Movies

‘Grease’ remains a cultural sensation, but Sandy and Danny were toxic

Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta from ‘Grease’

Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta from ‘Grease’ | Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

It truly is goodbye to Sandra Dee, and for the last time. Grammy Award-winning singer and actor Olivia Newton-John, best known as Sandy Olsson from the 1978 romantic musical Grease, passed away in her California home earlier this week, following her third bout with breast cancer.

Even today, Grease remains a cultural sensation that resonated with youth across the world. Everyone wanted John Travolta’s swagger, men wanted their hair greased back in the style of the 70s, leather pants became the rage, the songs were young and fun, and love was the most popular emotion. Romance continues to be one of the most favoured genres in cinema.... because you can never go wrong with it, right?

Wrong. Romance as an evergreen genre has aged, and viewers’ ideas of the depiction of love have changed. The concept of ‘red flags’ now exists, toxic relationships are cancelled, and maintaining your individuality is important. That is why many social media users today have condemned Grease as toxic, misogynistic, sexist and borderline rape-y even. Strong adjectives indeed.

Defending the film, Newton-John called it “a fun movie-musical that isn’t meant to be taken seriously”. The movie was made in the 70s and based in the summer of 1958, a time when gender roles were drastically different... not something the current generation of viewers tolerate though.

Sandy (Newton-John) is a simple, polite girl who falls in love with Danny (Travolta) over a glorious summer; cut to when they realise that they are actually very different people. Danny is part of the popular greaser gang at school with a bad-boy image, which surprises Sandy. In the end, she transforms into a leather pant-wearing, cigarette-smoking girl for him, shedding her original persona. However, Grease isn’t the only musical that romanticises toxic love.

A Star is Born, the 1976 production starring Barbara Streisand (Esther) and Kris Krisofferson (John), was recently remade with Lady Gaga (Ally) and Bradley Cooper (Jack) in the lead roles. There have been four versions of the film in all, and they have all been successful in terms of the music, the chemistry between the lead actors, and the love story. But is it really healthy? Consider the 1976 film alone. John is a has-been in the music industry while Esther is an up-and-coming singer.. They develop a romantic relationship but John remains an alcoholic, misses her performances, even despises her growth... and yet claims to love her. Esther remains trapped in the relationship, despite feeling unloved and unappreciated.

Or take the example of Funny Girl (1968), also starring Barbara Streisand, and Omar Sharif. Here too, Fanny, played by Streisand, is a rising star on Broadway while Sharif (Nick) is a suave businessman; the two enter a relationship. Once Nick’s ventures start to fail and Fanny becomes the sole breadwinner of their family, which includes a daughter, everything changes. He doesn’t attend her new play’s premiere and starts gambling with the money he has remaining, and the two argue. Nick is imprisoned for embezzlement and while bidding farewell, calls her “Funny Girl” which leaves her feeling dejected and bitter.

Who doesn’t love the combination of Robert de Niro and Martin Scorsese? In 1977’s New York, New York, De Niro (Jimmy) is a saxophonist and Liza Minelli (Francine) is a pop singer. The musical revolves around the extremely-volatile relationship they share, filled with obsession and love. One can discern from the beginning of the musical that this relationship is doomed, or at least toxic. Jimmy has a tendency to get violent and fight; one such episode results in Francine going into labor. He loves her but he is suddenly not ready to be a father or a good husband, and so he leaves her.

Sweet Charity is an American comedy-musical drama starring Shirley MacLaine (Charity) and John McMartin (Oscar). While the musical attempts to show us what love at first sight is, it also shows us how appearances matter, something that doesn’t carry as much weight today. Yes, there might be comical scenes like when Charity is forced into a cupboard while her date spends the night with another woman, but it seems more painful in reality than actually funny. They meet in an elevator and the instant attraction is undeniable. When Oscar proposes, Charity admits that she is just a taxi driver. Oscar initially admits that he is broad-minded and that it doesn’t matter in the face of love, but at the marriage license bureau, he says he cannot go through with it. Interestingly, an alternate ending was also filmed in which Oscar returns to Charity and they live happily ever after. However, Charity accepting Oscar shows us how all-consuming love can be, and that it can make you forget the insults thrown at you.

In today’s world, rewatching these classics can be unsettling, especially if gender politics is on your radar. Academics and film critics world over have recognised the hyper-masculine atmosphere in Grease and how musicals like these can be highly regressive. Sandy felt like she had to change her entire persona to be worthy of Danny’s love. Charity’s socio-economic background was clearly not enough for Oscar. Francine had to be able to put up with abusive behaviour to make it work with Jimmy. And Esther would have to find a way to curb her success to maintain a stable relationship with John.

All over the world, there has been a transformation in what people understand as good, healthy love; of course, this does not mean that all movies are devoid of toxic relationships. But the likes of La La Land (2016) are an example of progress. The musical received rave reviews for its storyline, the chemistry between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, the dance sequences, and the music which is based on vintage Hollywood. Despite the couple not having a happily-ever-after, it is still considered a love story, that of a love with one’s dreams, that shines brighter than any regular love story.


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Printable version | Aug 13, 2022 5:47:59 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/grease-is-no-longer-the-word/article65758238.ece