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14 Fascinating Facts About Saturday Night Fever

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Paramount Pictures

We can tell by the way you use your walk that you're a fan of Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 blockbuster that made John Travolta a mega-star and brought disco into the mainstream. (Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion.) To enhance your appreciation of what was the highest-grossing dance movie of all time until Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) beat it, here's a groovy list of facts to celebrate the film's 40th birthday. Put on your boogie shoes and read! 

1. THERE WAS A PG-RATED VERSION OF IT, TOO.

Saturday Night Fever was an instant hit when it was released in December 1977, quickly becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. What's especially impressive is that it did this despite being rated R and thus (theoretically) inaccessible to teenagers, the very audience that a disco movie would (theoretically) appeal to. And so in March 1979, the film was re-released in a PG version, with all the profanity, sex, and violence either deleted or downplayed. This version took in another $8.9 million (about $30 million at 2016 ticket prices), bringing the film's U.S. total to $94.2 million. Both versions were released on VHS and laserdisc, though the R-rated cut didn't become widely available on home video until the DVD upgrade. 

2. IT WAS BASED ON A MAGAZINE ARTICLE THAT TURNED OUT TO BE SEMI-FICTIONAL.

"Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," a detailed look at the new generation of urban teenagers by British journalist Nik Cohn, was published in New York Magazine in June 1976. The central figure in the article was Vincent, "the very best dancer in Bay Ridge," whose name was changed to Tony Manero for the movie. But years later, Cohn confessed: "[Vincent] is completely made-up, a total fabrication." The styles and attitudes Cohn had described were real, but not the main character. Cohn said he'd only recently arrived in Brooklyn, didn't know the scene well, and based Vincent on a Mod he'd known in London in the '60s.

3. THE BEE GEES HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.

Most of the film had already been shot when music producer-turned-movie producer Robert Stigwood commissioned the Bee Gees to write songs for it. The brothers, only modestly successful at that point and hard at work on their next album, didn't know what the movie was about but cranked out a few tunes in a weekend. They also repurposed several songs they'd been working on, including "Stayin' Alive," a demo version of which was prepared in time to be used in filming the opening "strut" sequence. (You'll notice Travolta struts in sync with the music.) So if the movie's signature songs didn't come until later, what were the cast members listening to when they shot the dance scenes? According to Travolta, it was Boz Scaggs and Stevie Wonder. 

4. THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM BROKE ALL KINDS OF RECORDS.

With 15 million copies sold in the U.S. alone, Saturday Night Fever was the top-selling soundtrack album of all time before being supplanted by The Bodyguard some 15 years later. It's also the only disco record (so far) to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and one of only three soundtracks (besides The Bodyguard and O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to win that category. It was the number one album on the Billboard charts for the entire first half of 1978, and stayed on the charts until March 1980, long after the supposed death of disco.

5. THE MOVIE EXTENDED DISCO'S LIFESPAN BY A FEW YEARS.

Disco had been popular enough in the mid-1970s to land multiple disco tunes on the Billboard charts, but by the end of 1977, when Saturday Night Fever came out, the backlash had started and the trend was on its way out. But thanks to the movie (and its soundtrack), not only did disco not die out, it achieved more widespread, mainstream, middle-America success than it ever had before.

6. IT HAS SOME ROCKY CONNECTIONS.


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First connection: It was supposed to be directed by John G. Avildsen, whose previous film was Rocky. Ultimately, that didn’t work out and Avildsen was replaced with John Badham a few weeks before shooting began. Second connection: Tony has a Rocky poster on his bedroom wall. Third connection: Saturday Night Fever’s 1983 sequel, Staying Alive, was directed by ... Sylvester Stallone.

7. TRAVOLTA WAS ALREADY SO FAMOUS THAT MAKING THE MOVIE WAS A HASSLE.

Saturday Night Fever made Travolta a movie star, but he was already a teen heartthrob because of the popular sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, where he played a delinquent teenager with the hilarious and timeless catchphrase "Up your nose with a rubber hose." Still, nobody was prepared for how Travolta's fame would affect the movie, which was to be shot on the streets of Brooklyn. As soon as the neighborhood found out Travolta was there, the sidewalks were swarmed by thousands of onlookers, many of them squealing teenage girls. (Badham said there were also a lot of teenage boys holding signs expressing their hatred for Travolta for being more desirable than themselves.)

Co-star Donna Pescow said, "The fans—oh, my God, they were all over him. It was scary to watch." Badham said, "By noon of the first day, we had to shut down and go home." Since it was nearly impossible to keep the crowds away (or quiet), Badham and the crew resorted to filming in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn. 

