He has managed to appear in not just some of the best known, but also some of the best-full-stop films of the past forty years – Saturday Night Fever, Carrie, Grease, Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, Face/Off, The Thin Red Line, Hairspray and the upcoming Gummy Bear The Movie – whatever one might think of the consistency of his output (and there have been some horrendous misfires), it is hard to imagine too many actors playing Danny Zuko, Vincent Vega, Castor Troy, Sean Archer, Chili Palmer and Edna Turnblad with equal conviction.
After the temporary resuscitation of Look Who’s Talking turned out to be a false dawn, Tarantino did Travolta a favour of inestimable proportions by casting him in Pulp Fiction, which not only kick-started another career renaissance, but also opened up hitherto untapped villain opportunities – his roles in Face/Off, The Punisher, The Taking of Pelham 123, Broken Arrow and Swordfish all trace back to Vincent Vega.
But Travolta also showed himself adept at the strong, decent/honest, dignified roles – The General’s Daughter, A Civil Action, Phenomenon, Ladder 49 – a genuinely versatile and charismatic performer who we seemed to have forgotten and who appeared to have been unable, without Tarantino’s help, to persuade Hollywood executives that he had these sorts of performances in him. He joined the 1990’s much discussed $20m club, seemingly inconceivable for someone who had previously been slumming it with Chains of Gold, Perfect and Look Who’s Talking Now (the one where the pets talk).
Although Travolta’s singing and dancing chops were somewhat his calling card back in the Seventies (and despite that being played on in both Look Who’s Talking and Pulp Fiction), there is a tangible magnetism and intensity to his best work, even if lately his villain roles have started to whiff a little of ham and cheese (Pelham & Paris, we’re looking at you). And stuck in the middle of all of this is that unique and (but for Travolta’s well-known devotion to the Church of Scientology) baffling role in Battlefield Earth.
Goodness me. There is a need for a thorough analysis of the history of misconceived pet/passion/vanity projects. Battlefield Earth ought to feature strongly, with lots of emphasis on the “misconceived” bit. The nuts and bolts are fine – rapacious aliens invade Earth and enslave humanity, before we decide to fight back – but the tone, script, acting performances and Scientology-vaunting subtext made for a virtually unwatchable mess. A $73m production budget was invested in making a film which went on to gather somewhere in the region of $30m and as the star and perceived driver of the production, Travolta suffered.
Prior to Battlefield Earth? Face/Off, Get Shorty, Pulp Fiction, A Civil Action, The General’s Daughter, Primary Colors. Since then? Basic, The Punisher, Swordfish, Be Cool, Wild Hogs, Old Dogs, Pelham. After Battlefield Earth, Hairspray and Bolt have been the only genuinely decent roles in genuinely commendable films on his resume. Not a great hit rate. Has Hollywood turned on him for indulging a vanity project? Unlikely. For somewhere as populated with the perenially self-absorbed as Hollywood to ostracize an actor for perceived vanity would be absurd. But the quality roles have undoubtedly begun to dry up. Producers may have moved on, or Travolta may have become less judicious in his choices, but he was invited to introduce Adele Dazim (Not sure of that spelling – Ed.) at the Oscars earlier this year, so the “institution” is clearly not quite done with him yet.
In some ways, the “hit the heights, disappear from view, enjoy career renaissance” arc is a favoured narrative for Hollywood and may go some way to explaining Travolta’s continued popularity with the establishment. With musicals having come once again to the fore in Hollywood after a *really* long time in obscurity, Grease has been re-anointed as a Hollywood classic, even topping one poll of Greatest Musical Ever, beating off Oz, Singin’ in the Rain and The Sound of Music in the process. Perhaps the nostalgia for Grease and its own nostalgic look back a further couple of decades has helped Travolta remain on everyone’s radar. The perceived popularity of Scientology within Hollywood (Tom Cruise, Juliette Lewis, Giovanni Ribisi – even Will Smith is rumoured to be an adherent) means that it is less of a liability for Travolta than other allegiances might be.
Anyhow, it would seem that Travolta has put in enough sold and exceptional work that he can expect to continue to be called upon, whether for the recent Killing Season, or otherwise. As with Robert De Niro, his co-star in Killing Season, Travolta has long-since gone off the boil and seems to have either forgotten how to produce the sorts of performances for which he was once so lauded, or has lost interest in stretching or challenging himself any more. But if he doesn’t quite belong in the very highest echelons of Hollywood Royalty (preserved for the likes of Paul Newman, Jimmy Stewart, Katherine Hepburn and Robert Redford), he is certainly celebrated, loved and ongoingly popular, despite more comebacks than most and despite recent duds that are in danger of overshadowing his much better earlier work.
There are plenty of projects in the pipeline, in production or ready for release for Travolta – The Forger, Criminal Activities, In a Valley of Violence – and although there are an assortment of interesting co-stars are other creative collaborators, nothing stands out as exceptional, ground-breaking or even a return to form. Will he recover his mojo, or will he coast along? He’s only just turned 60, so there are plenty of the chapters of Travolta’s Hollywood history still to be written, but it is already a richly textured story and one can only hope for further twists and turns and perhaps new high points yet to be reached.
Killing Season is out on DVD and Blu-ray from Monday the 18th of August.