From the AFI Archive: GREASE in American Film Magazine – American Film Institute


From the AFI Archive: GREASE in American Film Magazine

By Marjorie Rosen (American Film Magazine, February 1978)

I know that the world is currently having a love affair with the fifties, that everyone is dancing to fifties’ tunes and watching fifties-type shows on television (“Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley”). And since the catalyst for this nostalgia explosion, the Broadway musical Grease, is about to debut as a $6 million movie extravaganza, I suspect that the canonization of Howdy Doody, Sandra Dee, and white bucks has only just begun. Those who remember “The Big Payoff,” poodle skirts, and poodle cuts, will be among the well-informed. We will all mourn Elvis and James Dean and Eisenhower Prosperity as much as we once mourned the dumping of tea at Boston Harbor. The cha-cha, let me point out, is already back in style, but now they call it disco.

Well, to tell you the truth, I am bewildered by this mass hysteria. I hate to be the killjoy, but for me, growing up in the fifties, no doubt with a touch of melancholia, meant something else: It meant air-raid drills, crouching in the school basement, two by two, hands protecting our heads; it meant the terror of Sputnik and sleepless nights because my family hadn’t built an underground shelter. It meant the accusatory drone of Senator Joe McCarthy as he performed during the army hearings on television day after day.

The fifties were a decade when mothers chauffeured children to school and back, to dancing classes and back, to “social hygiene” classes and back. If, in that decade, you happened to be female and smart, you concealed those “weaknesses” by being silly and breathy and funny. At thirteen you stuffed socks in your bras; at fourteen you wore panty girdles which extended to mid-thigh; and at fifteen you dreamed about an exciting future at the country club. And if you courted wild abandon to the extent that you allowed a boy to place his hand on your breast, the whole football team thereafter referred to you as “the community chest.” (Let me make it perfectly clear, I am not speaking from experience.)

In other words, the fifties were a reactionary and fiercely frightening decade. They were the political Dark Ages. As far as fashion went, they were an abomination of cumbersome silhouettes and shapeless lines. Why, then, are we now paying such shortsighted homage to this period? And what is it about Grease that accounts for its phenomenal success, including a Broadway run which, after six years, still plays to packed houses; five touring companies; scheduled openings in France where it will be called Brilliantine, and in Mexico where the title will be Vaselina; and a gross approaching $40 million?

“Ours was the first show that spoke to a new generation, and it spoke about that generation,” observes Grease’s Broadway producer, Kenneth Waissman. “It’s not just nostalgia for the fifties that has made it such a hit. I think it’s because Grease deals with the universals of adolescence, with problems we all go through, problems of relating to the opposite sex or to peer groups for the first time. There are many uncomfortable teenage moments in the show—like being rejected by someone you have a crush on. But here you laugh at these things; you have a good time. It’s escapism that minimizes the pain of what were once major problems for us all.”

The appeal of Grease has to do with time moving on and catching up with itself, time editorializing on and, best of all, perfecting itself.

Whatever truths Waissman touches on—and he admits that the musical hit Broadway at a time when “the theater was menopausal”—there nevertheless must be other explanations for Grease’s unparalleled success. Armchair sociologists would no doubt point out how similar Watergate’s moral dilemmas were to those of the McCarthy period. They might also make a case for Grease as a reaction to the revolutionary and undisciplined sixties, a return to simplicity and dependability in fashion, and also in music whose revolutionary trend, ironically, was started in the fifties. They might even argue Grease’s appeal in terms of the simplified way it deals with relationships.

For the story of Grease is nothing, if not simple. In fact, the pure boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-back-girl plot is remarkably similar to those generalized adolescent romances such as Andy Hardy and Polly Benedict, Archie and Veronica, or Dobie Gillis. However, where Andy’s adventures were as much family-oriented as peer-oriented, in Grease, Danny Zuko (John Travolta) and Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton-John) are completely immersed in the culture of their schoolmates at Rydell High. Still, except for the costumes, a pregnancy scare, a few innuendos, such tongue-in-cheek songs as “Beauty School Dropout” and “Greased Up and Ready,” and a bizarre twist in (economic) class appeal, the simplicity of events and the uncomplicated worlds these characters populate are extraordinarily alike. And perhaps, says the armchair psychologist, they provide comfort today in this period of complex entanglements and shattered traditions.

