Mia says there is a twist contest going on down at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. How about we blow this joint?
(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
So I grew an hour and a half to the east of Houston in Southeast Texas, near the border of Louisiana. Despite this fact, I had never seen Urban Cowboy well into my late 30s. I suppose I lacked an appreciation for country and western music in my youth, and more or less avoided the film.
In my late 30s however, I chanced upon the flick while flipping channels. A&E had a “Pop Culture Weekend” and had included the John Travolta-Debra Winger masterpiece. The movie was near the end, and I happened into it just as John Travolta told Debra Winger:
“Sissy, I wanna ‘poligize to you clear back to the first time I hitcha!”
My jaw dropped.
I asked Mrs. Ladner, who grew up in the Houston area, had seen the film, and had even rode the mechanical bull at Gilly’s in high school “Did he just say I want to apologize to you clear back to the first time I hit you?”
Mrs. Ladner said yes, indeed, that is exactly what he said.
I was speechless.
Next, A&E ran a commercial: coming up next on A&E Pop Culture Weekend: Urban Cowboy with John Travolta and Debra Winger!
I told Mrs. Ladner “I’m going to make pop-corn- this is a train-wreck I have got to see!”
What can I say? Urban Cowboy did not disappoint.
So, here’s the basic plot: John Travolta plays a small-town Texas good ole boy (Bud) who moves to Houston during the oil boom of the early 1980s to work in a refinery. Bud starts hanging out at the eponymous Gilley’s dance hall. Along the way, Bud meets Sissy, played by Debra Winger. Bud and Sissy get married on the dance floor at Gilley’s and begin a brief period of marital bliss.
Ah, but turmoil soon strikes the House of Bud. A dispute soon ensues over who can ride Gilley’s mechanical bull better. When Sissy claims that she can ride it better, Bud views it as justifiable homicide, but lets Sissy off with a mere beating out of the pure goodness of his heart.
The couple begins a period of estrangement. Bud hooks up with an Oil Princess, Sissy with Bud’s wicked rival, a prison rodeo villain Wes played by the great Scott Glenn (who you will remember as the Captain of the Dallas in The Hunt for Red October).
Despite the fact that they are, well, divorcing, Bud and Sissy both still spend each night at Gilly’s, which seems to have the property of drawing them like moths to a flame, regardless of the situation in their personal lives. This makes for a number of evil glares and dramatic grudge fulfillment episodes on dance floors, bedrooms and mechanical bulls.
In the end, Bud recognizes the error of his way; Wes turns out to be an even bigger woman beating pig than Bud. Bud not only wins the mechanical bull riding contest, but foils his evil rival’s attempt to rob Gilley’s and make off to Mexico with the loot and a kidnapped Sissy.
Bud spits out his regrets, and Sissy says something to the effect of “You had me at ‘pologize!”
Wow. Just Wow.
A few items of note- as a Texan, I can report that Travolta’s accent wanders in and out of authentic. Debra Winger received a Golden Globe nomination, and was in fact pretty convincing as a wild Texas honky-tonk woman.
Overall, this movie is chock full of stereotypes. As The Quiet Man is to the Irish, Truck Turner was to 1970s urban America so too is Urban Cowboy to Texas. Not that there isn’t some fire to that smoke, mind you, but this movie goes waaay over the top.
Urban Cowboy was the last of a string of trend-setting movies for Travolta, with Grease and Saturday Night Fever also inspiring pop-culture fads. Of course, Travolta revived his moribund career from movies about talking babies with Pulp Fiction but sent it back into a funk somewhere around Battlefield Earth.
The time between Urban Cowboy and Pulp Fiction (made in 1980 and 1994, respectively) happens to equal the time between Pulp Fiction and now.
So get ready, America is overdue for another Travolta pop-culture phenomenon. In the meantime, watch Urban Cowboy, the number one seed in South in the “so bad that it is good” tournament.