By John H. Foote
Pauline Kael, that brilliant, venerable film critic of The New Yorker, stated that Travolta’s performance in Blow Out was as great as anything given by young Marlon Brando in the fifties, he was that extraordinary a talent. After exploding into films with Saturday Night Fever (1977), which came after a supporting performance in Carrie (1976) and beloved TV work as a “Sweathog” on the hit show Welcome Back Kotter, Travolta was the “It” guy in Hollywood. As Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, he escaped his mundane job in a paint shop in Brooklyn by dancing at the local disco place where he was the King of the dance floor. All his frustrations, his rage, exploded out of him on the dance floor as he created his art. For the performance, Travolta was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor and won the coveted National Society of Film Critics Award as Best Actor.
He was at that time the biggest movie star on the planet.
He followed Saturday Night Fever with the smash musical hit Grease (1978) playing again a teenager opposite Olivia Newton John and the pair had a huge box office hit on their hands. One would think it would come crashing down to earth with Moment by Moment (1978) a dreadful love story with he and Lily Tomlin, but it barely registered and he was back with another monster hit with Urban Cowboy (1980) as a Texas oil worker in love with a feisty young lady who rides the mechanical bull as well as he does. Travolta and rising star Debra Winger exploded across the screen and yet another huge hit was in the books for him.
Then came Blow Out. In many ways it was the first time he was playing an adult, but it was also the first time he was playing a real person.
As sound man Jack Terry, who works primarily on B grade horror films, he is out catching new sounds one night when he hears a gunshot and a car veers off the road into a small river. He dives into the water and saves the young girl in the car, but cannot save the Senator, who dies. None of it feels right to Jack so he gets his hands on the photographs taken by a sleazy scammer working with the girl, portrayed by Nancy Allen, and creates a film using his sounds. At once he knows he is onto something much bigger than he and the girl, this was an assassination of a government official.
Though initially mistrustful of the girl, they soon find their way to one another and as the walls close in make plans to leave Philadelphia. But a hired killer who killed the Senator is creating a series of murders as he works his way to the girl, and Terry knows he has to stop him before he gets to her.
That he doesn’t will haunt him the rest of his days, just as her scream, which he uses in a film, will never leave his ears or mind.
Travolta is superb in the film, as Kael stated as good as Brando in his youth with this lived in, powerful performance. His mounting paranoia when he finds all his tapes erased, the realization that the killer is working his way to his girl, and the final moments in the screening room when he hears her screams over and over and relives her last moments. An astonishing performance.
The film was a surprise failure the summer of 1981 but found a life on VHS and later DVD and is now considered among the greatest films of the eighties. It always was, and Travolta should have been among the five nominees for Best Actor.
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.