What’s especially fascinating, though, is that while Judge Hardy’s family, Archie, and the Gillises were thoroughly middle-class, Grease sells the false notion that the lower-class subculture of kids who wore ducktails and leather jackets, rode motorcycles and cut classes, made up the sweet core of every high school’s primary culture. But the truth is that we middle-class teenagers were all petrified of the “hoods” or “rocks” from the wrong side of the tracks who swaggered down school corridors in taps and pegged pants and bullied all the virgin girls. To receive even a smile from one of them was virtually as titillating and dangerous as accepting a date might have been. And herein may lie another aspect of Grease’s appeal today, nice middle-class adults can look back, erase the guilt of their childhood privilege, and envision, even romanticize, themselves as the youthful renegades they might have been. In retrospect, Grease allows us to see ourselves as frivolous outlaws, rebels without much cause.

And it allows our children to share the experience with us. Grease’s two major markets, then, are the generation that grew up in the fifties and the generation growing up today. It’s a perfect vehicle, even a bond, for teens and preteens, many of whom are just as fascinated by the ambience in which Mommy and Daddy rid themselves of acne as they are by this gang of kids embodying the “universal adolescence.” Certainly, just as the seventies seem to be a blind celebration of the fifties, it also appears to be pandering to a newly moneyed preteen culture in terms of music, movies, and television. Think of such preteen-oriented series as “The San Pedro Beach Bums,” “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “Eight Is Enough,” “James at Fifteen,” “Mulligan’s Stew,” and even “Donny and Marie.” Coming at a time when the screen money-makers are overwhelmingly pictures with enormous appeal for children—Star Wars, The Deep, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind—Grease, no doubt, will fill a similar gap. And, as the odds on these things go, it should clean up.

Ultimately, that’s what all parties concerned are betting on. Which is why Paramount and Allan Carr paid the producers, Kenneth Waissman and Maxine Fox Waissman, an unprecedented and undisclosed sum plus a percentage of the movie’s gross in order to obtain screen rights. It is also why the Waissmans, operating on the assumption that the movie, by reaching a mass audience, would severely cut into the Broadway show’s profits, held up film production for almost a year. In fact, they would have preferred to postpone the filming even longer, but the project finally went to arbitration and the release date—spring 1978—was established.

The timing seems fortuitous indeed. Hollywood, having been burned by its giant apes. star-studded war machines, and best-seller violence, is trying to absorb the lesson of Star Wars. Therefore, the industry is turning its attention to escapism, fantasy, and family entertainment. Grease seems to fill the bill. It’s romance. It’s comedy. It’s also a musical, in fact, the first in a spate of rock and roll musicals (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Hair) currently in preparation. Actually, the rock musical is an interesting modern vehicle, for it is perhaps the only kind of musical, aside from those with cabaret settings, that could really work today. First, it’s not only about teens, it’s about teens talking their own musical vocabulary—rock. And second, it’s both serious and tongue-in-cheek, and therefore it has an amusing credibility audiences should accept. More important, we don’t need the innocence required for us to believe, say, a Brigadoon or a Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, where characters break out into highly emotional laments or bursts of happiness which disrupt our dramatic involvement and demand that we empathize with their innocence. (Today, innocence is no longer regarded as virtue; which is one reason, I believe, that the American musical has emerged a movie dinosaur.) Grease, because of its essential foundation of parody, of everything being real but also not real, is dramatically simple and emotionally uninvolving, and frees us from such contingencies.

