The camera fades in on a pair of brown leather cowboy boots crossed at the ankle. It steadily pans up, taking stock of the painted-on blue jeans, the burnished belt buckle emblazoned with a bull and rider, the crisply ironed Western-style shirt, and, of course, the bottle of Lone Star beer, slung at the hip like a holstered six-shooter. Finally it settles on the face of John Travolta, in profile, leaning against a bar, a black cowboy hat perched forward on his brow. His expression is both curious and purposeful. He’s a stranger in a strange land determined to seem as if he belongs.
All of this represents just a fraction of James Bridges’s Urban Cowboy (1980)—ten seconds of celluloid at the most. But as unforgettable cinematic snapshots go, it ranks right up there with Marilyn Monroe’s white dress billowing over a subway grate in The Seven Year Itch (1955) or Julia Roberts’ shopping spree in Pretty Woman (1990): It’s a moment in which costume and setting combine to capture the style and sensibility of an era. Travolta’s Bud Davis is a restless young man from the country who finds transcendence each night at Gilley’s, a vast Pasadena honky-tonk. Following Bud as he falls in and out of love with the hot-tempered Sissy (Debra Winger), Urban Cowboy used a commonplace coming-of-age story as the springboard for a deeply idiosyncratic portrait: of old Texas bleeding into new, of country bumping up against city, and of a slightly soft man struggling to assert his masculinity in a rapidly changing modern world.
How did Bridges and his co-screenwriter, Aaron Latham, pull off such an unlikely feat, a $47 million box office hit that made it hip to be a hick? Like most unexpected successes, Urban Cowboy had exquisite timing. In 1978 Esquire editor Clay Felker came to Houston to speak at Rice University. As the legend goes, in lieu of an honorarium, Felker asked to be given a tour of the city and stumbled into Gilley’s late one evening in the company of Bill Broyles, then the editor of Texas Monthly. Felker was so transfixed by the bar’s mechanical bull and its throngs of blue-collar patrons dressed up like cowboys and cowgirls that he called Latham, a Texan living in Washington, D.C., and told him to get on a plane. Latham’s subsequent article was published as an Esquire cover story under the title “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America’s Search for True Grit.” The fictionalized film adaptation, two years later, pushed a burgeoning nationwide fondness for country-style dress and music far into the mainstream. For at least a few years in the early eighties, America bid adieu to disco, bell-bottoms, and the Bee Gees and embraced line dancing, Wranglers, and the Charlie Daniels Band.
Movies inspire trends all the time, whether it’s Audrey Hepburn’s oversized sunglasses in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) or the melodic indie rock that was all the rage after Garden State (2004). But Urban Cowboy did something more: It chronicled a rapidly altering Texas struggling to define its own style. “Are you a real cowboy?” Sissy asks Bud, the very first time she speaks to him. Bud’s answer—“Well, it depends on what you think a real cowboy is”—is, in effect, the story of the state in the late seventies. In an era when young people were migrating from rural areas to urban ones and the oil boom was radically transforming the statewide economy, Texans were suddenly forced to consider, or reconsider, what it meant to be Texan.
The plot of the movie, it should be noted, is fairly hokey. After a contentious courtship, Bud marries Sissy. A few tense and angry weeks later, Sissy leaves Bud for the mechanical bull operator at Gilley’s, an abusive ex-con named Wes (Scott Glenn). Eventually, Bud determines that, to prove himself to Sissy, he must defeat Wes at the Gilley’s “rodeo.” Yet what Urban Cowboy lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in anthropology. Bridges takes his time, stocking the film with marvelous details, from the neon-lit signs that clutter the walls of the bar to the regular brawls just outside its entrance. He films performances, by the likes of Bonnie Raitt and bar owner Mickey Gilley, with particular affection, capturing the joy that lights up the musicians’ faces. The result isn’t necessarily an insider’s portrait of our state (surely no insider would have cast New Jersey—born Travolta or the Ohio-born Winger to play native Texans), but I’d argue that it’s actually something better. Without ever once resorting to city slicker condescension, the movie manages to capture the sense of puzzlement that Felker must have felt when he first stepped into Gilley’s. It’s precisely Bridges’s outsider status—the fact that he’s looking upon so much of this for the first time—that makes the images crackle.
Of course, nothing crackles quite so much in Urban Cowboy as that mechanical bull, a hunk of rusty-looking, undulating metal that remains the movie’s most enduring symbol. The scenes in which Travolta, his arm already bruised from an injury, works on perfecting his ride have a primal, giddy kick; we want to give that thing a ride ourselves. (It’s little wonder that, after the film was released, such bulls were soon installed in bars all across the country.) Even more memorable is the scene in which Sissy drunkenly writhes atop the bull—another instance where Bridges and Latham managed to tap into the zeitgeist. Indeed, as much as it’s about the formation of a new kind of cowboy culture, Urban Cowboy is also a pictograph of Equal Rights Amendment—era America. The mechanical bull is Bud’s only means of proving that he’s a “real cowboy.” By turning the bull ride into a mock-erotic fantasy, Sissy more than just humiliates Bud—she reduces his masculinity to the punch line of a dirty joke. With a few deft strokes, Bridges and Latham allowed folks from the other 49 states to see reflected their own anxieties about a new world in which women were co-opting traditionally male-dominated roles and men were resisting them at every turn.
Even more important, the filmmakers allowed Texans to see themselves; for all their anthropological detachment, they intuitively grasped the contradictions of life in their state. My favorite scene remains the mostly forgotten one in which Bud, in an attempt to make Sissy jealous, goes home with an oil heiress (Madolyn Smith) who had been slumming it at Gilley’s with her rich girlfriends. The heiress’s apartment, soullessly white and sparsely furnished, overlooks the Houston skyline—it’s a nouveau riche wonderland. Bridges and Latham understood that, just as the blue-collar workers were playing at being cowboys, the oil barons and their scions were playing at being aristocrats, and all of these people suddenly found themselves jumbled together in a wildly expanding city.
Nearly three decades later, so many of these themes continue to play out, in places like Gilley’s (now closed in Pasadena but open in Dallas) and Billy Bob’s (Fort Worth). The search for a style that defines Texas is ongoing and never-ending. The question of what it means to be a “real cowboy” keeps getting asked in books, TV shows, and movies, like No Country for Old Men, Brokeback Mountain, and Friday Night Lights. And while New Yorkers and Los Angelenos may have long since traded in their Wranglers and boots for Armani suits and Prada shoes, the impression Urban Cowboy left was indelible. Never again would Texas look the same on-screen.
Christopher Kelly is the film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.