Seeing as Memorial Day marked the unofficial start of a summer that could very well prove to be one spent entirely out of movie theaters, I’m going to focus this recurring feature on summer blockbusters (and maybe the odd sleeper or would-be blockbuster that flopped, here and there) until fall. After all, reliving theatrical experience via home media (and the cognitive dissonance it conjures) is a big part of what Has It Aged Well? is about.
In the summer of 1978, America stayed in school via Grease, Randal Kleiser’s phenomenon of a movie musical about high school students, based on Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s 1971 stage musical. Grease was an eventual hit on Broadway, yet it inspired little faith after being greenlit. In an excellent retrospective piece published by Vanity Fair in 2016, Michael Callahan sets up the stakes: “The slapdash production, mapped out in five weeks and shot over two months, was given a modest $6 million budget by Paramount C.E.O. Barry Diller, who dismissed the whole thing as so much cinematic cotton candy.”
How silly. Grease was an immediate sensation that quickly became canon, a defining piece of American culture that spanned generations (its ’50s setting allowed for simultaneous fond remembrance and satire, and its release in the ’70s captured what a force nostalgia had become in pop culture) and churned out hit after hit (four of its songs went top 10 in the U.S., with “Grease” and “You’re the One That I Want” going all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100). Grease is so iconic that it’s easy to ignore as cultural wallpaper (Grease is just there in the recesses of my memory because it’s always... just been there), but that makes rediscovering it such a delight.
The musical numbers fill the screen in a tradition back decades before the simpler time in which it is set, sometimes employing a cast of hundreds. It’s astonishing at times, and more often than not, someone is doing something worth looking at. Look at how each T-bird is doing a different move during “Summer Nights”:
Bronte Woodard’s screenplay is reliably witty. While rewatching this week, I laughed out loud when Rizzo (Stockard Channing) tells Marty in the drive-in bathroom that she feels “like a defective typewriter” and then clarifies: “I missed my period.” The performances are so good that almost every character is distinct, regardless of the number of lines he or she has—even Doody (Barry Pearl) and Sonny (Michael Tuccci) are palpably individual despite looking like fraternal twins who received uneven portions of milk as infants. Channing is particularly effervescent, reading each line “with relish” and as if her career depended on it (it basically did—after making a splash in 1975's The Fortune, she stalled until Grease came along). And Travolta, I don’t think, was ever better before or after. Grease contains everything you need to know about Travolta’s appeal.
I learned from Kleiser’s commentary that Travolta informed the director that he had a good side—his left—and requested to be shot from it. And there it is. Show me the lie.
All of the characters feel complete with the exception of the film’s de facto protagonist, Sandy (Olivia Newton John), a husk of a human who stumbles around Rydell High so deliriously awestruck that it’s as though she just arrived to America from another planet, not merely Australia (same thing?). In the ’70s, Grease did for the ’50s what that decade could never do for itself: It got at the horny truth. The sexual revolution, the dissolution of the Motion Picture Production Code, the Hollywood Renaissance, porno chic, and other cultural factors yielded storytelling that was franker and more explicit and an industry that by 1978 looked very little like what it did just a few decades before. This modern sensibility pulses through virtually all of Grease’s principal characters except for Sandy, a relic of prudish ’50s sensibilities. It’s really like she’s been transplanted from another decade.
I believe that we are meant to take Sandy at her word. The film’s show-stopping opening number, “Summer Nights,” is a he said/she said recounting of Sandy’s seasonal fling with greaser Danny Zuko, in which her wholesome depiction of summer fun contrasts sharply with his hip-thrusting recap of “making out” under the dock. The song sets the scene of the Sandy/Danny dynamic, and that scene seems to be your typical case of a guy trying to seem cooler and more sexually experienced than he actually is. But Grease trades in subtext that would have been taboo in the ’50s. It’s about what was really going on after the sock hops and outside of the white picket fences. If Sandy and Danny did have some sort of sexual contact (and the opening scene of them frolicking and gazing into each other’s eyes on the beach certainly allows room for a post-coital interpretation), she would have every reason to deny it, given the mores of the day and the expectations of good-girl conduct.
Whether sincere or not, it is the respectability politics that Sandy evinces that irritate Rizzo and render her Sandy’s adversary. Rizzo has no similar contempt for Frenchie (Didi Conn), who is similarly devoid of sexuality, but otherwise genuine in her charming idiosyncrasies. Rizzo’s frequent critiques of Sandy focus on optics. After befriending Sandy early, Frenchie asks Rizzo if she thinks Sandy could join their crew, the Pink Ladies. “She looks too pure to be Pink,” is Rizzo’s response. Not is. Looks. Similarly, Rizzo mocks Sandy’s aura in “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.” What bothers her is not Sandy’s personal choices but her projection of them.
Rizzo is the only character who is allowed a true manifesto in the form of the third-reel ballad, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” If she is not the movie’s moral center, per se, she is certainly the character with the most fully articulated sense of her own morality. A virtuosic range of emotions flickers across Channing’s face as she defends her right to sleep around, reasoning that worse things than going with a guy (or two) include stringing them along, sitting around waiting, and effectively living a lie. In other words, she would not resort to what she suspects Sandy of doing.
