It's easy to get lost in the mythology of this movie, the way it was said to take Country music and western wear mainstream, and the way it turned a beer joint on the outskirts of Houston called Gilley's into a nightlife mecca. The movie also revived the career of Country star Mickey Gilley, and it added considerably to the stardom of John Travolta, who was already a big deal after “Saturday Night Fever.” Lost in all that mythology is the fact that “Urban Cowboy” is a pretty good movie that holds up well to multiple viewings.
John Travolta plays Bud, a country boy who moves to the Houston area to work in the oil fields. His Uncle Bob (Barry Corbin) hooks him up with a job and introduces him to Gilleys, the local country bar, where Bud fits right in. It's there that he meets Sissy (Debra Winger), and each of them is dumber, more inexperienced, and more good-hearted than the other. They rush into marriage and set up house in a little trailer, where it quickly becomes apparent that neither has a clue how to take care of themselves, let alone a partner. Things go okay, however, until Gilley's introduces a mechanical bull, along with a rodeo veteran and ex-con named Wes Hightower (Scott Glenn) to run it. Bud finds that riding that bull is his calling, but his chauvinism makes him forbid Sissy from trying it. Sissy gets revenge by flirting with Wes, and everything falls apart. Sissy winds up living behind the bar with Wes, who turns out to be a pretty rough customer, While Bud takes up with Pam, a rich girl who likes to slum it with cowboys. It takes a big mechanical bull contest to get everything sorted out.
“Urban Cowboy” is completely predictable, but it's an honest enough tale to be fun despite that. Travolta is rather over-earnest as an actor, but that plays perfectly in the character of the callow, self-serious Bud. Scott Glenn is perfect, playing Wes with a dangerous, creepy sexuality and a prison-toughness that fascinates Sissy. For my money, however, Debra Winger is the real star of “Urban Cowboy.” Her Sissy is immature, but fiercely independent. She has a feminist streak, but in the setting she's in, she has no idea what to do with it. She knows she wants more out of life than to be slapped around by some beery cowboy, but she's still figuring out what that is. She's also smoking hot, if you dig a tight-bodied, flat-chested babe with curly hair.
It would be easy to take a feminist view of the film and wonder why Sissy doesn't just get the hell out of this working-class, cultural backwater, but that misses the point. Sissy IS working class, she just doesn't accept all the assumptions about gender roles that predominate in that world. It turns out that Bud, for all his mistakes, is capable of learning from experience, and he is finally able to put aside some of his chauvinism and appreciate Sissy's independent streak. I just think the movie should have been called “Urban Cowgirl.”
3.5 stars out of 5