By John H. Foote
When he exploded, and it was an explosion, onto screens in the seventies he was instantly the biggest star on the planet. Oscar-nominated for his first leading role in Saturday Night Fever (1977), Travolta was both actor (blazing with talent) and movie star, burning bright. Travolta thrilled audiences with his Oscar-nominated performance in Saturday Night Fever (1977), had them bouncing with giddy joy in Grease (1978) and was smoldering sexuality incarnate in Urban Cowboy (1980). In Brian DePalma’s superb thriller Blow Out (1981), the great film critic Pauline Karl compared his performance to Brando’s early greatness. It seemed there was nothing he could do wrong.
For eight years he ruled the film industry and then he crashed and burned with the ill-fated sequel to Saturday Night Fever (1977), Stayin’ Alive (1983) and Perfect (1985) a dreadful film about the obsession with body perfection. Following those two duds with Two of a Kind (1985) nailed the coffin on his career closed. Though Travolta did not know it, he was career-dead, finished. Though he found box office success with the Look Who’s Talking (1989) series, he must have hated making them. How far he had fallen.
Enter Quentin Tarantino who like so many, including me, adored the film Blow Out (1981) and the actors profoundly brilliant performance in the picture. Against the wishes of everyone, the Director cast the actor as Vincent Vega, a heroin-addicted, not too bright hitman in Pulp Fiction (1994) and as fast as he had in the seventies, Travolta ruled Hollywood again. It was astounding the good faith Hollywood expressed in embracing him back into the fold. He won the LA Film Critics Award for Best Actor and was nominated for his second Academy Award.
Again in the spotlight, he was back on top, even dancing on screen again in Pulp Fiction (1994) and in Michael (1995) in which he played a cocky, hard living angel. For a few years he was as hot as he ever was, and then, suddenly, he was not, it stopped just as fast as it had started.
Through the course of his career, he goes back and forth between great work and bad work. He was brilliant in the massive The People vs. OJ Simpson (2016) reminding us of his gifts, but then crashed and burned with a Gotti (2017) hailed as one of the worst films ever made.
10. Hairspray (2007)
It was a gimmick on Broadway with gravelly voiced gay activist Harvey Fierstein as Edna, mother of chubby girl Tracey. On film, they cast Travolta who gave himself over to the role completely, from the lacquered wigs and fatsuit, to the dancing with no less than Christopher Walker as his…her husband. As a female eating machine, he is wonderful as Edna, though we get it is a gimmick because you can almost see he and Walken winking at us. Great fun.
9. Grease (1978)
Come on, it has to be here. As the high school, no kidding, bad boy Danny Zuko, Travolta was nothing short of a revelation in the film as a hip-swiveling, Elvis sounding, leather jacket wearing hood who falls in love over a summer with a good girl transplanted here from Australia. The long-running musical was a Broadway tradition, and the film was a smash. Is it a masterpiece? Nope. But if Ryan Gosling deserved an Oscar nod for La La Land (2016) last year, Travolta should have been at least nominated for his Danny. Goofy, funny, vulnerable, in lust he is terrific throughout. And bear in mind, it ain’t art, but it is goofy good fun.
8. Urban Cowboy (1980)
One of his least appreciated but best performances as Bud, a young man from the south who comes to Texas to work in the oil refinery. There he falls hard for a young woman portrayed by the deeply erotic Debra Winger and they marry, and fight, and fight and finally break up. Believing the man she wants needs to be a real cowboy he trains on the mechanical bull and challenges the best in the state besting them. In the process he stops a robbery and wins back his wife, each realizing they love each other too much to lose one another. Travolta seems right at home in Texas and never falters in the film. The chemistry between he and Winger is white hot, pure carnality.
7. A Civil Action (1998)
Another under-appreciated court drama that sees Travolta as a gutsy lawyer who takes his firm to ruin over a case he just cannot shake. Toxic poisoning is brought to him and the further he digs, the more corrupt it becomes, yet he refuses to give in, wanting to do something right. The actor brings great intelligence to the role and has a wonderful chemistry with Robert Duvall as the counsel for the other side. Nobody saw the film, a shame, but it is one of the actors best performances.