But finally, I think, the most irresistible aspect of Grease is that it affords us a comfortable and artificial look at the fifties, just as images of flappers and goldfish swallowers afforded us a comfortable, myopic look at the twenties. Mindless and infantile, this easy vision seems ideally suited to the movie medium. For its real, deeper appeal—like the appeal of nostalgia and, especially, like the appeal of movies and Hollywood itself—has to do with time moving on and catching up with itself, time editorializing on and, best of all, perfecting itself. “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” one character in the film sings. This, I think, is what we all want from Grease. After all, isn’t it what we most of all wanted from our adolescence?

The casting of Grease—flashing as it does to the golden days of movies and existing as a showcase for actors who are living cultural artifacts—is something of a stroke of genius. It includes such current hot properties as Olivia Newton-John, John Travolta, and Stockard Channing, and cameos by Frankie Avalon, a teen idol of the sixties; Edd “Kookie” Byrnes, Sid Caesar, and Dody Goodman of the fifties; Eve Arden of the forties; and Joan Blondell, a queen of the thirties’ Warner Bros. and of Busby Berkeley musicals.

So here I am, smack-dab in the middle of this $6 million production where a relatively new creative team (director Randal Kleiser, choreographer Patricia Birch, and cinematographer Bill Butler) must deal with the unique problems of making a movie musical in an environment that might as well be High School, U.S.A., one where the look and tone reek of bygone school days, and, yes, even bygone musical days. The small but kitschy set of Grease echoes the Busby Berkeley musical at its most outrageous. But instead of Dennis Morgan crooning “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” Avalon will be substituting a rock beat and the earthier ironies of “Beauty School Dropout.” And instead of girls wearing tutti-frutti hats, the chorus cuties are now sporting mammoth silver rollers on their heads, shiny rollers spiraling high and large enough to contact a UFO. These girls mince down the alley, up the stairs, and into the sound stage.

Once inside the sound stage, the set itself is the center of focus—stark white wedding-cake stairs layered eighteen feet toward the klieg lights and studded by two rows of white chairs with hair dryers ascending up into the mechanical heavens. The set pays modest, if cheeky, homage to every fountain and rotating stage set ever to grace a movie musical, and it’s where the Grease unit is in furious rehearsal for the “Beauty School Dropout” fantasy number. If the look of all of it is neo-Busby Berkeley, the feeling is looser and less formal, something on the order of. “Hey, gang, let’s make a movie!” (“Jeepers, Andy, what a terrific idea!”). Everywhere dancers are limbering up in You-Can’t-Take-It-With-You fashion: Others are just watching the mechanics of moviemaking. Bronte Woodard, the movie’s writer, strolls on to the set, a southern fellow who cuts a picturesque presence in his slate blue silk shirt, white vest, and navy-banded straw hat. (Since everyone in the world must compare Woodard’s manner and dress with that of Tennessee Williams, I shall refrain; suffice it to say he has also written a very good novel, Meet Me at the Melba. On this particular Hollywood morning he is brimming with juicy show-biz gossip.) Actress Stockard Channing, one of the principals for the “Beauty School Dropout” number, relaxes quietly and observes the frantic goings-on. Frankie Avalon, the real guest star, the sequence’s raison d’être (its “fifties” icing), is oddly enough nowhere in sight.

Stockard Channing, Jamie Donnelly and Dinah Manoff in a fifties female ritual, the slumber party.

While the camera crane searches for the precise angle from which to film the sequence on the white stairway, director Randal Kleiser, a square jawed, thirty-one-year-old blond with an unperturbedly low-keyed personality, patiently confers with choreographer Patricia Birch. Cinematographer Bill Butler (Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) calls him over. Butler looks pained: they’ve hit a snag. The hair dryers are too low and must be raised to accommodate those big hair rollers. And, the camera angles are just not working; the huge crane truck needs to be repositioned, which means raising a door spanning virtually the entire wall of the sound stage. Birch watches her dancers go through their motions and declares a state of emergency.