8. THE WHITE CASTLE EMPLOYEES WEREN'T ACTING WHEN THEY LOOKED SHOCKED. 


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In the brief scene where Tony, his boys, and Stephanie are loudly eating at White Castle, those were the real burger-flippers, not actors. Badham told them to just go about their business. He also told his actors to cut loose and surprise the White Castlers in whatever way they saw fit. The shot that's in the movie appears to be a reaction to Joey standing on the table and barking, but Badham said it was actually in response to something else: "Double J (actor Paul Pape) pulling his pants down and mooning the entire staff of the White Castle."

9. THE FEMALE LEAD GOT THE PART THANKS TO A SERENDIPITOUS CAB RIDE.

Casting the role of Tony's dance partner, Stephanie, proved difficult. Hundreds of women auditioned, but nobody seemed right. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Karen Lynn Gorney was looking for her big break into show business. As fate would have it, she shared a cab with a stranger who turned out to be producer Robert Stigwood's nephew. He mentioned that his uncle was working on a movie, and Gorney replied, "Oh, am I in it?"— her standard joke whenever she heard about a film being made. The nephew wound up submitting Gorney as a candidate, and the rest is history. 

10. TRAVOLTA’S GIRLFRIEND DIED DURING FILMING.

John Travolta stars in Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Paramount Pictures

Travolta met Diana Hyland on the set of the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, in which she played his mother. (She was 18 years older than him.) They had been dating for six months when Hyland succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 41, after filming just four episodes of her new gig on Eight Is Enough. Travolta was able to leave Saturday Night Fever and fly to L.A. in time to be with her before she died, then had to return to work. 

11. THE COMPOSER HAD TO SCRAMBLE TO REPLACE A NIXED SONG.

For Tony and Stephanie's rehearsal scene about 30 minutes into the movie, Badham had used the song "Lowdown" by Boz Scaggs, going so far as to shoot the scene, including the dialogue, with the song actually playing in the background. (That's usually a no-no, for exactly the reasons you're about to read about.) According to Badham, no sooner had they wrapped the scene than Scaggs' people reached out to say they couldn't use the song after all, as Scaggs was thinking of pursuing a disco project of his own. Badham now had to have the actors re-dub the dialogue (since the version he'd recorded was tainted by "Lowdown"); what's more, he had to find a new song that would fit the choreography and tempo of the dancing. Composer David Shire rose to the occasion, writing a piece of instrumental music that met the specifications, and that’s what we hear in the movie. 

12. THEY MADE UP A DANCE BECAUSE THE CHOREOGRAPHER DIDN'T SHOW UP.

In another rehearsal scene 55 minutes into the movie, Tony and Stephanie do the "tango hustle," which looks like a combination of both of those dances. This was something Travolta and Gorney invented as a matter of necessity: the film's choreographer didn't realize he was supposed to be on the set that day, and the actors didn't have any steps prepared. The tango hustle, alas, never quite caught on.  

13. TONY’S ICONIC WHITE SUIT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BLACK.

Travolta and Badham both assumed Tony's disco outfit would be black, as men's suits tended to be at the time. Costume designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein convinced them it should be white, partly to symbolize the character's journey to enlightenment but also for practical reasons: a dark suit doesn't photograph very well in a dark discotheque. 

14. TONY’S SUIT WAS LATER SOLD FOR $2000—THEN FOR $145,500.

Von Brandenstein took Travolta to a cheap men's clothing store in Brooklyn (swamped by teenage fans, of course) and bought the suit off the rack—three identical suits, actually, so they wouldn't have to stop filming when one became soaked with Travolta's sweat. Two of the suits disappeared after the movie was finished; the remaining one, inscribed by Travolta, was bought at a charity auction in 1979 by film critic Gene Siskel, who cited Saturday Night Fever as one of his favorite movies. He paid about $2000 for it. In 1995, he sold it for $145,500 to an anonymous bidder through Christie's auction house.

In 2012, after a lengthy search, curators at London's Victoria and Albert Museum found the owner (who still preferred to remain anonymous) and persuaded him to lend it for an exhibit of Hollywood costumes. It is now presumably back in that man's care, whoever he may be. (P.S. Badham says on the 2002 DVD commentary that the suit is on display at the Smithsonian, a tidbit repeated by NPR in 2006 and Vanity Fair in 2007. But they must be mistaken. The suit’s sale in 1995 and rediscovery for the 2012 museum exhibit are verified facts; the suit isn't in the Smithsonian's online catalogue; and finally, a 2007 Washington Post story about the Smithsonian lists the suit as one of the items the museum director wanted to get.)

