Contrary to popular knowledge, Sylvester Stallone is a writer/director. Throughout his filmography, he expressed a constructive style within a conservative approach to filmmaking. His junior film Staying Alive (1983) is a hidden gem and arguably his most authentic in terms of authorship. Due to Stallone’s involvement, Staying Alive stands on its own, disassociated from its prequel Saturday Night Fever (1976). Staying Alive poses as a sequel, continuing the narrative of Tony Manero (John Travolta)- an Italian-American talent and dancer. Considering the film’s original screenplay, penned by Sylvester Stallone and Norman Wexler, Manero’s story becomes reenergized, and the film is enlivened. Stallone gives Manero a hustler mentality that adds to the film’s gritty vibe. The narrative holds a kernel of promise revolving around a dancer who struggles between his overt womanizing and relentless pursuit of trying to make it on Broadway. It’s when Stallone gave himself a Hitchcockian cameo in an early scene, bumping shoulders and crossing paths with Manero on a crowded New York City sidewalk; where both Stallone and Rocky rub-off on the psyche of Travolta and Manero, for the rest of the film.
Staying Alive was made in 1983, 2 years after John Travolta’s memorable performance in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981). Between both films, what remains identical in his facial expressions, changes drastically within his physiological demeanor. Manero’s robust stage presence and striding swagger elevates his pedigree as a notable on-screen character. Perhaps, one can hint at a universal connection between Tony Manero and Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction (1994); a dancer from N.Y.C. gets a name change then becomes a hitman in L.A.. This isn’t too far of a stretch considering Tony Manero’s masculine street smarts in a 1983 New York, could evolve into a ruthless assassin of 1994 Los Angeles. Where Manero/Vega engages in discussions with Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) pertaining to cultural differences of metric systems, prior to carrying out a violent execution accompanied by passages of the Bible, all the while alluding to the functionality of moral attitude among the antiheroes of a fictional narrative. How else would Vincent Vega know how to dance with Mia Wallace?
Tony Manero is from Brooklyn, and he was “sly” enough to escape into Manhattan, due to a formidable personality; one we later learn he’s grown a guilty conscience for. This is revealed in one of the film’s most powerful scenes when Manero visits his mother for lunch at his childhood home. She quickly dismisses all of his doubt and regret for leaving her, and instills him with reassurance that his brash mindset is what gave him a chance at glory, a shot at the night. Manero learns to embrace his shortcomings; they’re exactly why he’s not stuck in Brooklyn anymore. Sylvester Stallone is from Hell’s Kitchen, New York. Prior to Rocky (1976), the writer/director had a variety of acting endeavors with dreams of making great art. A man determined to make something happen for himself; willing to go through the ringer like Tony Manero. It’s no mistake that Manero’s aspirations in Staying Alive resemble ones from Stallone’s own life, a decade prior.
It’s clearly apparent that Stallone’s presence behind the camera had a profound affect on Travolta’s performance. Not just his demeanor and mannerisms, but psychologically, both Manero the character and Travolta the actor, are affected to the point where you can see it in their eyes. What occurred in pre-production and between takes evidently took precedence over any unique approach Manero or Travolta may have liked to bring to the stage. It’s obvious that Stallone made his presence known, rubbing his persona off on a character already established by a hit prequel. Staying Alive revamps Tony Manero, and one wonders where such a bold character ended up in his life. It’s rather satisfying to think that dancing didn’t pan out for Manero, leading to a legal name change to Vincent Vega and a life of crime. This is an acceptable idea for a viewer attempting to maximize their artistic experience of such a powerful character.
The slim-fit V-neck under a leather jacket with a gold crucifix chain tightly wrapped around Manero’s neck as he “struts” the streets of NYC in ’83 resemble Rocky Balboa striding through the streets of Philly in ’76 and ’79. A similar structural approach exists in Staying Alive, in that an underdog is trying to come up and make a name for himself on the Billboard. Except he’s not a heavyweight boxer going into the ring to fight the reigning champion; he’s a dancer on a major Broadway show with arguably an equal amount of strenuous physical demands of swaying, twisting, lifting, leaping, pirouetting, et cetera. Techniques that can only be skilled by rigorous exercise through repetition. Gaining Tony Manero’s skills are arguably more challenging, in comparison to Rocky Balboa’s natural born ability to throw and slip punches. In Staying Alive, Manero is lean, and mean. He’s in tremendous shape, almost identical to Balboa in Rocky III (1983). The way Manero arches his shoulders back and elongates his neck is a mirror of Balboa. This is no mistake, or coincidence, but merely directed by Stallone; a writer/director who employed the use of his signature technique, the montage, throughout the entire film. He would repeat this same technique, elevating it to a different standard, in Rocky IV (1985), his 5th film as Writer/Director. The training sequence just before the climax in the 3rd Act of Staying Alive ends with another Stallone directorial stamp: the freeze frame of a live image morphing into an image manufactured. In this case, it was the Broadway marquee. At the end of Rocky III, it was a canvas painting of Balboa and Creed trading heavy blows. Sylvester Stallone’s trademark is ever-present in most of his films, and they’re prevalent in Staying Alive.
