The World's largest Country & Western saloon. The boom-town excitement of modern Houston. Changing sexual mores. A young man's quest for self-esteem in a teeming urban environment. True love. Heartbreak. The Code of the West in a hi-tech setting. A machine designed to celebrate manliness that gets preempted by the opposing sex, as Ring Lardner used to call it.
All these promising elements were a part of Aaron Latham's magazine article "The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America's Search for True Grit." Published in Esquire two years ago, this evocative piece of journalism suggested wonderful movie possibilities. Unfortunately, it still does.
The finer possibilities have been betrayed in the film adaptation contrived by Latham and director James Bridges as an absurdly upbeat romantic vehicle for John Travolta. The film-makers appear to believe that the moviegoing public craves a reassuring love story, at any cost. Here's hoping they're mistaken.
In Latham's orginal story, a young industrial worker named Dew and a girl named Betty met, courted, celebrated their impulsive wedding and became estranged at Gilley's, a big, popular honky-tonk saloon in suburban Houston. Ironically, the setting that brought them together also drove them apart.
To cut down on the fights that naturally proliferated amid the hearty boozing and sexual anticipation, the management of Gilley's installed games as safety valves for masculine aggression. A mechanical punching bag measured the force of haymakers; but the great attraction was a mechanical bucking bull -- a piston-driven, electronically manipulated sidehorse that tested a rider's endurance while punishing his crotch.
Something funny happened, according to the article: Riding the bull became a feat at which female customers excelled. Indeed, many outperformed their menfolk. Some men took it philosophically, reasoning that "A woman has nothing to lose." Others, like Dew, were put out. Betty's prowess on the bull and obsession with perfecting her technique evidently bugged her husband so drastically that he began an affair with another Gilley's regular, an amiable girl named jan who seemed to threaten no competitive conflict.
Latham summed up the sociological and erotic contradictions as follows: "The lot of the urban cowboy becomes harder and harder. He tries to escape from the overwhelming complexities of his petrochemical days into the simplicity of his honky-tonk nights. But then Gilley's turns out to be a complicated world too. Once the bullring was the simplest of the simple entertainments at Gilley's . . . But then Eve entered the bullring. The cowboys no longer simply measured against the bull, they were measured against the cowgirls.
"And yet the values represented by the cowboy hat prevailed. The cowboys did not try to exclude the cowgirls from the bullring, for that would have violated the code of openness . . . I could tell, though, that they weren't happy with the way things were turning out."
This perception, presumably the melancholy-comic heart of the matter, is so obscured by the plot invented for the movie that one is forced to conclude that something has been falsified. Either Latham exaggerated the bullride as a cause of sexual jealousy in the article or he elected to deemphasize it in the film version, perhaps in the condescending hope of appeasing audiences with a Happily-Ever-After bill of goods.
Reversing the theme of "Urban Cowboy" doesn't make sense, because Latham and Bridges are still dealing with a match that looks so tenuous one isn't surprised when it collapses. All the dramatic potential seems to depend on a sympathetic observation of how this romantic bubble forms and bursts under a specific set of pressures, enhanced by a distinctive regional culture. What defies belief are the various subterfuges necessary to demonstrate that a misbegotten union Can Be Saved in time for a kissy-facey fadeout.
Travolta and Debra Winger are cast as the fictionalized Dew and Betty, now called Bud and Sissy. Even the new names tend to underline the theme of immaturity. They meet in the saloon, and tie the knot after a cinematically foreshortened acquaintance that appears to consist of a couple of nights of dancing at Gilley's and one bad spat.The script fails to show Bud and Sissy growing up sufficiently to sustain a marriage -- the dramatic job of work that really needs to be done. It simply pronounces them grown-up and reconciled, on the dubious authority of trumped-up melodramatic evidence.
