For a film so obsessed with cool, “Grease” is surprisingly naff. Perhaps it was inevitable. A film set in the 1950s and filmed in the 1970s was always set precariously amid the ebbs and flows of fashion. John Travolta’s ever more bizarre reputation can hardly help its cool credentials. And maybe the odds were always against a film whose concluding number contains the lyrics “shoobop sha wadda wadda yippity boom de boom”.
But there is one aspect of “Grease” that is indisputably, enduringly cool, and that is Betty Rizzo, as played by Stockard Channing. I am not one to praise coolness for the sake of it - it’s not like cool needs an image boost. But in the context of this column, there is no better word to describe the presence of Rizzo, as the saving grace to an otherwise not particularly edifying attitude to female sexuality.
They say you can tell a lot about a girl from whether she wants to play Sandy or Rizzo in a production of “Grease”. (They don’t say what you can tell about a boy, but for the record, there’s no contest). Olivia Newton-John’s Sandy is never more directly at odds with Rizzo than when she recounts her delightful yet chaste summer romance with John Travolta’s Danny. When she admits they didn’t have sex, Rizzo is unimpressed. “True love and he didn’t lay a hand on you? Sounds like a creep to me”.
With this typically zingy one-liner, Rizzo not only asserts her own tastes, but calls out the entire film on its at times disarming presentation of Sandy. This is not the place to debate how problematic we find the film’s famous ending, in which Sandy finally wins Danny’s acceptance by shedding her demure skirts and announcing her carnal availability via lycra leggings and a power perm (did I mention it was filmed in the seventies?). I am not here to disparage a character for her sexual innocence, but what I do find troubling is the film’s alignment of Sandy’s naivety with a passive quality that is all but celebrated. Which only makes it more delightful that on the night Sandy mopes around the garden, dipping her fingers in the paddling pool and singing “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, Rizzo has already shimmied down the drainpipe, telling her friends “you goody-goodies are too much for me. I’m gonna get my kicks while I’m still young enough to get ‘em”. The contrast between active and passive female desire could not be clearer.
Hollywood has an unhappy history of liberated, unapologetic female characters who consequently meet sticky ends (my personal worst offender being Jenny from Forrest Gump, whose path from government protestor to AIDS corpse always leaves a sour taste). Rizzo gets her kicks that night - only to swiftly fall pregnant, and suffer social ostracisation as a result. A diligent feminist might begin to mount an argument that she is made to suffer for her sexual appetite, if it weren’t for the scene in which we see very clearly the cause of her pregnancy - she has sex without a condom.
I can think of more than a few contemporary Hollywood films that would blush at the thought of showing their young lovers fumbling around with a broken condom, but back in 1978 “Grease” put it all up there on screen. In 1950s America, an unwanted teen pregnancy could be truly traumatic, but thankfully the film is aware that it is not “Vera Drake”, and makes the wise decision of focusing on the social effect for Rizzo among her peers. Needless to say, she responds in characteristic fashion - rather than shy away from the school dance at the height of the furore, she turns up dressed in scintillating red, marking herself out as a scarlet woman before anyone else can. When dancers are warned that tasteless or vulgar movements will be disqualified, she quips “That leaves us out!”.
Stockard Channing was 33 years old when cast as the teenage Rizzo, making her the only principal cast member who actually was a teenager in the 1950s. The casting works, only adding to the sense of Rizzo as a preternaturally mature and self-confident character. That is until we reach the film’s outstanding musical highlight - Rizzo’s performance of “There are worse things I could do”.
The staging of the song is limited to a short stroll along a High School walkway as Rizzo clutches some books, but this only heightens its tone of simmering, passionate defiance. The title begins as a tease, as Rizzo insists she could do much worse than “go with a boy or two” - but she turns out to have something unexpected in mind. “I can feel and I can cry”, she admits, “a fact I bet you never knew”, before reaching her ultimate conclusion - “to cry in front of you - that’s the worst thing I could do”. In one fell swoop, we see that the sassy, sharp-tongued cool girl is merely afraid of being vulnerable. It is a revelation only afforded to us by the capacities of the film musical - Rizzo makes clear that these are feelings she intends to hide - but Stockard Channing makes the most of our brief window into her character’s innermost thoughts with a blindsiding delivery.
There is one final image that sets Rizzo out as a class apart from her peers. Shortly before Danny and Sandy go mons pubis to membrum virilis in the Shake Shack, the school principal delivers her inspiring commencement address, telling the pupils that “among you there may be a future Eleanor Roosevelt”. The camera pans to an inspired-looking Rizzo. Recall that by the 1950s, Ms Roosevelt was long widowed, and had transcended her role as presidential wife to become a powerful UN advocate and feminist hero in her own right. To such an august comparison, the camera was only ever going to pan to one character.
As it turns out, Rizzo is saved from any painful decisions or unfortunate fates when her pregnancy is revealed as a false alarm. Like every other character, she gets her happy ending, and the film quickly returns to its technicolor cartwheels, questionable perms and yippity dip de dongs. I am not here to make a claim for the feminist credentials of “Grease”, and certainly not to suggest that its presentation of Rizzo is some kind of subversive rebuke to its central love story. I am merely grateful that such a character is able to hold her head high - let alone steal the show - in an otherwise wholesome and conservative tale.