Husband was dismayed to learn that I hadn’t seen Urban Cowboy, set in my hometown and rather iconic; it stars the nightclub Gilley’s and is mentioned in one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands. My excuse is (as usual) that I’m not real good with pop culture; also, this movie is older than I am.
So we put it on. Urban Cowboy is set at the beginning of the 1980’s, when young Bud Davis leaves his family on the farm and heads into Houston (actually, Pasadena, a dirty oil-refining suburb) to look for a job. He starts off by staying with an aunt and uncle; the latter works at the refinery and gets Bud a job. They also take him to the local, Gilley’s, a honky-tonk nightclub that was at the time the largest nightclub of any kind in the world (according to Guinness, says the Texas State Historical Society and others). There he immediately falls into the kind of lifestyle his mom back home probably worried about: drinking hard every night of the week and showing up to work hungover; and meeting Sissy, a beautiful, flirtatious youngster with whom he is quickly entangled. They drink, fight, get married. She wants to ride the new mechanical bull set up at Gilley’s, but he doesn’t want her to. So she goes behind his back and learns to ride it from a dangerous ex-con.
Bluffing, out of spite at one another, and both hoping the other will blink, Bud and Sissy take up with other people: she with the ex-con bull rider, he with a rich girl from “the city” of Houston with a fetish for “cowboys.” (One notes that Bud doesn’t really qualify, as he works at an oil refinery and like Sissy, rides only a mechanical bull, not the real kind.) The big “rodeo” at Gilley’s will culminate in Bud versus the ex-con on the bull, and will put back together again the couple we’ve been rooting for.
I have mixed feelings. The iconic Houston skyline (minus many buildings I know) and time-and-place details, not least Gilley’s itself (famous, but like this movie, before my time), were great fun. Bud and Sissy have a certain Sid-and-Nancy ugly rightness about them that feels good in some twisted way; they’re a symbol of good Southern cowboy coupledom that some part of me responds to. But the misogyny was too much for me. Sissy gets hit, only a little by Bud (the “good” guy) and a lot by her ex-con; then Bud comes in and saves the day, because he hit her less often and less hard and so we should… feel good about this? Yes, another time (and culture), I get that; but there’s only so much wife-beating I can stomach and still come away calling this a feel-good film.
For visuals, including Sissy’s shockingly sexy bull ride, I’d give this a better-than-average score, if only for its historic and cultural value. For its actual values, it loses points for the pit it put in my stomach. John Travolta and Debra Winger are nice to look at, though.