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

For fans, Grease will always be a love story

For fans, Grease will always be a love story

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

For a generation of girls weaned on stories about Disney princesses but left behind by them, it’s hard to overstate the impact of Grease when it was released in 1978. Sandy’s was a Cinderella story we could really get behind, because Sandy was hers own heroine, an agent of her own destiny who did not passively wait for her prince to come and rescue her with a glass slipper.

Who needs a glass slipper when you have a sexy red mule? Who needs a fairy godmother when you’ve got Frenchy, and a cabal of loyal girlfriends willing to help you pull off the biggest makeover ever? And it’s the biggest makeover ever; the transformation scene to end all transformation scenes.

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

And yet the role of Sandy almost did not go to her at all. At 29, Newton-John feared she was too old to play high school student Sandy, and worried that the film version of the hit musical would be a flop. It has been suggested that Carrie Fisher and Marie Osmond were suggested to play the role 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 eyes behavior 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, who already has the role of Danny, that Newton-John agreed.

“I didn’t think there could be a more correct person for Sandy in the universe,” Travolta later told Vanity Fair. “I insisted she be met and we threw 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 selling approximately 28 million copies worldwide, making it the one of the best-selling albums of all time. The music certainly does a lot to enhance the feel-good factor. Grease is designed to cheer up the rainiest day, full of uplifting songs that lend themselves particularly well to karaoke.

Olivia Newton-John, British-born star of Grease, dies aged 73 after long battle with breast cancer - Mark Condren

Olivia Newton-John, British-born star of Grease, dies aged 73 after 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 was gone serving “Hopelessly devoted to yooooh” to a hairbrush, dressed in an approximation of Sandy’s long white nightgown. My mother took me and my two friends, Gillian and Corinne, to the cinema to see 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-playing, with costumes taken from her parents’ wardrobes and Gillian’s dress-up box. As the easiest, quietest child of the triumvirate, I knew the drill: I had to be Danny, while pretty blonde Corinne would be Sandy and beautiful brunette Gillian would be Rizzo.

It wasn’t until a friend’s fancy dress party six months later that I got to assume the mantle of my heroine, even though my mother dreaded me recreating Sandy 2 because of my tender years and the difficulty of obtaining a pair of black Spandex- pants. Anyway: Sandy 1 would do it. Any Sandy was better than being 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 not yet plagued by allegations of sexist behavior. In recent years, with much justification, Grease has been seen in a completely different light. Every time the film is televised, it attracts a barrage of criticism on social media, particularly that the plot is misogynistic on countless counts. Yes, the naysayers have a point. There’s the scene when Danny forcefully kisses Sandy on the beach and responds to her “Danny, don’t spoil it” with “it doesn’t ruin it, it just makes it better”. Then, later, he makes a move on her at the drive-in and says “don’t worry about it – no one’s watching”. This has caused younger audiences to call for the cancellation of Grease. As a child, these insinuations sailed right over my head, but even as an adult, even if I do not condone Danny’s behavior, I would still argue for the right to be dramatized. The MeToo movement has rightly caused men to question their behavior. Alas, that hasn’t always made them change it. As the mother of a tween and a teenage daughter, I can safely say that there are still Danny’s everywhere.

Although loving, consensual sex is the dream, being young and horny is experiencing a certain amount of push-pull as two people explore the parameters of their desire.

“She breaks free from her good girl image, itself an echo of the prevalent version of teenage girlhood sold by Hollywood at the time” – Provided 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 guys when to back off.

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

In some cases it was never problematic what they are in the first place. The modern Twitter perception 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 die-hard, middle-aged Grease fan to see. Aside from the fact that Danny changes his own identity as much by adopting a letterman cardigan, when Sandy sings goodbye to Sandra Dee, she changes as much for herself as for Danny.

It's the biggest makeover ever;  the transformation scene to end all transformation scenes - Collection Christophel / Alamy

It’s the biggest makeover ever; the transformation scene to end all transformation scenes – Collection Christophel / Alamy

She breaks free from her good-girl image, which itself echoes the prevalent version of teenage girl 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 fans, Grease will always be a love story: flawed, as all love stories are, but more compelling than Cinderella, and with better shoes.

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