John Travolta: Staying Alive
The kid looks like he can't believe it, and at the same time, like he knows he's the shit; there's no-one can touch him. He's 22, with long, wavy 1976 hair and an ear-to-ear grin, and he's telling the man with the microphone about his first lead role in a feature film, which will be out next year. 'It's called Saturday Night Fever, and it's gonna be HOT!' he simpers.
John Travolta hasn't made a musical in a quarter of a century. If Hollywood is ever held to account for its errors of omission, this should rank right up there with its scandalous disregard for director Joe Dante and its long-running failure to find roles worthy of Gary Oldman's attention. And now that he has made another one after all this time, the Hairspray star is (almost) unrecognizable in an unflattering house dress, a wig and a full body fat suit.
It's a mesmerizing performance, and not entirely for the right reasons - especially when it becomes clear Travolta can't sing in Edna's voice, only his own. But still, it works because it's Travolta - more than a woman! - and we love him for trying. Who doesn't want to see JT tripping the light fantastic in a pas de deux with Christopher Walken? Anything's better than another Battlefield Earth.
Career-wise, Travolta's had more ups and downs than the Space Shuttle. A massive star on the back of Saturday Night Fever and Grease, he turned down roles in Days Of Heaven, American Gigolo and An Officer And A Gentleman that made Richard Gere a star, and took parts in The Experts, Perfect and Chains Of Gold instead. (Over the years he is also reported to have turned down Splash, Scarface, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, The Green Mile, and Chicago.) Pulp Fiction restored his reputation, and he did some good work in the late 90s, but recently he's let things slide again. Judging by Wild Hogs, he scarcely needed that fat suit.
When I met him it was 1998 and he was already approaching portly, but he carried it deftly, gracefully. He spoke softly, with an almost effete turn of phrase (he talked of 'decent fellows… and all that'); he was courteous and good humoured and deliciously at ease. You see, in the flesh, he's all there: the dimple, the chops, the grin, the alert, twinkling gaze: Tony Manero, Danny Zuko, Vincent Vega, Chili Palmer, all rolled into one.
Not exactly modest, he gamely tried for 'humble', which may be as much as you can expect from someone who doesn't just run a private fleet of jet planes, he pilots them too.
Pauline Kael famously compared him to Brando, but Travolta can go one better: he told me Marlon likened him to Shakespeare (!). The arrogance was mitigated both by the mischief of his mumbled impersonation, and the sheer delight he took in the compliment. 'I get a little blind when it comes to charm and charisma and friendliness,' he admitted. 'I go with it. I get high with it.' Anyone who's spent even a few minutes with Travolta would know how infectious such charm can be.
Jack Nicholson once claimed he zeroes in on a character's IQ within five points, but Travolta could never be that cerebral. The crucial quality his Clinton lacked in Primary Colors was any sense of intellectual conviction (then again, some would say that was Bill's problem too). But you can imagine him gauging a role's heat within five degrees: from absolute cool to hot! hot!! hot!!!
It's his body language that really speaks for him. Think of the great Travolta moments and they're almost always about the moves: The strut and the cut of Saturday Night Fever; that submerged, slow, smoky, dance with Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction; the dizzy despair when things falls apart in Blow Out; the energised evil zeal he brings to the extraordinary role reversal in Face/Off. 'Look at me,' he repeats, quietly insistent as Chili Palmer, the real deal in Get Shorty. 'Look at me!' Even James Brown would turn his head. It's what being a movie star is all about.
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