Noontime. Lunch break without coming anywhere near a completed run-through. Kleiser and Butler head for the projection room to watch yesterday’s dailies, balancing lunch plates on their knees as they take notes. Birch, in a red terry cloth warm-up suit (“a gift from Olivia”), begins cleaning up her dancers’ motions, cuing them on their facial expressions. By now they’ve learned her code, and she drills: “Vogue. Sex. Smile,” in time to the musical phrasing. (Vogue being a term signaling the dancers to suck in their cheeks; sex, to suck in their cheeks and pout; smile, well, obviously, to smile.) The crew trickles in from lunch. Avalon slinks on to the set, wearing tight white pants and dark Pan-Cake makeup. “Let’s rehearse it, let’s rehearse it without head things on,” one of the dancers squeals. Someone yells, “Places.” Avalon is required to make his entrance from the top of the eighteen-foot set. Standing at the pinnacle, he looks genuinely miserable. “Frankie doesn’t like it up there,” someone laughs. “He’s scared.” And not without reason.

By five o’clock a run-through has yet to take place. The “Beauty School Dropout” number, scheduled to wrap up that evening, will carry over to the next day. According to Kleiser, “The real difficulty is that it’s a tricky sequence to film. We’re shooting this number in a Panavision frame which is wide and short, although the set is tall and thin. But, by using a certain angle, it foreshortens and makes everything fit into that frame nicely. Only from one angle, though.”

Kleiser, a USC graduate (he roomed with George Lucas and graduated with the bumper crop that included John Milius and Hal Barwood), once danced as an extra in Elvis Presley movies and did television commercials to stay alive. Grease marks his feature film debut, though his directing credits include such interesting television specials as The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway, and recently, The Gathering.

Kleiser is frank about how he won this plum assignment. “Allan Carr was responsible for promoting me for this job,” he explains. “He’d seen some of my television work and liked it a lot. Even though I hadn’t done musicals or comedy, he somehow sensed I’d be able to do this picture. In fact, he sensed it more than I did.” Kleiser had worked smoothly with Travolta on The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, and he had a good track record with young actors. More important, he says, “Pat Birch. Bill Butler, and I are all working as a team with Allan Carr, the producer. Allan has a stamp he wants on this film, a very specific look, and he knew I would listen to him. It’s really been a very collaborative effort.”

For Allan Carr, who managed Ann-Margret’s career and was creative consultant in the marketing and promotion of Tommy, Grease is his solo producing debut. It also absolutely reflects his taste and judgment. “Allan was very involved with the production down to such details as costumes, makeup, and sets. Basically, the picture has an overall look that he wants,” Kleiser explains. “It’s the look of the old Technicolor musicals, flashier and bigger than life. Allan, Pat, Bill, and I have spent many hours, many weeks discussing each sequence and talking about musicals, so that by the time we got to shooting we were all in sync as to how the film was going to be made. The result is that it’s rather realistic in style when we’re dealing with characters on a one-to-one basis, but a little larger than life when they’re in groups. Also, I feel that Pat, Bill, and I censor and edit each other nicely: if someone comes up with a zany idea which we all feel is right, we’ll agree to include it.”

As far as I know, neither art nor terrific movies have ever been born out of democratic sentiment or action. Nevertheless, the truth is that this “Hey, gang, let’s make a movie” exuberance is seductive. And fun. Moreover, Kleiser, a laconic, easygoing director, is generous about showing dailies to whoever is interested—including the press.

Although Grease is only Patricia Birch’s second film (A Little Night Music was the first), she has choreographed a number of Broadway musicals, including Grease, A Little Night Music, Candide, Pacific Overtures, and Happy End. For her, the major challenge was to make the transition from theatrical choreography to choreography for the screen. “After all, in a show you can throw out a number if it’s not working and substitute something in two days. But in film you take what you’ve got. Once it’s shot, you can’t monkey around with it.”

