Travolta, John (1954—)

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Travolta, John (1954—)

There are two John Travoltas. One is the late 1970s star who rose to the dizzy heights of worldwide fame thanks to his roles in Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978). The other is the actor who was reborn from the embers of his cooling popularity thanks to Quentin Tarantino's cult mega-hit Pulp Fiction (1994). Other facets of John Travolta include his membership of the much-questioned Church of Scientology—seemingly the secret of his perseverance against all odds in his road towards permanent fame—and his early image as a dancing and singing idol.

Travolta's first taste of stardom came with his role as Tony Manero in John Badham's Saturday Night Fever. This film followed Travolta's noted appearances in the TV series Welcome Back Kotter, as high-school troublemaker Vinnie Barbarino (1975-6); the TV tearjerker, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976); and in the first adaptation of a Stephen King novel, director Brian de Palma's Carrie (1976), in which Travolta played a sadistic classmate of the victimized heroine. Saturday Night Fever, the film that came to epitomize the booming disco culture of the 1970s, created a sweeping worldwide craze around Travolta—complete with countless dancing imitators vying for fame in Manero's famous cheap, white, three-piece suit. It also gave Travolta his first nomination for an Oscar as Best Actor. The second would come years later for his supporting role as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction.

Among his many admirers, actress Bette Davis remarked that although Travolta was talented, he would not last. Davis' prophetic words proved, if not true, at least remarkably accurate. The role of Tony Manero was followed by the very popular Danny Zuko of Grease, a musical Travolta knew well from his early theater days—in which he became a teenage cult icon with Olivia Newton-John—and Urban Cowboy's Bud (1980). But the 1980s proved much less congenial to Travolta's supple talent and he was relegated to a string of mediocre films that did badly at the box office. The first signs of his renewed popularity came with the popular but insubstantial Look Who's Talking trilogy (1989, 1990, 1993), which was punctuated by Travolta's ineffectual resurrection of Tony Manero in Sylvester Stallone's Staying Alive (1993).

Just when Travolta seemed definitively condemned to playing uninspired roles like the James Ubriacco of Look Who's Talking for the rest of his acting life, Quentin Tarantino stepped in, convincing his much adored idol to play heroine fiend hit man Vincent Vega. Travolta's return was but one of the ingredients that turned Pulp Fiction into a massive hit, and the film placed the tarnished star back into the top list of Hollywood icons. Since 1994 Travolta has hardly had time to savor the sweet taste of his success, as he has been busy working non-stop in films of a varied range. His performances include an action villain in Broken Arrow (1996), a gangster-cum-producer in Get Shorty (1996), a mechanic turned supernatural hero in Phenomenon (1996), a devoted de-faced FBI agent in Face Off (1997), and even the contradictory roles of angel in Michael (1996) and the Bill Clinton-inspired character Governor Jack Stanton in Primary Colors (1998).

Travolta has amply displayed both his abilities as an actor and his understanding of the vagaries of show business, securing a sheltered financial position for himself that has allowed him to weather the difficult years in comfort. As a cultural phenomena, Travolta's career further begs the question: To what degree are actors shaped by the roles they play? As with Julia Roberts and Pretty Woman, it is unclear whether Travolta made the roles he played in films such as Saturday Night Live and Grease unique, or whether these unique roles made him. Like all other contemporary Hollywood big names, Travolta is subjected to a system in which the individual talent of each performer is very hard to assess, as acting is but one ingredient in the complex process of filmmaking. His popularity, like that of many other major stars, results from a capricious combination of talent, adroit choosing of roles, availability, luck and the mysterious "x" factor, best defined as being in the right place at the right time. And finally, Tarantino's idolization of Travolta, which perhaps had a touch of irony, appears to be a crucial factor, without which Travolta would not be the star he is at the end of the twentieth century.

—Sara Martin

Further Reading:

Amis, Martin. "Travolta's Second Act." The New Yorker. February20-27, 1995, 212-16.

Andrews, Nigel. Travolta: The Life. London, Bloomsbury, 1998.

Clarkson, Wendy. John Travolta: Back in Character. New York, Overlook Press, 1997.

Cohn, N. "Rebound for Glory." Vogue. October, 1994, 191-92.

Millea, H. "Stayin' Alive." Premiere. August, 1996, 54-60.

Schruers, F. "Travolta: The Rolling Stone Interview." Rolling Stone. February 22, 1996, 40-43.

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Travolta, John (1954—)

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