6. Face/Off (1996)
Though it is pure genre action it allows the actors to simply kick ass in their roles in which they are asked to become each other some of the time. Sean (Travolta) has been searching for the vicious terrorist Castor Troy who accidentally murdered his son several years before. When science comes up with a way to allow Sean to resemble Troy in every way he goes for it, but then Troy does the same leaving each man in the other’s world. Travolta has a field day impersonating Cage, and along the way gives a sensitive performance as a man trying to get revenge for his son, and yet as Castor with Sean’s face bring ruin to Sean’s family. Exceptional work from both actors.
5. Primary Colors (1998)
Make no mistake, Jack Stanton (Travolta) is Bill Clinton. Based on the bestsellers, the film explores the road to the White House for the Clintons…um Stantons. He is a skirt-chasing, donut eating good old boy with powerful friends who want him in the White House despite where he “puts his pecker” as Abby tells us. A born ladies man the future Mr. President just cannot help himself around women, any age, which gets him in all sorts of trouble. His long-suffering wife deals with it because she sees the prize ahead of them both, a chance to make history. Travolta nails Clinton, the accent, the good old boy charm, the near constant eating but something deeper, in that we sense flaws aside he has the capacity to be a great man. We sense that greatness under the flaws.
4. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
So much more than just a disco film this was a film that became a touchstone for the seventies and the film of a generation. Trapped in a dead-end job in Brooklyn, living at home, Tony is the king of the dance floor on weekends. The only time he feels truly alive is dancing but what can a kid from a blue-collar background do with that? How can he ever cross that bridge into Manhattan? His friendship with a sometimes deluded young woman who has managed to get out helps give him the confidence to leave, all to the sound of the Bee Gees glorious music. And when he steps on the dance floor, he becomes an absolute God.
3. Pulp Fiction (1994)
His droll, grave performance as heroin-addicted hitman Vincent Vega was his second career explosion, catapulted at once back into the A-list of actors. Though beefier than he was in previous films, he brings a world-weariness to his work, for though Vincent is a world traveler, he cannot shake the heroin or his life of crime. Tarantino was a huge fan by virtue of Blow Out (1981) and fought to cast the actor in the film. Reaction out of Cannes was immediate, the film was hailed around the globe a masterpiece and Travolta Fever again swept the world. Watch his odd hesitation as he enters Mia’s apartment, as beautifully created as any silent acting Buster Keaton created.
2. Blow Out (1981)
Brian De Palma was the first director to cast Travolta as an adult, and the result was a performance that legendary critic Pauline Karl compared to Marlon Brando’s best work in the fifties and seventies, raw, real, and visceral. Cast as a B movie sound man, he works to collect the outdoor sounds he needs, to use in movies post-production work, in this case, terrible horror movies. While gathering night sounds one evening he accidentally records a murder and finds himself drawn into a political assassination gone awry. Knowing his life is in danger he begins piecing it all together, which places him in greater danger. The growing realization of what he is caught up in brings about paranoia in this tension-filled masterpiece. With his astonishing dramatic work, it is a Travolta who carries the film with his extraordinary lived in performance. Where was the Academy at years end?
1. Get Shorty (1995)
“Look at me” he says because he is already looking at you, more through you than at you, and it is unsettling. He owns you, he intimidates you, and he will mess you up physically if needed, but he prefers to talk to you but first, he demands you look at him. That is his signature line, and once he says it, you better be looking at him. As Chili Palmer, a loan shark collector gangster, the actor gives a superb performance, projecting absolute confidence in everything he does. Like a fine chess player he leaves Florida for Hollywood and within days is in the midst of movie royalty spinning his web. Travolta won the Golden Globe (Comedy) for his performance in the film, earned rave reviews, but was, unbelievably snubbed for an Oscar nomination. I could not believe it, I still cannot believe it, so exceptional was he in the film, the very essence of cool. The finest performance of his career.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.