THE BLOG

Don Jon Grooves Like Saturday Night Fever

09/26/2013 08:30 pm ET | Updated Nov 26, 2013
  • Paul Pape Voice-over artist, President and CEO, New Trails Productions

Back in 1977, I was cast in Saturday Night Fever as Double J, a close friend of John Travolta's character Tony Manero. The film, now a time capsule, went on to become one of the most iconic films of its era.

Tony was good looking, dressed sharp, was a great dancer and seemingly had everything going for him. He was a leader -- his peers looked up to him and the girls loved him. Yet something was missing for this young man who was the king of the dance floor on weekends. He struggled with a dead end job at a paint store during the week and had no real prospects to look forward to.

Watching Don Jon, I was struck by how many parallels existed between the world we portrayed back in Brooklyn in the 1970s and the world that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character of Jon lives in today. Like Tony, Jon is also a good-looking, charismatic working class young man who seems to get by on raw animal instinct. A natural leader, he and his buddies are brim full of testosterone, though uneducated in general. They love using foul language and making up for their lack of sophistication by putting on a façade of toughness, either in how they interact with others or with each other. It's a façade that never quite masks the insecurity they feel underneath. Like we portrayed way back when, they are pros of escapism -- with girls being the number one target for a way to make oneself feel better. In Jon's case, however, it also happens to involve an addiction to porn. I can't believe I'm saying this, but our hedonistic temptations in the '70s were tame compared to what is available today. We had drugs, music, and a new thing called birth control pills that many were not beyond taking full advantage of. There were the fantasy lifestyles that both Playboy and Penthouse magazines represented, which many a young guy (and girl) wanted to live out. But if you wanted hardcore porn, you had to go hunker down in a seedy theater somewhere, which was not exactly appealing or very sexy. There was no Internet to surf. Cable, VHS tapes and such were all still in their infancy. That's not the case today, which I suppose adds to the overwhelming appeal of porn now... as well as the dangers.

While it would be easy to do so, I think it would be a mistake to make Jon's preoccupation with pornography the focus of any commentary on Don Jon as a film -- any more than the world we existed in back then could be considered the major cause of Tony Manero's issues. They are simply backdrops to the more pressing issue -- the matter of disaffected youth who somehow feel disconnected from their true selves and are just looking to feel good any way they can. Like Tony Manero and Jon, that does not mean they are lost or devoid of heart. They are far from that.

Fever had its share of controversy back then. Many people just wanted to enjoy the great music of the Bee Gees, dress up in white suits and strut the night away...in order to...well...escape. Yet underneath it all was this underbelly that the film never shied away from. It was true to its environment and quite accurate in that way. I believe that is ultimately why the film became such a sociological statement for its time, one whose authenticity has only grown over the years. But back then, when 14-year-olds were sneaking in to see the film, parents were none too thrilled with the subject matter. To satisfy this concern, Paramount released a more sanitized PG version of our movie.

Don Jon is absolutely entertaining to watch, and I believe it is also a refreshingly honest and equally provocative look at a young man who is struggling to come of age during an era when sensory overload and instant gratification are the norm. He instinctively knows there must be more to life. In meeting the right girl (which Scarlett Johansson does a great job of in her portrayal of Barbara) he is willing to take chances with himself that he otherwise might never have taken. Unlike Saturday Night Fever, however, Jon ultimately learns his life lessons not just from a girl who wants more out of life, but also from a friend, Esther (Julianne Moore), who will not let him 'escape' the realities of his life and whose very honesty ultimately makes it possible for him to grow. Tony Manero didn't have an Esther in his life, but he probably could have used one.