By John H. Foote
When he exploded, and it was an explosion of seismic proportions, 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. Over the opening credits he walked down a Brooklyn street to the disco strains of the Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive” carrying a can of paint with such smouldering, confident sexual swagger, at that second a superstar was born. For eight years he ruled the film industry and then he crashed and burned with Perfect (1985), a dreadful film about the obsession with body perfection. Though Travolta did not know it he was career dead, finished. For nine years he languished in terrible B movies, finally finding box office glory with the comedy Look Who’s Talking (1989) which at least made him bankable.
Enter Quentin Tarantino who, like so many including myself, adored the film Blow Out (1981) and the actors’ profoundly brilliant performance in the picture. Against the wishes of everyone, the white-hot new 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. Overnight he was at the top of the acting mountain.
Oscar nominated for Pulp Fiction, he additionally won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award as Best Actor, and was back on top, even dancing on screen again in Pulp Fiction (1994) and in Michael (1995), in which he played a cocky, irreverent angel. For a few years he was as hot as he ever was, and then, he was not. It stopped just as fast as it had started.
One thing about Travolta that must never be forgotten is that Pauline Kael once compared the young actor to no less than a young Brando. Not only is that truly great praise, it is altogether a true statement. Audiences love him, critics love it when he delivers, and directors revere him.
Through the course of his career he goes back and forth between great work and bad work. He is in a lull right now, but could come back strong anytime as he is utterlyunpredictable. Here are his 10 best:
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. He prefers to talk to you but first he demands you look 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. He lives to intimidate and his stare is fearsome. Interestingly he never makes a threat; Chili just acts on his instincts. 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. Never in his impressive, up and down career has he been more confident and positively brilliant on screen.
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 collects sounds to use in movies postproduction 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. Without paranoia throughout this tension filled masterpiece, it is Travolta who carries the film with his extraordinary lived-in performance. Where was the Academy at years end?
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 traveller, he cannot shake the heroin or his life of crime. Tarantino was a huge fan by virtue of Blow Out 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. And though ultra cool in the opening scenes and entertaining Mia, he falls to pieces when she hovers near death, a victim of snorting his heroin. His panic is blackly comic, his range in the film remarkable, and yes, he dances.
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. Vulnerable, heartbreaking, but often arrogant and misogynistic, Tony is a walking contradiction, a young man who wants a better life but is being held back by the company he keeps and his own fear. Can he be just friends with a woman? Can he be the man he is inside or is he doomed to be the vulgar slob he is with his friends? A fine, gritty performance that took him to the very top of the film universe literally overnight.
5. Primary Colors (1998)
Make no mistake, Jack Stanton (Travolta) is Bill Clinton. Based on the bestseller, 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 (Kathy Bates) so eloquently puts it. A born lady’s man, the future Mr. President just cannot help himself around women, any age, which gets him in all sorts of trouble and keeps his crack team of political fixers hopping. His long-suffering wife, portrayed with icy ambition by Emma Thompson, 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 he capacity to be a great man. He seems the kind of man who could make history.
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 (Nicholas Cage) who accidentally murdered Sean’s 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 others 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. Directed by the maestro of Hong Kong action films John Woo, this masterful thriller was a huge hit with audiences and critics.
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. Travolta digs deep dramatically as a man willing to go broke bringing this corporation to justice because he sees it is the right thing to do, the decent thing to do. Based on a true story and best-selling novel, Travolta gave himself over to the role in every way. Nobody saw the film, a shame, but it is one of the actor’s best performances.
8. Urban Cowboy (1980)
One of his least appreciated but best performances is as Bud, a young man from the south who comes to Texas to work in the oil refineries. 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 him, but humiliating the career criminal portrayed with a deadly sneer by Scott Glenn. After seeing the bruises and cuts on Wingers face, Bud 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, and he and Winger? Sparks flew.
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 swivelling, 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), Travolta should have been at least nominated for his Danny. Goofy, funny, vulnerable, in lust, he is terrific throughout. That high wattage smile, man, pure movie star charisma wrapped in the body and soul of an artist.
10. The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976)
This immensely popular made for television film thrust Travolta into the spotlight, along with his supporting role as the bad boy in Carrie (1976). After a starring role as one of Sweathogs on Welcome Back Kotter, an enormously popular TV comedy, movies came calling. One year later he was the biggest movie star on the planet. In this acclaimed made for TV film he portrayed an innocent young man allergic to everything, so much so, he lives in a plastic see through bubble, curious about the outside world. Though he wants to get out, he knows it could kill him, but to live, to truly live he knows he must get out. Vulnerability, likability in heaps, he was outstanding in the film, bringing lead roles in Hollywood to his door.
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.