Reel Brooklyn is a biweekly column chronicling the definitive history of Brooklyn on-screen, one film—and neighborhood—at a time.
Reporters have only just recently been able to visit Bay Ridge and write a story that didn’t lede with a reference to Tony Manero or disco. No movie has so defined a Brooklyn neighborhood in the popular imagination as this one, still a go-to reference even as it’s become an irrelevant time capsule: the hardware store in which John Travolta’s crucifix-donning character sold paint now sits in the heart of one of the city’s largest and most vibrant Arab–American communities; the dance club, 2001 Odyssey, closed in the 80s; and the town’s bars and summer-concert series have long been dominated by disco’s archnemesis, classic rock.
As the story about Bay Ridge that it pretends to be, Saturday Night Fever is a phony. Odyssey is over what most people accept as the borders of Bay Ridge, anyway; Travolta’s iconic strut, which famously climaxes at Lenny’s Pizza, with two slices stacked atop each other, was under the 86th Street el, on the border of Bath Beach and Bensonhurst; and the dance studio where so many scenes are set is also in Bensonhurst, on W. 7th Street. In fact, Nik Cohn, the English author of the movie’s source material, a 1976 article in New York magazine, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” later revealed he made it up. “Far from being steeped in Brooklyn street life, I hardly knew the place,” Cohn wrote in The Guardian in the 90s. “My story was a fraud.”
So is the movie’s sense of geography. Travolta’s love interest, Karen Lynn Gorney, in one scene walks west across Fourth Avenue to get home, in another east, away from Fourth Avenue and up 86th Street. I know this is the inherent miracle of cinema—that the laws of physical space no longer apply, that a punch can be thrown in one country and land in another—but for a movie that purports to depict a real community, it’s careless, like a spelling error. If the movie can be so slipshod with space, are we supposed to believe it’s more attentive to place—to its cultural and emotional realities?
That said, the walk up 86th Street from Fourth Avenue features a priceless scrolling backdrop of many long-gone local businesses, as does another, south on Third Avenue from 79th Street, from which we discover the dearest and dankest of Bay Ridge dives, JJ Bubbles, hadn’t even opened yet, but was a bakery. But the greatest strength of director John Badham, whose other big hit was 1983’s WarGames, isn’t capturing Brooklyn as it was; it’s the dance scenes, which are still sumptuous, all colored light, fluid motion and youthful exuberance. Travolta there is electrifying.
Screenwriter Norman Wexler—who, five years earlier, had been arrested by the feds after threatening on a plane to shoot Richard Nixon—seems to understand his subject better. His Tony Manero is stuck in a repressively Catholic milieu, amid economic recession and spiritual crisis. He escapes through dance—on the floor at Odyssey, he’s a king, if not a god—but that’s not enough.
“Bay Ridge ain’t the worst part of Brooklyn, you know what I’m talking?” Travolta says to Gorney, as they walk past what locals call Pigeon Park. “I mean, it ain’t like a hellhole or nothin’.”
“Yeah,” she says, “well, it ain’t Manhattan—isn’t Manhattan.” She’s the snob, he’s the slob, but the moral is that he should be more like her. At the end, Manero, in the middle of the night, rides an empty and graffiti-covered RR train. (Even here the geography is illogical; the train pulls into 45th Street, and then we see Manero on the platform at 53rd Street. How did he go back a stop, and why would he get off a train taking him where he wanted to go? To wait for another RR?! Do you know how long that would take at that time of night?!) He’s on his way to her, to Manhattan, for keeps, because life is better across the river. It reminds you that, though these days everyone is moving to Brooklyn, there was a time when to make it you had to reject it, when moving out of Brooklyn could be an act of defiance and a source of pride, an escape from the provinces. Many more 20th-century celebrities were born in Brooklyn than are buried in Green-Wood.
There’s no suggestion that, on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge, Manero will earn a living by dancing; he may take whatever dead-end job he needs to get away from the “assholes” back in Bay Ridge, the little pond where he was just a big fish. In fairness, his friends are casually racist, harass homosexuals on Fort Hamilton Parkway and rape—they’re a bona fide basket of deplorables. Is this authenticity or exaggeration? Many Bay Ridge locals feel like they’ve been looked down upon for decades by other Brooklyn neighborhoods, which view themselves as culturally superior, and Manhattanites, who don’t even know what Bay Ridge is. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that even the neighborhood’s defining piece of pop-culture would be so contemptuous. It wasn’t made by locals; it was made by outsiders looking out—at the skyline of Manhattan, glittering like a disco ball.