he’s a racist, he’s a violent person willing to risk anything and everything to settle old scores, and worse yet, an attempted rapist. He’s trashed the only person in his life who blindly has stood beside him no matter what (Annette), a move he instantly regrets, because …
Well wait, I shouldn’t have said “worse yet” … because the worst is yet to come. Because the final strike against Tony’s cycle of destruction in pursuit of whatever he thought was attainable, is one of his inner core best friends hurling himself off the Brooklyn Bridge* to his death, all because Tony was too self-absorbed to notice his emotional breakdown.
(*: this might be the reason why I hate a solid 5, 6 minute stretch of this movie post-dance competition. That is NOT the Brooklyn Bridge Double J commits suicide off of. It’s the Verrazano. Anyone who’s ever spent even a day in New York knows which bridge it is. (The Verrazano links Staten Island to Brooklyn.) Why “Fever” even attempted for 2/1000ths of a second to pass this bridge off as the BROOKLYN Bridge, which even a blind person can instantly pick out of a bridge lineup, is beyond my limited comprehension to understand.)
And so, after 140 some odd minutes of dancing, of dialogue, of Tony basically ignoring the obvious … you finally get to the obvious. Which is why the final scene of this movie so enrages me … and yet, the absolute final moment so thrills me.
Tony spends the night after Bobby’s suicide jump riding the subway system. Dawn finally arrives. (If you ever feel the need to understand why the Towers mean so much to New Yorkers, please, see the scene after Tony emerges from the subways that Sunday morning. If you have any love for this nation, you’ll tear up seeing how amazingly John Badham (the director) framed them in the shot to open the final scene.) Tony, who mere hours ago was on top of the world he believed in, as a Disco champ, with the girl of his dreams next to him … now is reduced to knocking on said girl’s door, not even ten hours after he tried to rape her, and one of his best friends killed himself because he was too out of it to notice his problems, praying she doesn’t call the cops on him.
I hate the fact that Stephanie let him in when he knocked on her door. In the interest of full disclosure … like the late, great Gene Siskel, this is not only my favorite movie, I HATE the character of Stephanie. She was so wrong for Tony, on every level. And yet …
The beauty of this movie, is that sometimes, you can redeem yourself when everyone else has written you off as a failure. Sometimes, the underdog DOES get his day … even if you can’t see it at the time. The final final scene, in the windowsill, is as perfect a finale as a movie can script. (Even if it enrages you for a few minutes to get there.) When this conversation goes down:
(stephanie) really? you think you can do that? you can be friends, with a girl?
(tony) honestly? i don’t know. but i know i want to try.
(stephanie) ok then. (reaches for tony’s hand, kisses him on the side of the head)
(tony/stephanie) (embrace in the windowsill as “how deep is your love” plays …)
Sometimes, a second place victory is good enough. And that’s kind of how I view life anymore. Sometimes, just being grateful, thankful, proud of what you have NOW, is good enough.
That’s why I love this movie so much. Your best might not be good enough … but who gives a shit, as long as you have friends, family, and random strangers who love you, who care about you, who want nothing but the best for you. Will you always attain greatness, attain perfection? Fuck no. But can you reach a point where ok with what and who you are? Yes you can.
“Saturday Night Fever” is my favorite movie, because Tony’s journey eventually shows that WHO you are, is far more important than WHAT you are in the eyes of the public, of the private, of anyone looking at you. And if you can’t grasp that concept, then please: don’t watch this movie. But if you can grasp it, watch this movie through that prism.
And realize that sometimes, embracing and loving not just who you are, but what you are fortunate to have, is a damned good thing …