Sunday, June 10, 2007

Travolta In The Seventies: From Barbarino to Blow-Out

Next week will see the long awaited release of the first season of WELCOME BACK KOTTER, a series fondly remembered by many people my age and the series that made John Travolta one of the biggest stars of the seventies.
Travolta had been doing television work since the early seventies and had a small part in the intriguing Robert Fuest film THE DEVIL'S RAIN before his role as the lovably dumb Vinnie Barbarino would catapult him into a major television star. Barbarino is one of the great characters of seventies sitcoms and Travolta's strutting and stuttering performance as the punk everybody loves landed him a role in Brian De Palma's CARRIE as well as a record deal.

Travolta's record deal would produce two albums of typically harmless seventies pop. LET HER IN actually hit the top ten and Travolta did some tv appearances promoting the song but thankfully it was his film career that would take off instead of his music.
Travolta's role as Billy Nolan, who connives with Nancy Allen's Chris to ruin Carrie White's shining moment, was small but brought an undeniable force to CARRIE and he's impossible to take your eyes off of. Whatever that mysterious thing is that makes a star a star, Travolta has it multiplied by ten.
Also released, along with CARRIE, in 1976 is the much loved television movie THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE. For all of the tv-movie trappings it falls into, THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE actually contains one of Travolta's finest performances. Here, for the first time, we can see all of the vulnerability and little boy frustration that Travolta can project so well. THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE is a sweet and well made little film that is majorly important in the evolution of John Travolta as an actor.

WELCOME BACK KOTTER might have made John Travolta a star but nobody, least of all Travolta himself, could have been prepared for the worldwide fame his next role would bring. It is often forgotten just how serious and rough the film SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is. The film, and its astonishing Bee-Gees soundtrack, has saturated so completely into popular culture that actually sitting down and watching the film can prove a jolting experience. The original hard R version of the film, before it was cut down to a PG version that many people grew up with, is an angry, profane and tough film featuring a lead character that at times is despicable in his actions.
Tony Manero in any one else's hands would have just come across as a racist and overwhelmingly sexist punk but with John Travolta playing him the audience not only comes to understand but finally love him. Travolta is incredible in the role, bringing levels of humanity and hurt to Tony that few actors would have even thought to attempt. The tragic loss of Travolta's real life girlfriend, Diana Hyland, to cancer during the films shooting probably led Travolta into much darker places than he would have otherwise travelled in the role.

Travolta would receive a well deserved Oscar nomination for his role as Tony and the character and film would go onto to influence an entire generation of actors and filmmakers. One of my favorite tributes is Paul Thomas Anderson's shot of Dirk Diggler's bedroom in BOOGIE NIGHTS, a direct reference to SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and just how much impact the film had in the seventies.
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER should have launched John Travolta's career as a serious actor but the one thread that runs throughout his career to this day is one of not taking risks. Travolta has always played it too safe, it is his biggest downfall. It is no coincidence that his best roles, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, BLOW-OUT, PULP FICTION, are all risk taking roles. A perfect example of Travolta's mistake of not pushing himself into darker terrains is his quitting AMERICAN GIGOLO in 1979. The role, which made Richard Gere a major star, would have changed the tragic direction that Travolta's career went to in the eighties.

