Time and time again, in the early days of his stardom, matinee idol John Travolta used his newfound celebrity completely dismantling the idea of the matinee idol. The Irish-Italian from New Jersey with the cleft chin, the broad smile, and the endless charm, figured out a way to subvert his golden looks by diving headlong into characters with open-faced insecurities. Think about the way Travolta’s machismo is undercut repeatedly in Saturday Night Fever and Grease, the two biggest hits of his youth.
And through it all, Travolta was always charming, always funny, all the while totally undercutting these anachronistic notions of masculinity and coming through on the other side as a new version of a man, smarter and stronger. And in 1980, he took that same vibe to the south, to Houston, Texas, and to a legendary honky-tonk nightclub. He attacks the faults of his own iconography head on in Urban Cowboy, which never received quite the same broad fanfare of Saturday Night Fever or Grease. In many ways, though, it’s the best of the three.
Or maybe I’m just too close to Urban Cowboy, but I don’t think so. The people in director James Bridges’ smoky brown melodrama resemble the photos of my own parents in the years before I was born (Urban Cowboy is a year older than I am). The pearl snap shirts and feathered cowboy hats were in my dad’s closet, and the songs of Charlie Daniels and Johnny Lee colored my youth. And yes, my parents loved this movie because they identified; one of my earliest movie memories is standing my parents’ living room seeing John Travolta, hungover and beat up, dangling from scaffolding.
My parents never split up and got entangled with an ex-con prison rodeo psychopath in a mesh shirt, mind you, but this world was alive for me as I grew up. And those ne’er do wells were always on the periphery back in those days in Texas. My closeness does create bias, but it also gives me an advantage over someone from the Northeast digesting the material in this movie, just as the people who grew up in Brooklyn in 1977 better understand the world of Tony Manero. My experience growing up and seeing this world as it evolved over the 1980s allows me to vouch for the spot on authenticity, which the performances sell right from the start.
John Travolta’s Bud is a little older than Tony, or Danny Zuko in Grease. He’s ready to shed his youthful skin and be an adult. He doesn’t care about his hair, because it’s going to be under a cowboy hat. He yearns to be an authentic, hard-working cowboy, and that earnest desire is palpable in the early scenes as Bud leaves his modest family home and heads to Houston to work hard, and party hard. But he’s a little rough around the edges for this new brand of urban wrangler; he’s from the country and only tagging along with his uncle the first time he visits Gilley’s Honky Tonk and sees the world he wants to infiltrate. That’s where he meets Sissy.
Debra Winger was just becoming a star in 1980. She was 25, and she still had An Officer and a Gentleman and Terms of Endearment in her future, but all that fire and sexual energy was alive and well in Urban Cowboy. Winger is an equal with Travolta, and Sissy is just as eager to please and just as uncertain how to actually be an adult. She makes mistakes, they both make mistakes, but we know almost immediately from their steamy first dance montage, that they will end up together in the end. That isn’t the draw of the movie, it’s the characters and the world of wannabe cowboys crossing paths with something beyond their fun moonlighting at Gilley’s, someone dangerous like Scott Glenn’s reptilian villain, Wes Hightower.
Glenn was just about out of Hollywood at the time. His ego had gotten him into fights with directors and executives, and he was ready to write it off when James Bridges called him and knew that if he played this character he would never have to audition for a role again. Everything about Wes is everything Bud is not; he’s confident and dangerous, and he can fight and he has a dark appeal that lures in young Sissy. Glenn’s Wes is a tremendous disruptor, and a monster, and Sissy learns these lessons the hard way.
Both Bud and Sissy lose each other to other affairs in the middle of the movie, and they both realize the grass is not, in fact, greener on the other side. Everything about their affairs eventually exposes itself to be a fraud, one more perilously than the other. Madolyn Smith Osborne’s socialite, Pam, is the high society comfort Bud thinks he wants, but he eventually realizes that high rise parties and silk sheets don’t have that authenticity he so eager sought when he first pulled into the big city. Urban Cowboy is the most honest portrayal of a relationship and how people have to grow and find common ground while not forcing change on the other person, and in that regard, it is as authentic as the world Bud seeks.
Beyond the story of the film is the rich atmosphere of Gilley’s, a rowdy honky tonk bar started by Mickey Gilley and club promoter Sherwood Cryer in 1970. For a decade, Gilley’s reputation grew, and the country western music and dance scene was slowly crawling across parts of America. Hollywood knew this world was ripe for a story, and the hype surrounding Urban Cowboy carried it to a sizable $46 million box office. The film itself never received the praise of Saturday Night Fever or Grease, but it deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with Travolta’s disco nightclub odyssey.
And it’s certainly better than Grease.