By John H. Foote
How often has a film become beloved and a
financial smash despite being savaged by critics? Let me answer: often.
Though a massive box office hit and generational piece of pop culture, a star making vehicle for John Travolta, who exploded off the screen with raw charisma and sex appeal, the horrible truth was Grease was never a very good movie. It did not matter, of course, in the summer of 1978 when audiences were flocking to see Heaven Can Wait, The Buddy Holly Story, Norma Rae, and more than two or three times, Grease.
Adapted from the Broadway hit, the film is a comic book version of high school in the fifties, when tough guys wore leather jackets and the popular good girls were cheerleaders and as lily white as a glass of milk. What to do when a leather jacketed bad boy falls for an Australian good girl? That is the very simplistic plot of the film, crashing worlds, warring friends, cheap betrayals and a solution that set women back 20 years, but got the motors of teenage boys revved up.
A bubble-gum movie, Grease was great fun, and if you can accept that it is not art, great, or even very good, go along for the ride. The songs are infectious, the cast terrific in cardboard roles as deep as the paper they’re written on, it is one of those films that explodes off the screen because of the cast. Period. Without them, really, what do you have?
This is the film that skyrocketed John Travolta into the superstar stratosphere. His previous film Saturday Night Fever (1977) was a huge success too and earned the young actor an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor. Already a critics’ darling, in Grease he displayed absolute movie star chemistry, the likes audiences had not seen since Marlon Brando.
As Danny, the leader of the leather jacketed tough guys, Travolta is electrifying, a half stupid guy with good looks going for him and his reputation as a ladies man. His gang, even more stupid than he is, revere him, and love hearing his tales of conquests (that we discover are bogus). As school goes back, their last year, he has spent most of the summer at the beach with a Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) a golden beauty from down under who has moved to L.A. In the energetic song “Summer Nights” Travolta unleashes that high wattage smile and movie star charisma, as we hear two very different versions of what happened on the beach.
Sandy has trouble fitting in because the girls she chooses to hang out with are also a gang, the Pink Ladies led by the cynical, tough as nails Roz (Stockard Channing), though Sandy befriends the silly dreamer Frenchy (Didi Conn) who drops out of school to be a beautician. The girl is hopeless, showing up with an array of hair colours, until Frankie Avalon appears to her in a dream to get her back to school. A lavish production number, “Beauty School Dropout”, is silly fun, with Avalon playing it perfect to Conn’s wide-eyed dummy.
Danny and Sandy have their troubles finding their way to each other, leading to some terrific song and dance numbers culminating with Sandy in skin-tight leather, now a bad girl, gyrating with a lust struck Travolta to “You’re the One That I Want”.
Picking Grease apart critically is a waste of time because the film is such infectious good fun. No one believed this was high school, that there was a shred of realism in the film, for that see American Graffiti (1973).
Travolta became a big fat movie star as Danny, his high wattage smile dazzling, his singing outstanding, and the kid could dance. People often forget just what a gifted actor he is, compared by the great Pauline Karl to a young Brando, and he elevates every scene he is onscreen.
Newton-John is a lightweight actress, and though a wonderful singer, brought nothing more than a wide-eyed innocence to the film. Great smile, pretty girl, excellent singer but not a shred of acting talent.
As tough talking Rizzo, 32-year old Stockard Channing steals every scene she is in as the bitch girl who takes nothing from anyone, and lives by a code of honesty. Though often abrasive, with a terrible singing voice, her performance is elevated by her talent.
Didi Conn, Jeff Conaway and Eve Arden have the chance to steal scenes as supporting characters, and they do just that, and though each is memorable, they are not the reason the film is beloved.
New songs were written for the film including the song “Grease” over the goofy opening titles and the Oscar nominated “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, written for Newton-John.
Directed pedestrian-like by Randall Kleiser, it seems extraordinary he guided the film to such stunning success.
Watching Grease is watching a fairy tale, and we smile along with the characters when their car lifts off the ground and flies into the heavens, into memory, into the hearts of the audience.
You just cannot help but like it!
Grease was the word in the summer of ’78.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.