So instead of following SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER with another hard hitting role Travolta delivered GREASE and MOMENT BY MOMENT. GREASE remains an incredibly alive and fun film, and one of the best musicals of the seventies. Most of the films strength comes from the blazing hot chemistry between Travolta and his costar, the lovely and talented OLivia Newton-John. GREASE would make Travolta even a bigger star and was one of the biggest hits of 1978.
MOMENT BY MOMENT was Travolta's first real slip up and an omen for some of the terrible decisions he would make in the next decade. Jane Wagner's painfully sappy and cringe inducing film stars Travolta along with Lily Tomlin. Take all the chemistry that Travolta had with Newton-John and put a negative sign in front of it and you've got him and Tomlin. MOMENT BY MOMENT was a huge bomb and it hurt Travolta's career. He wouldn't make another film for two years.
Travolta returned to the screen with URBAN COWBOY in 1980. It is a fun little film made better than it is because of a smouldering young Debra Winger and an undeniably great soundtrack. Travolta is good in it but he seems to be holding back. The film would make a lot of money but it seemed a long way from Tony Manero.
I often forget that BLOW-OUT is a film from the eighties. It seems so steeped as one of the greatest paranoid thrillers of the seventies that I often think of it, even more than RAGING BULL, as the decade's last scream of greatness before the ugly Reagan dominated eighties kicked into full gear.
Travolta's performance as sound man Jack in De Palma's film is his greatest and most complex role. Travolta goes for broke here and it is a haunting and mesmerizing turn that still resonates. Again working with the great Nancy Allen, Travolta delivers a turn that should have re-established him as a one of America's great actors and yet for some reason in the summer of 1981 very few people liked or even saw BLOW-OUT.
As many times as Pauline Kael's reviews would irritate and anger me, sometimes she would knock one out of the park and her writing on BLOW-OUT is dead on. She seemed to be the one critic who understood this was a major film and a great American masterpiece. It is one of her finest reviews and is well worth searching out. BLOW-OUT remains one of the most undervalued films of the eighties and contains the best work that John Travolta ever did.
The failure of BLOW-OUT sent Travolta's career into a major downward spiral and it would take him almost 15 years to recover. Starting with the regrettably bad SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER follow up STAYING ALIVE in 1983 Travolta's career would become a sad cartoon of bad films and poor choices. The period of 1983 to 1993 is one of the worst runs for a major actor and star in Hollywood history.
Quentin Tarantino was 18 when BLOW-OUT came out and I have always pictured him alone in a theater watching it and thinking, "that's the guy." Much has been written about Travolta as Vincent Vega in PULP FICTION and I don't have much to offer to the discussion. It is an incredible performance and it started a really incredible comeback for John even if he would inevitably start to play it safe again as soon as he wrapped Tarantino's film.
Ironically John Travolta is in yet another slump. His films are making money but looking at his resume from the past few years and his upcoming projects is truly depressing.
John Travolta is one of my favorite actors, even if it is mostly for work that he did in a very short period of time 30 years ago. I hope the guy pushes himself at least once more before everyone, including himself, forgets just how powerful he can be.


Rogue Spy 007 said...

My brother is the bigger Travolta fan of us two. I do still admire the man's talent. I remember watching him on "Welcome Back Kotter" when I was a kid. I did love seeing "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease" when I was growing up. He did make a lot of horrible flicks in the 80's. I don't think I ever even watched many of them. I think about the only thing I saw him in then was "Look Who's Talking." It was "Pulp Fiction" that put him back on the map for me. I thought he was awesome in that movie. It did show his talent and the potential that he had. Two things that aren't always on display when it comes to his career. I do think he's made some dismal choices at times in his career, such as with "American Gigolo." Even with his big comeback, he's made a lot of safe choices that will give him a nice check. He's not really stretching his acting muscles much. I would love to see more of what he's got in there. So what do you think of his upcoming role in "Hairspray?"

Jeremy Richey said...

I think his biggest mistake has just been playing it too safe.
I really like John Water's original film of Hairspray but have to admit that I don't know much about the musical. I hope the film works out though as John needs a good one again.
Thanks for commenting.

Esteparia said...

I've always been a huge Travolta fan. It's one of the very few actors that I really consider to have a unique, out-of-this-planet-esque charisma, as if it was hard to believe he's just a guy from New Jersey.
I agree with you: SNF is a much racier film that one could anticipate, and definitely one of the best films of the seventies. Even Grease has some dark, adult stuff, but ten-year-olds like me just loved it and grew up with it.
Travolta's career resurrection during the nineties is the most amazing comeback I ever witnessed. There are second acts in American lives, after all. :)
Great blog! I'll keep visiting.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Esteparia for reading and commenting. I'm glad you enjoyed the post and it is nice to hear from another Travolta fan.
Hope you continue to find stuff of interest on here...thanks again.

Rogue Spy 007 said...

I am interested to see Hairspray. I hope Travolta does a good job with it. It would be interesting for his career. Yeah, I saw the original John Waters movie. I don't know much about the musical either.

Jeremy Richey said...

I think one thing "Hairspray" has going for it is that Michelle Pfeiffer is in it. She always brings something really special to films that she appears in so I am hoping that this film does turn out to be a solid one.