Additional sources:
John Badham DVD commentary
DVD featurettes

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The 25 Best Movies to Stream Right Now
Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster (2015).
Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster (2015).
A24

An incredible amount of entertainment is at our fingertips now, which causes an unfortunate conundrum: water everywhere and not a drop to drink. There’s so much on offer that we end up scrolling endlessly through vast online libraries of enticing movies, plagued by the burden of choice until we give up and wash the dishes.

Instead of resorting to household chores, here’s a tidy list of excellent films worth considering before you’re blinded by the infinite streaming options on the main Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime screens. Pick one from this concise list, and fear option paralysis no longer.

1. 13TH (2016)

Ava DuVernay’s primal scream in documentary form chronicles the American prison system through the lens of historical racial inequality. It’s as informative as it is enraging.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. AIRPLANE! (1980)

A classic parody of disaster movies that places Julie Hagerty, Robert Hays, Peter Graves, and Leslie Nielsen into the cockpit. Surely, you can’t pass up streaming this one.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (1992)

Hilarious, heartfelt, epic, and intimate, this story of an all-female baseball team during World War II is one of the best movies of the modern era. It also taught us that there’s no crying in baseball.

Where to watch it: Hulu

4. THE BIG SICK (2017)

The breakout romantic comedy of 2017, Kumail Nanjiani stars as a wannabe stand-up comic who falls for a PhD student named Emily (Zoe Kazan) despite his parents wanting him to have a traditional Pakistani arranged marriage. It’s a fantastic (and partly autobiographical) film that was written by Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon. But there’s no shame in watching it solely for Holly Hunter.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

5. A GHOST STORY (2017)

Another hit from last year’s Sundance Film Festival, this meditation on grief will either completely entrance you or leave you ice cold. Starring Rooney Mara (eating pie for the first time in her life) and Casey Affleck (who spends most of the movie under a sheet), it’s a divisive but profoundly rewarding experience.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

6. THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS (2016)

Inventive and incendiary, this novel adaptation breathes new life into the stumbling zombie genre. In a post-apocalyptic Britain, a group of hybrid children who salivate for human flesh but also have the ability to learn is held captive so that the military can workshop a cure and study their behavior. The brightest among them, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), plots her escape.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

7. THE GODFATHER (1972) AND THE GODFATHER II (1974)

Don’t think of it as a double feature of two of the best movies of all time. Think of it as a singular, six-and-a-half-hour experience with a brief intermission. And if you’ve got an entire day to kill, let The Godfather III pull you back in.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. THE INDIANA JONES QUADRILOGY (1981 - 2008)

All four Indy movies—from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull—are available on Amazon, which means you can spend an entire day trying to retrieve mythic treasures before Gestapo officers get their mitts on them. Just watch out for snakes …

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

9. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

Speaking of treks into the past, Quentin Tarantino’s Nazi-hunting, scalp-retrieving mission is available to stream without the danger of highly flammable nitrate film reels. Our introduction to Christoph Waltz as a charming villain, who faces off against Brad Pitt’s American GI and Mélanie Laurent’s French Jewish cinema owner as everyone tries to kill Hitler.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. THE LOBSTER (2015)

In the world of Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2016 film, being single is illegal, which is why Colin Farrell’s David must find a life mate in 45 days or be turned into an animal of his choosing. The comedy is as dry as a salt lick in the Sahara, and the dystopian vision is absurd, which allows this story to prove just how strange love can be.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

11. THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) (2017)

Noah Baumbach has earned a reputation for digging 10 feet deep into his characters and leaving their hearts exposed for us. In his latest, Adam Sandler stars as an unemployed divorcee who moves in with his father (Dustin Hoffman) and navigates relationships with his sister, half-brother, and daughter, while juggling a difficult diagnosis.

Where to watch it: Netflix

12. MOONLIGHT (2016)

A trailblazer and last year’s Best Picture winner, Barry Jenkins’s film chronicles the life of Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) as he grows up under the burden of his own and others’ responses to his homosexuality. It’s a stirring portrait anchored by phenomenal performances (including an Oscar-earning turn from Mahershala Ali).

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

13. MUDBOUND (2017)

It’s amazing that we can watch a few awards season favorites from our couch, but with Netflix and Amazon pushing for more original content, you can expect that to become the norm. One of the very best of 2017 (and certainly the best ensemble), Dee Rees’s exceptional film weaves together the lives of one white family and one black family in WWII-era Mississippi to both joyous and tragic effect.