At the first impression of Staying Alive, it’s mind-boggling to think that Sylvester Stallone would write, direct, and produce a dance/musical/romance genre picture with a Bee Gee’s soundtrack. Into the 1st Act, one realizes the film is an underdog story in its purest form. As a standalone film, “staying alive” correlates with Stallone’s famed idiom “keep punching”. Aside from its blatant inspiration from the Bee Gee’s hit song “Stayin’ Alive”, it refers more to the underdog theme about an undiscovered talent willing to go through the grinder to make a name for himself. The film is about a hungry, diligent, and persistent playboy who can act, sing, or perform at all levels of entertainment. But he’s a dancer by nature’s passion. And even though Manero is still able to strive while barely keeping his head above water, he refrains from allowing his class status to determine success in career pursuits or romantic endeavors.
He exercises this aggressive courage with the way he treats, and mistreats, women. Some of the film’s most fruitful dialogue are in scenes between Manero and female characters (written by Stallone). “Everybody uses everybody” is a line uttered by Laura (Finola Hughes, General Hospital) to Manero about using each other for sex. Manero falls hard for Laura, who happens to be an affluent lead dancer on the Broadway stage. Laura is a character that portrays dual identifications for the audience. She’s the antiheroine antagonist with both the passive erotic image of a female, and the active image of a lead character who chin-checks Manero with the harsh reality of romance; all is fair in love and war. Laura is detached emotionally with a guard around her heart. Her low estrogen levels cause her to grow distant from her feminine side. Manero’s expression of his feelings in the form of complaints to Laura in a powerful scene after their intimacy reduces his testosterone. The sex for Manero was meaningful. He thinks he was taken advantage of. Laura refuses to budge, reminding Manero that he’s inadvertently neglecting to comprehend the fact that he, too, used Laura. She’s a complex character written with deep layers of personality, and later invites Manero to an upscale house party she’s hosting to meet “other” girls. Laura is a secure, mature, and confident woman who reminds Manero, “We didn’t have a fight, you did.”
Staying Alive is film that exemplifies the hormonal balance and imbalance of women and men, through a love triangle of mischief and deceit. Staying Alive turns the tables and objectifies the male character of Manero behind two female protagonists, Laura, and Jackie (Dirty Dancing, Flashdance), who become objects of Manero’s male gaze. Stallone paints a portrait of Manero as both subject and object. Staying Alive characterized an identification for the female protagonists by the female viewer, while offering a female heterosexual gaze into the male. This flip is a rarity in cinema; the dual-sexual fantasy in which both male and female are objectified. Films of past and present typically have an active role of the male and a passive role of the female. Staying Alive is outstanding because Manero is clearly the active subject, but he’s also the passive erotic object of the female gaze. While both Laura and Jackie are painted as passive objectifications for the male gaze, they serve active roles as female lead characters who have a profound affect on the success of the male protagonists’ overall objective within the narrative.
Like Quentin Tarantino, Sylvester Stallone has directed 9 films. After his debut Paradise Alley (1978) and his sophomore feature Rocky II (1979), Staying Alive became the third film written and directed by Stallone. Stallone is not an auteur; his films don’t evoke such artistic vibrations. His shot selections are simplistic, and conservative. This isn’t by mistake, but clearly directorial choices to cover a scene with classic camera angles. He exercises his strongest suit, directing his actors with passion and aggression. His entire filmography of directorial authorships has much to do with performances and less to do with style. In a traditional sense, he’s an actor’s director. Considering 8 of his 9 films are starring himself as the male lead, Staying Alive is his most authentic attempt as a director. A true directorial debut as a visionary who solely rests behind the camera and never in front. Stallone’s cameo in the film serves as evidence for this claim. A page right out of the books of Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. He took the helm behind the camera, and only gave himself a split second of screen-time, bumping shoulders while crossing paths with Manero. A bit that gave the hint of a scrap or scuffle between Tony Manero and Rocky Balboa; considering Stallone was dapper in a fur coat and designer shades; clearly an ode to the Italian Stallion boxing champion of 1983 sending a signal to Manero to “keep punching”. Manero’s no chump; he can scrap. And when he looks over his shoulder to see who aggressively bumped into him, he gets stared down by Balboa. In a brilliant bit where Manero recognizes Balboa and walks away. It angers Manero to the point of motivation. Balboa rubs off on him, as if passing a torch. John Travolta is clearly under the direction and influence of Sylvester Stallone from this point on, as is Balboa’s effect on Manero, “strutting” into victory on Broadway, down the Manhattan night.
written by ardalan pourvali