How Olivia Newton-John gave us a new Cinderella – but with better shoes

·6 min read
For its fans, Grease will always be a love story
For its fans, Grease will always be a love story

“Tell me about it, stud.” To my childhood self, those five little words were the most thrilling, intoxicating, outrageous words I’d ever heard. When Sandy ground out her cigarette with the sole of her high-heeled red mule, then proceeded playfully to poke Danny in the chest with her foot, it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. In fact, it still is, several decades later.

To a generation of girls weaned on tales of Disney princesses but left cold by them, it’s hard to overestimate the impact of Grease when it was released in 1978. Sandy’s was a Cinderella story we could really get behind, because Sandy was her own heroine, an agent of her own destiny who didn’t wait passively for her prince to come along and save her with a glass slipper.

Who needs a glass slipper when you have a sexy red mule? Who needs a fairy godmother when you have Frenchy, and a cabal of loyal girlfriends willing to help you effect the greatest makeover of all time? And it is the greatest makeover of all time; the transformation scene to end all transformation scenes.

Olivia Newton-John herself once confessed that this was her favourite scene. “Everything about making the film was fun, but if I had to pick a favourite moment, it was the transformation from what I call Sandy 1 to Sandy 2,” she told CNN in 2017. “When I put on that tight black outfit, I got a very different reaction from the guys on set.”

And yet the role of Sandy very nearly didn’t go to her at all. At 29, Newton-John feared she was too old to play high school student Sandy, and was worried that the film version of the hit musical would be a flop. It’s been suggested that Carrie Fisher and Marie Osmond were mooted to play the part of Sandy, but most fans would agree with John Travolta that Newton-John was “the most correct person in the universe”, with the perfect voice and wide-eyed demeanour with which to capture her essence.

Olivia Newton-John in Grease - PARAMOUNT
Olivia Newton-John in Grease - PARAMOUNT

It was only after a two-pronged charm offensive by director Allan Carr and Travolta, already cast as Danny, that Newton-John acquiesced.

“I didn’t think there could be any more correct person for Sandy in the universe,” Travolta later told Vanity Fair. “I insisted that she be met and we cast her.” Two songs written by her longtime music collaborator John Farrar – You’re The One That I Want and Hopelessly Devoted To You – were added to the film, with the soundtrack becoming a blockbuster that sold approximately 28 million copies worldwide, making it one of the bestselling albums of all time. Certainly the music does much to enhance the feelgood factor. Grease is designed to cheer up the rainiest day, full of uplifting songs that lend themselves particularly well to karaoke.

Olivia Newton-John, the British-born star of Grease, died at the age of 73 after a long battle with breast cancer - Mark Condren
Olivia Newton-John, the British-born star of Grease, died at the age of 73 after a long battle with breast cancer - Mark Condren

As a shy, socially awkward child growing up in Edinburgh in the 1970s, Sandy Olsson was everything I wasn’t, and everything I wanted to be. Many were the hours I whiled away caterwauling “Hopelessly devoted to yooooh” into a hairbrush, dressed in an approximation of Sandy’s long white nightie. My mother took me and my two friends, Gillian and Corinne, to the cinema to watch Grease shortly after it was released. We sang You’re The One That I Want all the way home on the 31 bus. The rest of the day was devoted to role play, with costumes sourced from our parents’ wardrobes and Gillian’s dressing-up box. As the plainest, quietest child of the triumvirate, I knew the drill: I would have to be Danny, while pretty blonde Corinne would get to be Sandy and pretty brunette Gillian would get to be Rizzo.

Not until a friend’s fancy dress party some six months later did I get to assume the mantle of my heroine, even if my mother balked at me recreating Sandy 2 on account of my tender years and the difficulty of obtaining a pair of black Spandex trousers. No matter: Sandy 1 would do. Any Sandy was better than having to be Danny.

Grease is designed to cheer up the rainiest day - CBS Photo Archive
Grease is designed to cheer up the rainiest day - CBS Photo Archive

In 1978, the character of Danny Zuko was as yet unblighted by allegations of sexist behaviour. In recent years, with much justification, Grease has been seen in a very different light. Every time the film airs on TV, it attracts a barrage of criticism on social media, most notably that its plot is misogynistic on umpteen counts. Certainly, the naysayers have a point. There is the scene when Danny forcefully kisses Sandy on the beach and responds to her “Danny, don’t spoil it” with “it’s not spoiling it, it’s only making it better”. Then, later, he makes a move on her at the drive-in, saying “don’t worry about it – nobody’s watching”. This has caused younger audiences to call for Grease to be cancelled. As a child, these insinuations sailed right over my head, but even as an adult, while I don’t condone Danny’s behaviour, I’d still argue for its right to be dramatised. The MeToo movement has rightly made men question their behaviour. Alas, it hasn’t always made them change it. As the mother of one tween and one teenage daughter, I can say with certainty that there are still Dannys everywhere.

While loving, consensual sex is the dream, to be young and horny is surely to experience some degree of push-pull as two people explore the parameters of their desire.

‘She’s freeing herself from her good-girl image, itself an echo of the prevalent version of teen girlhood sold by Hollywood at the time’ - Supplied by LMK
‘She’s freeing herself from her good-girl image, itself an echo of the prevalent version of teen girlhood sold by Hollywood at the time’ - Supplied by LMK

The difference between Sandy and her modern counterparts, let’s hope, is that girls in 2022 are more confident in asserting their boundaries, and telling boys when to bog off.

Addressing criticism of the film during a podcast in 2021, Newton- John was measured. “I think in this particular instance, it’s kind of silly because the movie was made in the 70s about the 50s,” she said. “It was a stage play, it’s a musical, it’s fun. Everyone’s taking everything so seriously. I think we need to relax a little bit and just enjoy things for what they are.”

In some cases, what they are was never problematic in the first place. The modern Twitter take that “Sandy changed her personality and identity for a man” misses the whole point of the transformation scene, a fact that I don’t think you need to be a diehard, middle-aged Grease fan to see. Apart from the fact that Danny equally changes his own identity by adopting a letterman cardigan, when Sandy sings goodbye to Sandra Dee, she’s changing for herself as much as for Danny.

It is the greatest makeover of all time; the transformation scene to end all transformation scenes - Collection Christophel / Alamy
It is the greatest makeover of all time; the transformation scene to end all transformation scenes - Collection Christophel / Alamy

She’s freeing herself from her good-girl image, itself an echo of the prevalent version of teen girlhood sold by Hollywood at the time.

The message is that both are willing to change: and isn’t compromise what all good relationships are about? For its fans, Grease will always be a love story: flawed, as all love stories are, but more compelling than Cinderella, and with better shoes.