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Urban Cowboy

John Travolta's career has had its ups and downs, but no single arc is more fascinating than when he first arrived on the big screen. Already a famous TV star (on ABC's popular "Welcome Back Kotter"), Travolta made the transition from second-rate pictures to first-class blockbusters in short order, and he ticked off three notable movies in rapid succession, Saturday Night Fever (1977), Grease (1978), and Urban Cowboy (1980). All three films utilize a musical genre as a colorful backdrop, and Travolta dances in each one as well. But Urban Cowboy is the most puzzling of the trilogy, if nonetheless a delightful yarn. Credit Travolta's rare moment of choosing good material — he could have done another Grease-type musical, or he could have done a sequel to Saturday Night Fever (actually, he later did, to everyone's regret). Instead, the charismatic guy from New Jersey with the disco moves and soulful voice decided to play a two-bit shitkicker. And it's easily one of the best roles he's ever had. Travolta stars as Buford "Bud" Davis, a young man from east Texas who moves to Houston where he can live with his aunt and uncle (Barry Corbin, Brooke Alderson) and get a good-paying job at an oil refinery. But like all of his blue-collar friends, after the shift-whistle blows there ain't much to do except go to the local honky tonk. In this case it's Gilley's, the largest bar in the world, which features music, dancing, and a mechanical bull for the hardiest of cowboys to prove their mettle. At Gilley's Bud meets Sissy (Debra Winger), a young gal looking for a "real cowboy," and after a tumultuous courtship they have a whirlwind marriage, buying a mobile home and setting up housekeeping. But before long the relationship unravels — jealous Bud drinks too much, and Sissy doesn't like being ordered around — which leads him into the arms of Houston socialite Pam (Madolyn Smith), while she hooks up with scary ex-con Wes (Scott Glenn). Urban Cowboy certainly has a lot in common with Saturday Night Fever. Despite the different milieus, the stories are framed as journeys from innocence to experience, and they are centered around a local club where all of the melodramas play out, resolving finally around a contest. And while Fever is the better film of the two, Cowboy has much to recommend it. The script itself is a simple boy-meets-girl tale, but the performances flesh it out. Travolta's spot-on with his Texas accent, and he fills his character with notes of energy and hostility, punctuated by small gestures and facial tics. Winger is likewise compelling and sympathetic in her simple-girl charms, using a tomboy's bluster rather than seductiveness to attract men. And for all of their faults, the script never undermines the lead roles — fundamentally, Bud and Sissy behave like little children, but a lot of people do in matters of the heart (particularly when jilted), and at no point are they reduced to cultural stereotypes, trailer-trash losers who drink and fight and fail to comprehend their basest instincts. Urban Cowboy is a rare film in that it doesn't make fun of people who live in trailers, but instead asks us to accept Bud and Sissy for their very real flaws, rather than implied ones — and when there is a moment to laugh (as when the two wrestle in a mud-puddle), there is a sympathy to their pathos. Director James Bridges moves things along efficiently, often choosing to end scenes with quick cuts or modest fades, and Scott Glen turns in a genuinely frightening performance as the ex-con bull-rider Wes, who gulps down straight tequila and will take a slug at a woman as soon as a man. No, it's not Saturday Night Fever, and the fads and fashions are just as dated. But it's another story about a dumb guy with a heart, which served John Travolta well before his string of box-office clods kept his career on hold for the next decade. Paramount's DVD release of Urban Cowboy features a clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from a good source print, with audio in a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix or the original Dolby 2.0 Surround. Keep-case.
—JJB



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