Saturday Night Fever - A Bridge to Maturity
Two things in Saturday Night Fever always struck me as odd. Unlike the conventional Hollywood movie it seems to be, the film ends without the usual obligatory romantic pairing of the two main characters. Instead of John Travolta’s Tony and Karen Lynn Gorney’s Stephanie ending up falling in love, we leave them in the throes of a growing friendship. The other thing that always struck me was perhaps more personal. My favorite scene in the movie has always been the conversation between these same two characters, sitting on a bench near the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Tony tells Stephanie how he knows everything there is to know about that bridge: how much concrete is in it, how long it is, how workers died on it, and so on. Something about that scene always made it special for me, and although I still can’t explain why it strikes a chord with me, I can tell you its significance in the film.
What we have here is a movie about growing up. Brooklyn represents immaturity, Manhattan represents maturity, and the Bridge is the path from one to the other. Unlike any of his friends, Danny knows that path, has been studying it – as he says, he knows everything there is to know about that bridge. Meanwhile his buddies are still acting like bratty teenagers, mainly interested in beating up imagined rival gangs and going to 2001 (the disco). Of course, they never dance at the disco; only Tony dances. Without Tony as a guide into the land of the grown ups, they wouldn’t even be able to get there, and they certainly wouldn’t have anything to do if they did manage to arrive. They cheer on Tony, watch him dance, but they can’t participate. Tony’s brother Frank realizes this about himself when he accompanies them to 2001, and he quickly bows out for the evening explaining that he doesn’t fit in in a place like that.
Frank, of course, has his own growing up issues. He has gone from his family in Brooklyn to another kind of family in the priesthood but ultimately has decided he needs to go it alone, to perhaps create a family of his own, or at least to create a support system for himself, rather than just take one given to him. He quickly leaves Brooklyn for a "halfway house" which will bring him back into the "real" world. All of this is quite revealing, showing us that even the seemingly mature Frank is damaged goods in need of assistance to make it across the bridge.
The one friend who stands out from the bunch is of course Bobby. His girlfriend is pregnant and Catholic, and as a result he is thrust across the bridge into adulthood, something for which he is as completely unprepared for as his friends are. He turns to Tony, the only person who might be able to help him (because he knows all about the bridge), but as we will see, it’s enough work for Tony to get himself into adulthood. It might be possible to help someone else along (as Tony and Stephanie ultimately do for each other), but to have to carry someone as unprepared as Bobby over seems impossible. Maybe this is the explanation for Tony’s less than mature response to Bobby’s pleas for help (he ignores them, forgetting his promise to call Bobby). Tony is too involved in his own journey. Bobby even asks Frank for help, seeing him as a priest, a person who deals with these kinds of problems, but Frank is damaged goods too. (Bobby keeps calling Frank "Father," to Frank’s annoyance, suggesting that he also sees him as a father figure. In a functional family, the father would be the role model for Bobby, the person who would help him grow up.) Finally Bobby’s death comes by falling off the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, explicitly revealing the metaphor of the Bridge as the bridge from youth to adulthood. Bobby dies trying to cross the bridge, trying to become a man, something he is not yet ready to do.
The main focus of the story, of course, is on Tony’s journey. Tony could stay in Brooklyn, but what would he become? His role models are a father who doesn’t have a job, and Tony’s coworkers at the paint shop. His boss points them out with pride ("been with me 20 years…"), but we can see the disgust in Tony at these men, old before their time, doing a job anyone could do, stuffed into their work clothes which are too small for them as if they were adults in teenagers' clothing. This is not for him.
Annette and Stephanie are the only two female characters of importance in the movie (leaving out members of Tony’s family), and here we come to the heart of Tony’s growth. His attempts to get romantic with Stephanie are all rebuffed, but he keeps trying until he almost forces himself on her. This comes after the final dance competition, where he and Stephanie have been awarded first prize, but Tony gives the award to the Puerto Rican couple who placed second; he knows they were better, and he knows racism is why they lost. It was only a little while earlier in the movie that we see that racism in Tony too. He goes from fighting the Puerto Ricans (in Brooklyn) to giving away his prize to them (in Manhattan).
But he is not all the way across the bridge yet. His attack on Stephanie shows that while his racism may be behind him, his sexism isn’t. If we examine his interactions with both Annette and Stephanie, we find two opposing relationships. Annette worships Tony; she is a female version of his male friends, seeing Tony as the only possible route out of Brooklyn/adolescence. She doesn’t really love him; the relationship is too uneven for real love to exist. He certainly doesn’t love her. But she tries everything she can imagine to attract him, even offering him sex. On the other hand, although Tony loves Stephanie, he does not push the relationship beyond the platonic, deferring not only to her wishes, but now his own feelings as well. After Bobby’s death (and a night alone on the subway thinking), he has gone through his final transformation and is ready for a mature, non-sexual relationship with a women. With Annette and Tony we have unconsummated sex without love; with Stephanie and Tony with have consummated love without sex. These pairs of opposites again illustrate Tony’s growth from Brooklyn/Annette/immaturity to Manhattan/Stephanie/maturity.
Lots of other details reinforce these sexual issues (such as the dance instructor in Brooklyn who scores with all the girls who come there), but most important is Stephanie’s continuing attempt to fit in and make it in Manhattan. Earlier in the movie, she tells Tony all about himself. She knows his story because she is just like him; she is the female Tony. She and Tony end up together, in Manhattan, both firmly on the side of adulthood, having successfully crossed the bridge, but still needing help from each other in order to make it in their new world.