Friday, March 31

An ode to Olivia Newton-John: Was Sandy the ultimate Philly girl?

When we meet Sandy Olsson, Olivia Newton-John’s beloved good girl in the classic film, grease she’s wearing poodle skirts over puffy crinolines; Peter Pan collared blouses and cardigans; and bobby socks and saddle shoes. Her blond hair is pulled back into a high ponytail.

Her fashion statement is innocence.

Yet, by the film’s end, Sandy is fierce in a pair of skin-tight black leather pants and a sexy off-the-shoulder blouse. Her hair is a mess of tousled curls. She puts a cigarette out with her stilettos during the dynamic finale “You’re The One That I Want.” And she rides off into the sunset with Danny (John Travolta), who we can assume is thrilled with his lady’s makeover. After all, he can now ditch the letter sweater he tried to wear in an attempt to clean up his reputation while earnestly courting her.

grease, set in the 1950s at the fictional Rydell High — inspired by Radnor High School and named after the late South Philly crooner Bobby Rydell — is among the first movies I can remember where a goody two-shoes freely embraces her inner bad girl. She even gets the guy in the end. Newton-John, with her bubbly personality, sincere smile and sweet Aussie accent brought the concept of multi-faceted femininity to generations of grease fans. Newton-John died Monday after a long battle with breast cancer. She was 73.

The idea that women can be good and bad, sex kitten and prudish, schoolmarm and adventurer, was as radical an idea in the 1950s as it was in 1978 when grease was released in theaters. Roe v. Wade was just five years old. The Fair Credit Opportunity Act, that made it possible for women to have credit cards was only four years old. And it would still be a few years before women joined the work force in droves during the 1980s. Most women aspired to be angelic housewives, because we weren’t allowed to be anything else.

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the beginning of grease reflected this limited mid-20th century view of American women. Rizzo’s (Stockard Channing) hot pants suggested she was easy. (She did have a pregnancy scare in the movie.) Ella told us she was n’t the brightest bulb in the socket. In the end, these women were able to shine beyond their wardrobes. Rizzo wasn’t all wanton mean girl — she was thoughtful and complex — and Frenchy was kind and wise.

despues de greaseNewton-John remained the girl next door with a devilish streak, starring in quirky films like Xanadu and Two of a Kind, where she again acted opposite John Travolta. In 1981, Newton-John released “Physical,” a single from the album with the same name. In the music video, Newton-John wore a headband, a leotard and hot pink tights. And she acknowledged that yes, women like her have sexual needs. Deal with it!

In the 44 years since grease was released, femininity has evolved, and we are no longer defined by just one look. Some days we feel girl-next-door light and bright and chose maxi skirts. Other days we are sporty and turn to yoga pants. And when we’re feeling coquettish, we may choose a body-skimming sheath. Our evolution doesn’t require us to find a man to be “winning” and sexy women aren’t synonymous with bad girls.

But it was Newton-John, in her role as the shy Delaware County High School senior, who was among the first ladies to suggest on screen that women can be many things. And isn’t that what it means to be the ultimate Philly girl?

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