Olivia Newton-John’s Torment Behind the Scenes of “Grease”
LOS ANGELES – JUNE 16: The movie “Grease,” directed by Randal Kleiser. Seen here from left, Jamie Donnelly as Jan and Olivia Newton-John (foreground, clad in skintight black) as Sandy. Initial theatrical release of the film, June 16, 1978. Screenshot. Paramount Pictures. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
By Teresa Aranguez.
Who would have imagined when watching the famous final scene of Grease (also known as Vaseline in Mexico), with Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsson flying to their happiness in a convertible, that its protagonist, Olivia Newton-John, was living a real torment.
Because, in the end, the cinema is magic and turns what in this case was a real anguish for the Australian actress into grace. Her transformation from a good girl to a femme fatale with a rocker look who sang to John Travolta’s character from You are the one that I want, was stupendous, but behind the scenes.
What was experienced behind the scenes was a parallel reality. I’m sorry to be a bit of a killjoy with this confession, especially for those who, like me, continue to enjoy it like children every time they replay it on television or any online platform.
Because, although its world premiere was in 1978, I dare say that it was during the following decades when this celluloid classic has been most applauded, sung and danced to. It is something that usually happens with all good things, it only acquires its value over the years. In the case of Grease, everything conspired in its favor to become what it was, a musical with romantic overtones and innocent humor, ideal to see with family and friends.
It brings together all these ingredients to be that story that we always turn to to delve into the nostalgia and candor of our childhood and youth. Almost subconsciously, you know the lyrics to songs, even if you don’t understand what they mean. And what to say about the choreographies, they are already part of our visual retina and it is inevitable that our feet will not go away when the notes of some of their songs jump.
LOS ANGELES – JUNE 16: The movie “Grease”, directed by Randal Kleiser. Seen here from left, Olivia Newton-John (dressed in skintight black) as Sandy and John Travolta (with his back to the camera) as Danny Zuko singing ‘You’re the One That I Want’. Initial theatrical release of the film, June 16, 1978. Screenshot. Paramount Pictures. (CBS Photo via Getty Images)
“These are the famous zipper pants. She couldn’t go to the bathroom during the whole scene because that zipper was broken. So she couldn’t drink any water either. She was afraid of creating production problem, the sun was going down and we couldn’t waste time redoing the scene at another time,” explained Randal Kleiser, director of the film for Vanity Fair.
Worst of all, it was incredibly hot, which didn’t make things any easier. There was poor Olivia, overheated, unimaginably uncomfortable, barely able to breathe naturally to prevent the zipper, already broken, not break even more and destroy pants that, as can be seen, were a very original and different design, as well as revolutionary and perfect for this finishing touch.
The ‘responsible’ for this uncomfortable but legendary model was the costume designer Albert Wolsky, nominated for an Oscar seven times, and two of them a winner, for All That Jazz and Bugsy.
The famous pants were a very exclusive model of the years ’50 and were made of, no less, shark skin. It is called that, not because it was extracted from this animal, but because of the type of shiny fabric, the result of a mixture of acetate, rayon or wool and other synthetic fibers.
In short, a garment of extreme fragility that almost made him break just looking at it. “When I first tried these pants on, the zipper was broken and Albert didn’t want to rip it trying to put a new one on or take the old one off. Solution: Sew me into them every morning!” Olivia recounted in her biography, Don’t Stop Believin’ (Source: Breakingnews).
Definitely, they made the outfit in question become one of the most distinctive hallmarks of the film, but also one of the great nightmares. One of those anecdotes that, although years later are remembered with a smile and a certain heroic attitude, at that time was a real headache for Olivia and those around her.
Fellow actors, the first John Travolta, cameramen, choreographer Patricia Birch, production members and others, were waiting for the blessed zipper to stay in place and not jump through the air, thus ruining the final touch of the tape.
scene to which, by the way, a few challenges were added beyond Olivia’s wardrobe and that made this mythical closing uphill.
Although at first glance everything that is seen there seems perfectly assembled, designed and created for the occasion, it was not exactly like that. On the contrary, everything was much more rushed and spontaneous, perhaps that is why it turned out so well in the eyes of the public.
The director and his team had to adapt to what was in this traveling festival and, from there, create what we saw on the screen.
For example, the part in which the lovers cross a kind of passageway in that fairground attraction and are left alone to sing and dance the final theme, was almost a miracle of nature.
The bright yellow place where it said, Danger ahead (danger later) was already there, they just had to use their imagination and adapt it to their script.
So they thought that they would use that term, ‘danger’, to generate the fantasy that if Danny followed Sandy, he would experience something explosive and risky.
The small and uncomfortable detail is that this space, full of obstacles, moving stairs and other strange elements, it was not enough to show off with a choreography that was too produced.
A situation that, despite creating headaches for Patricia, the choreographer, gave rise to an almost spontaneous dance that was done in record time.
The protagonists in love went up and down, leaned forward and backward, jumped, walked and did all kinds of stunts amidst the obstacles that surrounded them. “He had to get out of trouble at that very moment… He worked with Olivia and John to get the choreography out in 20 minutes, everything was improvised on the spot,” acknowledged Kleiser, who, through this video, also showed the flaws in the lights and reflections that should not be in those planes, but that, due to the fall of the sun, occurred and had to stop.
It was that, or risk that Olivia’s pants would end up exploding. The high temperatures also did their thing in the outdoor dance number, they got on the Ferris wheel and participated in the typical fairground attractions. It was not easy at all, explained the director, but the result could not have been better.
They all collaborated so that it was so, perhaps, for this reason, what came out continues to be one of the most remembered and significant scenes in cinema. One of those things that are not planned and are almost perfect.
To this day, Grease continues to be not only one of the most endearing and beloved films by the general public, but also the most inspiring.
Its famous models have become a claim at any carnival or costume party. According to ELLE magazine, this story on the big screen is also one of the favorites of fashion lovers and the avant-garde about style.
In fact, in 2019, the famous Julien’s auction house, in Beverly Hills, in Los Angeles, sold his final leather outfit and famous broken zipper pants for the figure of $363,286.