Monday, March 4, 2024

Op-Ed: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘Grease’ (#97)

I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judge whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre, I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.

In 1978, a musical that served as a loving homage to the teen beach movies of the 1950s, took the world by storm. It remains a cultural touchstone for children of the late 1970s. My parents could sing along to any song on the soundtrack and my mother has very strong opinions on the tightness of Sandy’s leather pants. Surprisingly, it isn’t just an artifact of the 1970s, it has managed to become popular with following generations and it doesn’t seem to be losing its grip on the minds of adolescents. The tunes are catchy, the performances ride a fine line between pastiche and melodrama and it assures its audience that everything will eventually work itself out. What more could a fifteen-year-old girl want? 

We all know that it’s set in the 1950s and centers on Danny, John Travolta, an American greaser, and Sandy, Olivia Newton-John, an Australian good girl who has recently moved to America. Their summer romance was cut short and Danny is nervous about getting involved with her when she begins attending his high school. Rizzo, Stockard Channing, is the leader of the Pink Ladies and initially clashes with Sandy. Rizzo is also worried about the fact that she might be pregnant and her boyfriend Kenickie, Jeff Conaway, does not seem like he wants to commit to her. Sandy and Danny drift in and out of each other’s orbit and try to figure out how to be a couple when they are both so different. Their friends both help and hinder them when it comes to the development of their relationship. 

As beloved as it is, I don’t think anybody would call Grease (1978), a masterpiece. That ridiculous ending, which is too fantastical to believe, its questionable message about changing yourself for the person you love, and its rushed ending, ensure that it is easy to identify its flaws. However, you can look the other way whenever Newton-John delivers an emotionally wrenching ballad about the pains of being young and in love. There is a technical flaw in almost every scene but that is always offset by the fact that the scene in question will also contain flashes of genius.

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The greatest asset that Randal Kleiser had in his arsenal was a 34-year-old Channing. She could never convince as a seventeen-year-old girl and doesn’t even try to adopt the voice of an adolescent. This is commonly used as a charge against her performance but I honestly don’t think it really matters. She makes Rizzo a complex, three dimensional character who is not what she first appears to be. She plays up the mean girl aspects of Rizzo’s personality and shows off her acerbic wit but drops in moments of vulnerability here and there. Initially, her unwanted pregnancy is seen in a humorous light and there are jokes about buns in the oven. This begins to change over time and Channing deepens Rizzo’s humiliation, anger, and self hatred in the face of a patriarchal society that wants her to be sexy but virginal and willing to hand over control of her life to the man she marries. 

During her performance of “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee”, she mocks Sandy and sarcastically compares her to a variety of screen idols who are famed for their virtuous, innocent screen personas. The song initially appears to be a diss track of sorts but it does have a lot to say about the performative nature of femininity in the 1950s. All of these girls are aware of the fact that Doris Day isn’t really a virgin who is disgusted by the idea of sex. Rizzo practically rolls her eyes when she compares Sandy to Day and we realize that young girls were far more knowing than they are often seen to be. There is also something sad about the cynicism with which she has to talk about sex and the fact that she sees Sandy as competition. Channing is also terrifically funny during this scene, particularly when she rolls her eyes at a menacing poster of Troy Donahue. 

There is something beautiful about the developing friendship between Sandy and Rizzo. Because we have come to understand Rizzo’s deep hatred of girls like Sandy, who cruelly mock her in the hallways for her ‘promiscuity’, it is pleasing to see her coming to appreciate a truly nice girl. There has been plenty of debate over the fact that the plot of the film requires Rizzo to adopt a more traditional lifestyle by getting back together with Kenickie while Sandy becomes a ‘bad girl’ in order to seduce Danny. I think the potential sexism of these changes is offset by the fact that Rizzo appears to want to enter into a committed relationship while Sandy insists that Danny must become more mature and make changes if he wants to be with her. Both women help each other to come of age and move beyond the silly conflicts that can erupt between high schoolers.

The majority of the songs are extraordinary and you can hum along to them for days after seeing the film. “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” hits hard as a female empowerment anthem and an exploration of what bullying has done to Rizzo, “Summer Loving” is a fun exploration of the different expectations that girls and boys have when it comes to love and “Grease is the Word” is a shot of pure nostalgia. With tunes like these, this musical is irresistible. I completely support its inclusion on this list and might have even ranked it higher. 

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