There is a systematic effort to shift responsibility from the young husband, perhaps in keeping with some preconception about Travolta's image. Where Dew and Betty were perceived as the prideful architects of their own romantic downfall, Bud and Sissy are acted upon in every crucial situation by corrupt outside agitators. Wes and Pam, a pair of lean, mean sexual predators, are played with considerable style by Scott Glenn (looking like a younger, tougher Clint Eastwood) and Madolyn Smith, a willowy newcomer with provocative eyes and a dimpled chin who suggests an irresistible amalgam of Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell.
Long before she and Bud split up, Sissy is depicted making eyes at Wes, an ex-convict who gets a job operating the mechanical bull (making it easier for Sissy and harder for Bud), and one can't help feeling that he's the commanding presence. When Wes is then revealed to be a vicious brute, intent on virtually enslaving poor infatuated Sissy, one can't help feeling that the cards have been stacked.
Ditto for Bud and Pam. He may make the first advances, but she's a devious, selfish rich girl who will stop at almost nothing to get what she wants. For underhanded example, she conceals a message from Sissy that might lead to a reconciliation (and end the movie prematurely).
All this manipulation makes it appear that the newlyweds are being victimized just like all the nice patsies on your favorite soaps. Shifting the blame for the breakup to the supporting characters may simplify dramatization in one respect, but it also leaves "Urban Cowboy" with deflated leading characters.
When the plot swoons to the point where Travolta is allowed to rescue his bride from the evil domination of Glenn in the final confrontation, it's apparent that despite the authentic source material and locations of the original story, this movie is intended as sheer synthetic fantasy. But what price fantasy?
The tricky process of integrating an actor as distinctively ethnic as Travolta into a Texas urban setting hasn't been eased by confusing his new role with aspects of the ignorant vulnerability of Tony Manero in "Saturday Night Fever" and even the comeback-kid valor of Sylvester Stalone's Rocky. To say that Travolta's Bud remains unassimilated is putting it mildly, but it would be unjust to fault Travolta for a perfectly sincere attempt to embody another confused young man struggling to assert himself in a big, intimidating city. The role itself is compromised by the stale heroic hash Latham and Bridges choose to make of it.
The ideal actor for Bud might have been the Jeff Bridges or Gary Busey of five years ago. Travolta is introduced astutely, the sound of his drawl preceeding his bowlegged entrance down a flight of stairs at his parents' ranch, prior to leaving home for a job installing insulation at a Houston refinery. Wearing a beard in the early scenes also helps. By the time Travolta sheds his beard, we should be willing to accept him as a Texan. I think we would if the script had dealt a straighter melodramatic game.
James Bridges is a capable but perhaps incorrigibly prosaic director. His straightforward approach always feels rather poky and lackluster. But when he tries to juice up a sequence, as he does with some of the atmospheric stuff at Gilley's, your're grateful for a return to prosiness. It's easier to respect his intelligence and restraint than identify his style.
At 137 minutes the plot of "Urban Cowboy" is somewhat tediously spun out. The Country & Western songs appear to be carrying a larger percentage of the show than the dramatic encounters, particularly the encounters between Travolta and Winger, who was promising in brief appearances in "Thank God It's Friday" and "French Postcards" but doesn't wear well over this protracted costarring haul. The picture also seems to lack a powerful visual and atmospheric contrast between Bud's working environment and his recreation at Gilley's. The contrast is there, but it fails to impose itself as effectively as the factory-pub contrast in "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" or even the paint store-disco contrast in "Saturday Night Fever."
As a matter of fact, Bud's working hours get such a cursory treatment in the preparatory footage that the contrast is inadvertently funny. He appears to be working aout 10-second shifts. What a propaganda coup for American when "Urban Cowboy" is released abroad!
Perhaps Latham overestimated certain generalization in the original story. "Urban Cowboy" might have been conceived to verify one of his platitudes like "As the country grows more and more complex, it seems to need simpler and simpler values." There's no denying that this film ends up as s counterfeit endorsement of the so-called simpler so-called values.