Where to watch it: Netflix

14. THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)

Invite your friends over and bet them all the money in your pocket that Tim Burton didn’t direct this holiday classic, where Jack Skellington tries to take over Santa’s job. You’ll have a creepy fun sing-a-long, and you’ll win your friends’ money.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. OKJA (2017)

If you didn’t think the adventure of a young girl and her super pig could make you pump your fist in the air, it’s time to check out this quirky firecracker from Bong Joon-ho. Thought-provoking and breathtaking? That’ll do, super pig.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. PADDINGTON (2014)

The sequel to this animated hit is in theaters now, offering fans even more uplifting, good-spirited thrills. The original sees the adorable bear on a slap-stick ride through London. Don’t forget the marmalade!

Where to watch it: Netflix

17. THE PRESTIGE (2006)

Christopher Nolan’s poetic and exciting exploration of the antique world of stage magic and Tesla-fueled wizardry hides its tricks in plain sight and still manages to confound. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman star as dueling conjurers with a deadly serious rivalry. 

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. SCREAM (1996)

Wes Craven riffing on Wes Craven, this is the ultra-rare horror film that manages to mock the genre while getting the blood pumping in terror. Come for the slasher brilliance, stay for the 1990s fashion and lack of cell phones.

Where to watch it: Hulu

19. SICARIO (2015)

In this gripping crime drama, Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent struggling with the abandonment of ethics apparently necessary in taking down a Mexican drug lord. It’s a showcase of intense talent, from Blunt to director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) to cinematographer Roger Deakins (whose career is too long and impressive to condense).

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

20. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

Serial killer perfection. Jonathan Demme managed to create a incredible thriller, detective yarn, and horror film all in one. Of course, Jodie Foster’s performance as Clarice Starling is a quiet tornado at the dark center of this murder mystery, even if Anthony Hopkins gets to chew more scenery. Did you know it was released on Valentine’s Day?

Where to watch it: Hulu

21. SUNSET BLVD. (1950)

Perhaps the greatest film noir of all time, Billy Wilder’s cinematic stick of dynamite features a formerly famous actress (who’s ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille) and a hack screenwriter whose relationship with her ultimately leads to him floating the wrong way up in her swimming pool.

Where to watch it: Netflix

22. SWISS ARMY MAN (2016)

Vibrant, effervescent, and deeply weird, Paul Dano stars in this musical collage as a depressed loner stranded on an island until he finds a talking, farting corpse played by a very post-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe. They save one another and, together, attempt to get back to civilization while singing the praises of Jurassic Park.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

23. THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998)

Unmistakably hopeful and humane, Peter Weir’s sci-fi film stars Jim Carrey as a naïve man who has lived since birth as the only person on a reality show who isn’t in on the reality. Blending philosophy and reality TV together is a feat on its own, but the movie is also fantastically entertaining.

Where to watch it: Netflix

24. THE WITCH (2015)

Delicately crafted with an eye toward historical accuracy, this existential horror film focuses on a New England farming family in the wilds of 1630 who believe a witch has cursed them. Anya Taylor-Joy’s standout performance acts as a guide through the possessed-goat-filled insanity.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

25. ZODIAC (2007)

The product of David Fincher’s notorious perfectionism, this deep dive into the unsolved case of a series of brutal crimes in the San Francisco Bay Area explores the depths of humanity’s depravity as well as its capacity for seeking justice. It’s a masterclass in filmmaking with powerful turns from Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

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The Dark Crystal Is Coming Back to Theaters
The Jim Henson Company
The Jim Henson Company

In 1982, Jim Henson and Frank Oz dared to venture into somewhat gloomier territory with the release of The Dark Crystal. Though the film, which centers on two Gelflings (a sort of creepy elf-like creature) attempting to save their species and restore peace to the world, wasn’t a huge hit at the box office, it has developed a large cult following in the more than 35 years since its release—even among those kids it scared the hell out of back in the day. Now, as Netflix preps its prequel series, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, for release later this year, Nerdist reports that the original film will make its way back into theaters next month.

As part of Fathom Events’s ongoing effort to breathe big-screen life back into classic films with limited releases across the country, The Dark Crystal will be playing in more than 500 theaters nationwide on February 25 and February 28. In addition to the original film, the screenings will also feature a brand-new introduction courtesy of Lisa Henson, Jim’s daughter and current president/CEO of The Jim Henson Company, who will talk about the making of the film and how it fit within her father's creative legacy.

To find out whether The Dark Crystal will be coming back to a theater near you, log onto Fathom’s web page for the movie and type in your ZIP code; tickets are on sale now.

[h/t: Nerdist]

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