A small woman with a wry sense of humor, Birch ex-plains, “What was new for me once I got used to the idea that the movie was going to be less urban in quality than the show was that the rules were different in terms of creating depth. One of the strongest things on stage is for a performer to come down-and-center. On film, it doesn’t necessarily make a good impact. So, how do you show dancing on film? I’ve had to relearn many things, including the fact that the camera can zero in to find something or someone. On stage, you can spot a person or pull him downstage when you want to see him; you can light him a certain way. On film I have to make sure the camera is moving with the dancer. As soon as I caught on that the camera was the audience, I could go anywhere with it.”

Musicals present unique problems because so few of them are actually filmed these days that there is little opportunity to learn from experience. “You have to have an opinion on what a musical should look like.” says cinematographer Bill Butler. “I believe that one of the crucial points in a musical is the transition from people walking, talking, and being in the world of reality into the other kind of reality where they’re dancing and singing to each other in order to tell their story. That’s one of the most difficult moments, and one of the things we’re trying to bring off successfully.”

Stockard Channing, who starred in The Fortune, Sweet Revenge, and The Big Bus, plays the teenage tough cookie, Rizzo. “There’s a real lounge-lizard mentality in this town, so the fact that everyone, even the actors, is creatively involved is refreshing,” she says. “Whereas on The Fortune, the atmosphere was ‘this is one of the greatest films of all times, let’s show them what a real film is all about.’ Here that rarified feeling doesn’t exist. And certainly Bronte, our writer, is very casual. If we improvise something that’s good, he’ll be the first to say, ‘Oh, honey, great, we’ll just use it.'”

At a drive-in, Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, teen sweethearts, pledge to “go steady.”

Dinah Manoff, the nineteen-year-old who plays Marty, one of the members of the elite, tough-girl gang, recalls, “When I read the script, the part of Marty was small. But I’ve been allowed to experiment and go everywhere with it. And what’s so terrific is that it’s almost like working with two directors. I’m finding that as an actor I want to look up to my director. It’s almost like saying, ‘Mommy, Daddy, what should I do?’ Pat takes charge of two hundred extras and dancers and camera angles, and she has been a dream. Randal is always open to suggestions, and, if you come up with anything creative, he can accommodate or change it.” It’s as if some mad press agent had wound this child up and set her loose. And, there’s something touching about the spontaneity of her enthusiasm.

Though there’s enough enthusiasm on this unit to fuel an Edsel cross-country, as far as I know enthusiasm has never guaranteed a smash hit. Still, all that loose, happy energy is contagious. It’s high school all over again. Although the “Beauty School Dropout” number drags on for an extra day until Butler can get his shot, when two of the Greasers (Birch’s endearment for her dancers) fly into the frame on wires as a surprise finale, cast and crew break into spontaneous applause.

But the moment which Kleiser feels has emerged as the biggest, and most satisfying, surprise, “happened by sheer luck. I had sent away for twelve vintage popcorn trailers. When we filmed the drive-in scene where Danny sings a teenage lament at being jilted by Sandy, he sits underneath the drive-in screen while a popcorn trailer plays behind him. At any rate, it was simply good fortune that this particular trailer pops on at the right time and features an animated Dixie cup dancing around in perfect time to the music Danny is singing. At the very end, a little animated hot dog jumps into a bun. It’s a nice topper. We gave it a standing ovation in dailies.”

“Here it is — everybody’s dream, to have a second childhood But this time around, it’s without any of the angst.”

