''Saturday Night Fever'' released 21 years ago -- Heartthrob John Travolta launched to stardom with the disco hit

By Joe Neumaier
December 11, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

Until Tony Manero pointed it out, who knew Brooklyn’s working-class kids could boogie like the beautiful people at Studio 54? Yet when Saturday Night Fever opened Dec. 16, 1977, a whole generation saw itself reflected in a mirrored disco ball — and like Rebel Without a Cause and Easy Rider before it, Fever became a hit not by targeting an audience but by simply being about them.

While it hustled teen pinup John Travolta to big-screen superstardom as Tony (after three years on ABC’s Welcome Back, Kotter) and its smash soundtrack album made every dorm room a disco, Fever was at heart a gritty drama. Produced by music impresario Robert Stigwood from a New York magazine story, director John Badham’s film took a simple theme — blue-collar teen escapes his dead-end life by becoming the king of his world (here, the dance floor at the club ”2001 Odyssey”) — and made it reverberate for youth in every neighborhood of the country. The movie was a huge hit, garnering solid reviews and making $85 million, and was even reissued in 1979 with a toned-down PG rating to draw in younger viewers.

Just as its little touches were dead-on (Tony even had a Farrah poster), the film gave it back in a pop-culture pas de deux. In addition to its soundtrack and poster, white suits became hip, the Bee Gees were reborn, and would-be Tonys, finally, got a blueprint to work from.

Time Capsule
Dec. 16, 1977
At the movies, Jonathan Demme’s quirky comedy Handle With Care, starring Paul LeMat and Candy Clark, opens. The director would win an Oscar for 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, though 1998 audiences would not embrace his Beloved. In music, Debby Boone’s ”You Light Up My Life” lights up the charts before being knocked from the No. 1 spot by the Bee Gees’ Fever ballad ”How Deep Is Your Love.” At bookstores, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion tops the fiction list. A film trilogy based on his ”Lord of the Rings” is in development 12 years later. And in the news, a report notes that New York State hospitals allowed surgical-equipment sellers to participate in over 900 operations. In 1998, New York’s Beth Israel hospital was fined after a salesman allegedly assisted in a routine surgery that led to a woman’s death.

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