Oct 4, 2013

Summer 1978: I Figure It Out at the Movies

During the summer of 1978, I figured "it" out.  At the movies.

I didn’t go to movies much when I was a kid. Our church forbade them, and besides, I didn’t get an allowance until junior high.  In 1968, I saw only 3 movies in a theater: Blackbeard’s Ghost, Yours, Mine, and Ours, and Oliver!

But during the summer of 1978, shortly after my senior prom, I was a high school graduate.  I had a job at the Carousel Snack Bar and my own car: money and freedom. And I went to all the movies I could.

During the 10 weeks of summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, I saw 21 movies, alone, with my brother, with Aaron and Darry and a boy I liked: Old Marx Brothers comedies at the Film Club, dollar movies at the Augustana Student UnionThe Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Nuart, and lots of blockbusters at the Showcase Cinemas (Animal House, The Cheap Detective, The End, The Eyes of Laura Mars,  Grease, The Greek Tycoon, Seniors....). 

You probably think that Rocky Horror did it.  No, it was Grease.

It's a heterosexist boy-meets-girl fable, drawing on the 1950s craze, and therefore kin to Lords of Flatbush,  Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley): during their senior year at Rydell High in the 1950s (actually 1962), "nice girl" Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) falls for greaser Danny (John Travolta), but he is only interested in girls who "put out." So her friends, the Pink Ladies, give her a tramp-makeover, and Danny is lured in.

But more: it's about masks, surface conformity hiding our true selves. Danny is sweet, sensitive, and caring, but his culture requires a pretense of machismo. When he falls for Sandy, he is forbidden from acknowledging that he is in love; it's supposed to be all about sex.  Sandy, meanwhile, learns to hide her true self under a sleazy, leather-clad, cigarette-smoking facade.

At the time, both were heavily rumored to be gay.  Conforming, wearing a mask.

But girls can only lure, hint at sexual availability.  There are dire consequences for actually giving in, as Rizzo (Stockard Channing) learns (pictured with her boyfriend Kenickie).

What do the teenagers want, when they are their true selves?  Not sex.  Not romance. They want belonging, an emotional connection.  As the movie ends, the eight friends wonder what will become of them after graduation.  Will they go their separate ways?  "No," Danny exclaims.  "That'll never happen. We'll always be together."

"Grease," performed by Frankie Valli, was constantly on the radio that summer.

This is a world of illusion, out of control, makes us confused: nothing is real, you have to wear the mask, say things you don't mean, pretend things you don't feel.

 The adults are lying -- only real is real.  It's all one big lie.

Over and over, day after day, year after year, they try to make you believe that what you feel doesn't exist, what you want doesn't exist, that no same-sex love has ever happened in all the history of the world.

It's all one big lie. Only real is real.

We stop the fight right now, we got to be what we feel.

That did it.

I may be the only person in history to start sobbing uncontrollably during Grease.

See also: A Boy Named Angel