Being a cultural phenomenon can be a good thing for the initial success of any film. Some of these iconic films not only maintain their popularity throughout the years, but their status as classics only strengthens. Examples of this phenomenon: “Casablanca,” “The Godfather,” “Star Wars,” and “Pulp Fiction.”
However, some films are so of their time, that they don’t hold up as well and are often dismissed in later years as flukes. “Saturday Night Fever” is probably the best example of a film that was phenomenally successful (with both audiences and critics) during its initial release, but which subsequently became a pop culture joke due to the fading popularity of disco. While the reputation of “Fever” has improved slightly over the years (most noticeably after lead actor John Travolta became hip again from his role in “Pulp Fiction”), most people look at it as a campy reminder of the 1970s at their tackiest. Yes, there are a lot of scenes that seem unintentionally funny these days (Travolta’s character Tony primping in front of the mirror). Yes, those 1970s fashions are painfully ugly. And yes, the film has a wall-to-wall disco soundtrack, so if you despise disco, this film will likely be pure torture to watch. But while I would never call “Fever” a great film, it’s a damn good one.
While most people remember the dancing, the music, and the bad fashions, most people don’t ever talk about how dark “Fever” actually is. “Fever” is an extremely gritty and grim 1970s NYC urban masterpiece that belongs in that celebrated genre of films that also includes “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The Warriors,” and “Death Wish.” The language is pretty crude and by today’s standards, very politically incorrect. Many of the male characters in the film are fairly misogynistic. There’s also the extremely dark fact that Tony not only attempts to rape his dance companion at one point, but that he doesn’t stop the gang rape of a young woman who is in love with him when it’s happening in the backseat of the car he’s driving. (He thoughtfully calls her the c-word after it’s over and she’s crying hysterically). I’m not criticizing the film for any of this, by the way. These ugly scenes not only illustrate how complex “Fever” actually is, but that there’s no way the film would ever be released, let alone shot, as scripted if made these days. Nowadays, Tony would have to have a “redemptive arc” of some kind or be punished in some way for what he does or doesn’t do. The ugly scenes in “Fever” are so powerful, it makes me a little pissed that the film isn’t better than it actually is. But what’s there isn’t bad at all. When I watched it again recently, the film that it most reminded me of is Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.”
The scene I’ve included here is not from any of the famed dance sequences, but the scene where Tony and his friends enact revenge on a gang they believe hurt their friend. It’s a pretty well-staged and intense fight scene.
The unsung hero of “Fever” is the screenwriter Norman Wexler. In addition to “Fever,” Wexler was the author of many gritty 1970s films including “Joe” and “Serpico” (both films yielded him Oscar nominations). However, the secret to Wexler’s genius was revealed in Bob Zmuda’s book about Andy Kaufman “Andy Kaufman Revealed!” Before Zmuda became Kaufman’s partner-in-crime, he worked for Wexler as his assistant. However, Zmuda called Wexler “Mr. X” in the book because Wexler was still alive when the book was written… and Zmuda still lived in grave fear of Wexler. (He confirmed “Mr. X” was Wexler long after Wexler passed away). Zmuda’s accounts of “Mr. X” are some of the funniest and most dangerous tales of urban performance art you’ll ever read. “Mr. X” later inspired Kaufman’s brand of confrontational performance art, but compared to “Mr. X,” Kaufman comes off as cuddly as Wayne Brady.