The following week, when forty-two youthful “Be A Star” contest winners are flown to Los Angeles for a three-day celebration which includes a poolside soirée at Allan Carr’s estate and bit parts in the movie, there’s something flamboyant and daffy and perfectly appropriate about the gesture. Each of these high school and college age contestants was chosen by local department stores, which set up their own drawings. beauty contests, or videotaped screen tests. (In New York alone, Gimbel’s boasted 60,000 entries. )

So it’s surprising that at the Carr party, while most of the actors are keeping their own counsel, exchanging gossip, and smiling politely at the contestants, the winners are actually pretty laid-back and adult about their adventure. Still, there are moments of wild abandon. “Oh, look, Arnold Schwarzenegger !” two girls scream and rush up to Randal Kleiser for an autograph. Kleiser smiles, amused; the girls, when informed of their error, titter. Predictably, the lavish surroundings, fleeting appearances by Sid Caesar, Eve Arden, Olivia Newton-John, and Stockard Channing, and Carr’s hospitality cannot dwarf the evenings’s pièce de résistance, the event every female contest winner has been waiting for since arriving in town—the entrance of John “Barbarino” Travolta. Travolta. protected by a security guard, makes his way from the living room to the tiered terrace. He is mobbed almost from the moment he’s visible. Patiently he talks to the young contestants, and throughout the next hour he poses for photograph after photograph. As soon as he can, and without irritation or condescension, he leaves.

The party breaks up early. All the contestants and would-be stars return to the Holiday Inn-Brentwood where, the next morning, they will receive an early wake-up call. Bussed to the location, they are outfitted in Peter Pan collars, felt skirts, Angora dickeys, and sweater sets. Then they are made up in red lipstick, ponytails, ducktails, and are readied for their Hollywood debuts.

“I thought of a way to use them all,” Kleiser recalls. “It was to bridge a scene where Eve Arden says, ‘This is the last day of school, I wish you all the luck as you go out into the world,’ and the next scene, the carnival sequence. So I devised a new transition in which you hear a bell ring, then see the kids bursting out of school, yelling and shouting; afterward, you cut to other kids entering the carnival. It will probably end up in the picture. And,” he smiles, “we were able to use all of them in one shot.” Weeks later, just three days before the final wrap, the unit is shooting its “Summer Nights” sequence at the outdoor cafeteria of Venice High School, a large pink stucco conglomerate of buildings about twenty minutes from the Paramount lot. The camera and lighting trucks have drawn a sizable group of fans. On the set, a couple of dozen Greasers drape themselves over picnic tables. On cue, Olivia Newton-John, wearing a pale yellow shirt-waist dress, her hair swept back into a ponytail, cheerily mouths the prerecorded words to “Summer Nights” as she and a chorus line of girls skip into the frame. Again and again they do it, breaking into laughter each time the scene is mysteriously botched.

To the outsider, the feeling is still one of exhilaration. For Randal Kleiser and Pat Birch, it’s something else. “The most difficult thing is maintaining the energy level when everybody is starting to give attention to their next project,” Kleiser says. Specifically, the problem with this number is that, “we have to get Olivia to start still and end still on a specific phrase; certain beats, phrases, and movements must match precisely so that when we cut things together from our master shot . . .”

Birch finishes Kleiser’s sentence, “. . . we can make it smooth. Also, we want to make sure we don’t leave some of our favorite business out of the frame. For instance. I have a table of twenty dancers over there, and other Greasers are surrounding Olivia. You may not notice them right away, but they’re a marvelous cushion throughout the film, and they’re doing some nice business we want to pick up.”

Everyone boasts that Birch’s handling of her dancers has emerged as one of the film’s real aces. A week earlier, at the carnival/dance location where the unit toiled for seven grueling days, attending to complications created by three Panavision cameras, live television cameras of a syndicated local show (“National Bandstand”), and the presence of most principal actors and two hundred extras. Birch made magic out of bedlam. “The logistics of getting everyone into position, showing them what to do, and finding camera angles that were fresh for each number probably made this sequence the most difficult in the film. But Pat came in and choreographed all the extras in about two hours,” Kleiser says.

“What I’m more interested in is the behavior, the can-of-worms feelings high schoolers suggest,” Birch elaborates. “In the ‘Summer Nights’ sequence, I wanted a combination of high stylization at certain moments and a more natural overall style. So in this scene the girls act very girlish, with precisely timed, henpecking behavior. But the boys have their half of the scene on the bleachers. I’ve given them fairly naturalistic movement hyped just to the point of stylization. On the other hand, when we did the hop sequence, we had John and Olivia dance as though they were in an old MGM musical.”

