Olivia Newton-John, a sexy nerd for all of us

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“Tell me about it, man.” There are plenty of catchier, deeper quotes in movie history, but I’ll always love this one for how perfectly embarrassing it is.

On its surface, Olivia Newton-John’s smoking come-on in the final of Fat features her character Sandy’s transformation from primitive prude to red-lipped sexpot, in an O. Henry-esque twist where she and John Travolta’s Danny each adopt new identities to appease the other. But with just a little imagination, you can imagine his frantic preparation for this moment, practicing that line thousands of times in the mirror, rolling the dice that Danny will say something to which “Tell me about it, man” is an appropriate response. The best part is that he doesn’t: all he does is gape and go, “Sandy?” It’s a total non-sequel, delivered in front of the same classmates who mocked and kicked her out for an entire school year, and despite her clumsiness, she lands. Maybe they’re all too distracted by her new look to notice. Or maybe they just know what we know – that Sandy, like the woman who plays her, is a first-class jerk, even at her absolute sexiest.

I’ve spent the past week reading tributes to Newton-John, who died Monday at 73 after a 30-year battle with breast cancer, and saw the same few words come up over and over again: “Gorgeous.” . “Angelic.” “Sensual.” “Chic.” “Soft rock. All of this certainly applies to the British-Australian singer and actress, who broke through in the mid-’70s with country-pop ballads like “I love you, honestly” and “Have you ever been sweet(her first two of five US No. 1 hits), and became a superstar in 1978 as Fatis the perfect girl next door. Along with her fervent advocacy for health and humanitarian causes, these descriptions make her seem almost untouchable, too pure for this world.

But for me – a very young girl at the time of her rise, a precocious only child from a progressive family with an early interest in politics and feminism, swept up in questions about what being a woman even meant – it was his approachability and playfulness that cast their warm charm on my growing heart. I was in love with Sandy from the moment she arrived at Rydell High: Besides the fact that I couldn’t take my eyes off her, I was deeply connected to her desire to do everything the right way, while being intrigued by the determination of his new friends Rizzo, Marty and Frenchy to do everything their way. When “Bad Sandy” woke up, I understood that the two are not exclusive: you can be true to yourself and also decide what that means from day to day.

I’ve come to love the eternal icebreaker “What was your first gig?” because I have a deep, non-ironic pride in my answer. It was the day before my sixth birthday in 1982, a present from my mother, who had watched me amusedly as I called all my dolls and stuffed animals of all kinds “Olivia”. We were high up at the San Diego Sports Arena, the stage so far away anyone could have played. But I knew it wasn’t just anyone: it was the star of Fat and disco fantasy criticized Xanadu, movies that didn’t have to be revered by a kindergartener, but were because of her anyway. I was the youngest Gene Kelly super fan in the world, because he had danced with her on screen. When Cheers debuted two years later XanaduI tuned in in the sincere hope of seeing the film’s main character Sonny Malone’s further adventures, having missed that Ted Danson’s charismatic bartender was actually named Sam. (Although I quickly learned that the show featured no ancient Greek muses on roller skates, I kept watching Diane by Shelly Long was a geeky new goddess in my burgeoning pantheon, another principled good girl who was also the smartest person in the room. .)

I can still feel what it was like to hear”Physicaland being pushed to dance without a trace of embarrassment – ​​why would I have any when she wouldn’t? I knew the song was about sex, but when the radio stations banned it, I wasn’t blushing. The video then was camp, the Jazzercise doublesense so obvious Just like Sandy, Newton-John was winking at cosplaying hypersexuality, because she didn’t need it to get what she I knew that instinctively, just as I knew a year later that despite playing a criminal in two of a kindher reunion movie with John Travolta, there was no doubt she would end up doing the right thing and falling in love in the process – but not before having a little dangerous fun and charting a new hit single in “irony of fate.”

As the 80s and 90s progressed, it remained central to my conception of myself, if not my evolving playlist. But one night in college, she caught me off guard when she appeared alongside my new role model – Candice Bergen’s Murphy Brown, a brilliant journalist who held herself to the highest standards while breaking many rules. In a 1997 cameo on the CBS sitcom, Newton-John appeared as herself, competing against Murphy in a charity auction for the chance to lead a symphony orchestra for a day. Murphy is determined to win as she has been diagnosed with breast cancer and wants to make the most of her remaining days. Olivia, now five years after her own real-life diagnosis, probably wants the same thing and bids viciously. But when Murphy wins, Olivia slyly and kindly reveals the truth: she’s there on behalf of the charity, which recruited her to up Murphy’s bid.

Of all the compulsive listening and revising I’ve done since hearing about Newton-John’s death, those few minutes make me cry the hardest. Embedded in his brief meta-performance is a decision to face his situation with a wink and a smile – helping Murphy and any survivors watching at home do the same. Seeing her that way brings me back to why I loved her so instantly as a kid: she embodied basic goodness, but reveled in playing close to the edge to keep everyone on their toes. May we all make our own rules with such a heart.

Evie Nagy is a business and culture writer and the author of the 33 1/3 series book Devo’s freedom of choice. She currently works in technology.

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