Throughout the movie, Sandy remains blank. She is the heroine only because she is positioned as such by the narrative, and she is otherwise polite enough to hold down the fort. Her own soul-harvesting number, “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” is a catchy tune (it peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100) that ultimately yields nothing other than her undying love for the aloof and opportunistic Danny. He, too, has been disingenuous in his presentation (in the opening scene on the beach, he dons a preppy wardrobe that clashes with his black-leather greaser image, and he speaks to Sandy in a higher pitch that betrays his cool-guy facade).
It isn’t until the scene just before graduation (in which the Rydell graduating class doesn’t walk but cavort around a carnival—weird, but at least it’s dynamic) that she has her own epiphany in a reprise of Rizzo’s scathing critique: “Look at me/There has to be/Something more than what they see.” Again, Sandy’s entire essence is superficial. (As bland and blank as she is, it seems like the virtually pre-verbal football hunk whose eye she catches early on, played by Lorenzo Lamas, is a much better match for her than the charismatic Danny.)
When Sandy shows up at graduation, all tarted-up and teased-out, it seems like the movie is advocating for love only on Danny’s terms. Though he has attempted to meet her halfway, apparently lettering in track (we see him run precisely once, and he quickly wipes out on a hurdle), he whips off his conservative cardigan to reveal his inner greaser just below the surface. Meanwhile, Newton-John had to be stitched into the second skin she dons on her lower body.
What if instead of the sexist concession this transformation of Sandy’s is often interpreted to be, it is merely a return to a form? What if instead of assimilating to the loose morals of Rydell High, Sandy belonged there all along and just wanted everyone to believe she was too good for it? A character whose entire existence is on her surface, her only hope for conveying as much would be to use her appearance to express it. For better or worse, Sandy is never more compelling or charismatic than in her final moments on screen. She’s otherwise a pill, entirely too susceptible to peer pressure given her moral high ground, and naive enough to be unable of carrying a conversation. At least by the end, she knows exactly who she is (and, as I’m arguing, who she was all along).
Admittedly, this interpretation does present a challenge or two to the surrounding text. There’s the scene at the drive-in, during a brief on-again chapter in Sandy and Danny’s endless vacillation, in which Danny comes onto her and eventually overpowers her physically, pinning her down in an attempt to get her to make out with him. She pries him off, rages, “You think I’m going to stay here with you in this sin wagon?” and slams the door on his boner. This seems to jibe with her puritanical account of their relationship, although sexual history provides no guarantee of a sexual present. It is no contradiction to have sex and then refuse to do so. You could wonder why Danny wouldn’t make note of her withholding what she had once given, but he is stunned and otherwise so entitled that perhaps there were no words available in retort.
After all, the film never bothers to probe the inner minds of its male characters regarding sexuality—it’s a given that they’re all horny and want it. This is to be accepted. Danny’s attempt at coercion is ultimately brushed off by Sandy. Kenickie (Jeff Conaway), with intrigue, asks Danny, “Did she put up a fight?” in “Summer Nights.” Putzie (Kelly Ward) looks up some girls’ skirts on the school bleachers to the snickers of his peers, and TV presenter Vince Fontaine (Edd Byrnes) hits on Marty (Dinah Manoff), who’s at least half his age and also a high school student, during the National Bandstand broadcast at Rydell. There is a real sense here that boys will be boys and girls have to figure out exactly what that means for them and their bodies. Grease’s female characters are not devoid of agency, but the film does way less to challenge the patriarchal system than it could probably ever get away with today.
Still, it does overall read as an over-pronounced satire, and that, surprisingly for its time, goes for its depiction of masculinity. Danny’s regularly shifting presentation exposes his tough-guy persona as a pose. His manhood is constructed and malleable. Additionally, in a retrospective interview, Conaway said that he played the scene in which Kenickie asks Danny to back him up during a drag race as a love scene. It ends with them expressing affection and then having no idea what to do with it... so they start grooming themselves.
Perhaps most farcical is the casting, which while nearly perfect in terms of the performance outcome, nonetheless quite ridiculously had adults playing characters who were years younger than they were. When Grease was released, Travolta was 24, Newton-John was 29, Conaway was 27, and Channing was 34.
There are some (perhaps unintended) references to the contrast in the ages of the actors and their characters: Mrs. Mudock (Alice Ghostley), the T-birds auto shop teacher, notes that Kenickie has been at Rydell High longer than she has. And the animated opening features rather unforgiving renderings of its players, particularly Channing.
I always thought this was so rude.
Anyway, I realize my reading of Grease gives it more credit than it deserves, but I do think that Rizzo is ultimately right about everything (and Sandy’s final presentation is ultimately Riz’s victory). Regarding respectability politics, Grease is not the word, but it is perhaps a word, and that’s more than anyone ever could have expected it to be.