Both Birch and Kleiser feel that no matter how glorious the dailies look, the big problem will be how to preserve the life and rhythm of each scene while keeping the pace of the story. “You want to keep the focus, but you also want the texture of all those other interesting people so that it’s not your regular slick Hollywood film number. How, then, do you keep the balance? In the carnival scene, for instance, our dancers were incredible, doing things no nondancer could do. But when we play with rushes, we’re finding that if you cut one way, the scene absolutely pops off the screen; if you do it another way, it lays back. What we’ll have to decide now is how to preserve the spirit of the whole.”

The rushes, like these clusters of teenagers here at the cafeteria, splash bright and pastel colors on to the screen, providing the spacious, bouncy feeling Allan Carr wants for the production. Bill Butler adds, “We’re trying to keep the color of the picture true to center, without tricks. And we envision that center as rosy, happy, up; it’s different from the original Grease and also from most pictures today. The trick is to use light to make things as exciting, interesting, different, and as pretty as possible. Because this film was shot almost entirely on location, I’ve mostly had to contend with sunlight, and, frankly, the sun doesn’t always treat you well.”

Director Randal Kleiser and choreographer Patricia Birch during a break in filming.

Opening up the look of the production, choosing bright and buoyant colors rather than the pinks, silvers, and charcoal grays that prevailed when the show was on Broadway may actually serve as a clever aesthetic and economic decision. For these colors, as well as the lush Southern California landscape exteriors, eradicate the urban, lower-class strains of the story. Even the costumes and makeup, while authentic, are less severe, and certainly not as dowdy as they actually were during the fifties. “It’s ridiculous that when all those ‘Be A Star’ contestants showed up in dark lipstick and fifties’ hairdos, we all looked the same age.” Stockard Channing notes. Although she and Olivia Newton-John are both adults playing teenagers, she says, “It’s strange, but to me the difference is really an aesthetic one, to a certain degree.” After three highly touted pictures that were critical and commercial failures (The Fortune, The Big Bus, and Sweet Revenge), Channing’s attitude toward Grease is an understandable combination of the cavalier and pragmatic. “In terms of my experience, the only thing I can really have, the only thing I’m going to get out of a film, is the experience of making it. Once it’s cut, a movie is someone else’s doing and belongs to anyone who wants to see it.

But now, while I’m here on the set, it belongs to me. The four of us Pink Ladies have developed a great friendship, giggling together, joking, having a grand old time. Funny, on this set we do have very high school kinds of behavior.” Almost as though she was setting about to illustrate such behavior, Channing, after the afternoon wrap, huddles with Pink Ladies Didi Conn, Dinah Manoff, and Jamie Donnelly. Someone has smuggled a large paper bag over to them, and suddenly—standing on one of the cafeteria tables with her Ladies at her feet—Channing be-comes Riz again, the bitchy gang girl. A knock for attention; the Greasers gather about, and Channing using Riz’s “voice” announces the Pink Ladies Graduation Awards: “After careful consideration. and checking you all out for skill at gum-popping, graffiti, and all-around raunchiness, we hereby name the following people to follow in our footsteps as next year’s Pink Ladies.” Sweet young things jump up as their names are called, and among their initiation gifts are tiny Baby Ruths, miniature liquor bottles, the crew’s laughter, and applause. “Here it is—everybody’s dream, to have a second child-hood and go back to high school again,” Channing observes. “But this time round, it’s without any of the angst. This time there’s no ‘Who’s going to take me to the prom?’ no ‘My skin is full of zits.’ no ‘Will I pass the math final?’ nightmares.” Simply, the chance to do it over in our heads. Which is what Grease is all about. It lets us remember things not as they were, but as we would have them be.

Marjorie Rosen is the author of Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream.

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