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After 30 years, ‘Fever’ still burns

Times Staff Writer

JOHN TRAVOLTA remembers the moment in December 1977 when Pauline Kael’s rave review of “Saturday Night Fever” came out in the New Yorker magazine.

“I was at the Plaza Hotel,” says Travolta. “The New Yorker came out and I saw my manager cry. She was his favorite critic, and the idea that she got what he always felt about me was really moving to him. He was deemed right for choosing me and representing me.”

And life, he says, “started again at that time for me. I had so many beginnings in my life, and that became a new beginning -- one I am still in the giant chapter of, really, if you think about it.”

Though Travolta was a teen dream thanks to his role on the ABC sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “Saturday Night Fever” catapulted the then-23-year-old to superstardom and his first Oscar nomination for best actor.

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This Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the film with a reunion screening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Travolta, who returned to his musical roots this year in the hit “Hairspray,” will participate in the panel discussion with other members of the cast, including Donna Pescow, and Newsweek critic David Ansen will moderate.

Based on the magazine article “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” by Nik Cohn, “Saturday Night Fever” revolved around Tony Manero (Travolta), a young Italian American from Brooklyn, N.Y., who worked in a paint store by day. But at night, decked out in his tight, white, polyester suit, chains and slicked-back hair, he was the king of the local disco dance club.

Directed by John Badham from a script by Norman Wexler, “Saturday Night Fever” quickly entered the pantheon of pop culture. The movie, says Ansen, “had a kind of instantaneous effect. It was sort of the first and best movie to capture the disco era because there were all sorts of dreadful disco movies afterward.”

But Ansen points out that, plot-wise, the film could have taken place in any decade. “It actually borrowed a lot from different eras -- the working-class kid, the subplots. It could have been an instantly forgettable movie if they had cast it with someone other than Travolta. It’s Travolta’s charisma . . . . That character, even though he’s such a jerk and a narcissist, you can’t help but love him.”

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“I think the power of the movie is that if you stripped away all the hype that surrounds it, you would have a really excellent film,” says Pescow. “There’s actually a film there, not a dressed-up statement about disco. The quest for ‘who am I’ stays the same” no matter what the generation.

Travolta says the disco era was waning when production began on the film. “When the script was written, disco was falling out,” he says. “Even in Brooklyn, they no longer had polyester suits and high-heel shoes or any of that. I found my whole wardrobe in the Village in boxes in the back of the store high up on shelves. The way I looked in the movie was more 1970, ’71 and ’73. I was playing a character who didn’t care if it was out of style. He was doing it because that is what he did well. There was one club that it was still fashionable to do it in. There’s even a line in the film where they say, ‘What are you going to do if you can’t dance?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, but right for now, dancing is the thing I’m going to do.’ ”

As for bringing humanity to the crude and rude Tony, Travolta explains that “the quintessential appealing, macho leading man is the one who is rugged to some degree but vulnerable as a balance. I really believe that most characters that work well are a balance of that.”

The language and sexuality in “Saturday Night Fever” are raw and unapologetic.

“I remember the critics calling it a tough movie,” says Travolta. The male characters used women without guilt, he says, and “the movie probably, per verbiage, had the highest amount of foul language of any movie made in history.”

The early tests of the film by Paramount, says Travolta, were less than glowing “because of the language and the behavior of the characters.” But ultimately, the movie was left alone. “It was Michael Eisner who said, ‘Let’s go with it. If we clean this up, who knows what we will have.’ ”

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susan.king@latimes.com

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‘Saturday Night Fever’

What: 30th anniversary screening

Where: Samuel Goldwyn Theater, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Price: $5

Contact: (310) 247-3600 or go to www.oscars.org


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