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Photos: John Travolta

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  1. Still has the moves

    Actor John Travolta poses as he received a tribute for his career at the premiere of "Killing Season" during the 39th annual Deauville American Film Festival, in Deauville, France, on Sept. 6, 2013. Travolta turned 60 on Feb. 18, 2014. (Etienne Laurent / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Longtime love

    Travolta and his actress wife Kelly Preston arrive for the 2013 Vanity Fair Oscar Party at Sunset Tower in West Hollywood, Calif., on Feb. 24, 2013. The two married in 1991. (Larry Busacca/vf13 / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Aussie appearances

    Travolta, an ambassador for the airline Qantas, is joined by his wife Kelly Preston, right, and model Australian Miranda Kerr at a Qantas Gala dinner in Sydney, Australia, on April 18, 2013. (Rob Griffith / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Hollywood hotshot

    Travolta speaks at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Aug. 9, 2012, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Jordan Strauss / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. On a mission

    Travolta and daughter Ella Bleu, left, and wife Kelly Preston applaud speakers at the opening of a Scientology Mission in Ocala, Fla., on May 29, 2011. (Michael Doven / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A family affair

    Travolta, Kelly Preston and daughter Ella Bleu arrive at the premiere of Walt Disney Pictures' "Old Dogs" held at the El Capitan Theatre on Monday, Nov. 9, 2009, in Hollywood, Calif. It was the Travoltas' first public appearance was since the death of their son, Jett. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A laughing scene

    John Travolta and Robin Williams, stars of the new film "Old Dogs", are shown in a scene from the film, which hits theaters Nov. 25. (Disney Enterprises) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A day in court

    Travolta and Preston leave the court building in Nassau, Bahamas, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009. Travolta described the moments before his son's death in the Bahamas as he testified against two people accused of trying to blackmail him with private information about the rescue effort. (Kris Ingraham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Johnny's got a gun

    Travolta holds a subway car full of passengers hostage in the 2009 thriller "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3." Denzel Washington co-stars as the subway dispatcher who is determined to stop him. The film is a remake of the 1974 thriller that starred Walter Matthau. (Stephen Vaughn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Happier days

    Travolta, second left, with his daughter Ella Bleu, left, Preston, right, and son Jett. Jett died on Jan. 2, while the family was on vacation in the Bahamas. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Getting animated

    Miley Cyrus and Travolta both provided voices for the 2008 animated film, "Bolt." The film told the story of a TV dog who doesn't realize that his superpowers are created by special effects until he is out on his own. (Michael Buckner / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Good old boys

    Travolta (from left), Martin Lawrence, William H. Macy and Tim Allen starred together in 2007's "Wild Hogs." The film tells the story of a group of middle-aged friends who decide to rev up their routine suburban lives with a freewheeling motorcycle trip. (Touchstone Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. What a drag

    Travolta played Edna Turnblad in the 2007 big screen adaptation of the Broadway musical, "Hairspray." The film tells the story of Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) who lands a spot on a local TV dance show in 1962, and becomes determined to make sure the show is racially integrated. (New Line Cinema) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Holding out for a hero

    Travolta starred as veteran firefighter Captain Mike Kennedy in 2004's "Ladder 49." In the film he mentors Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) and then must save him when he gets trapped in a fire. (Touchstone Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A kind of love story

    Scarlett Johansson starred as a woman who returned home after her mother's death in 2004's "A Love Song for Bobby Long." Travolta co-starred as Bobby Long, an old friend of her mother's who is living in her mother's house with his protege (Gabriel Macht). Since they have no intention of leaving, the three of them begin to make a home together. (Screen Gems) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Flying high

    Travolta poses as he exits his ex-Qantas Boeing 707 jet after landing at Sydney International Airport on July 12, 2002. Travolta arrived in the Australian city as part of his "Spirit of Friendship" tour, which took him to 13 cities across the globe. (Chris Mcgrath / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Fishy story

    Travolta starred with Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry in 2001's "Swordfish." The film tells the story of a plot to hack into a complicated computer system that contains government secrets and a lot of money. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Razzie dazzle

    In 2000, Travolta made the movie "Battlefield Earth," based on the novel by Scientologist founder L. Ron Hubbard. In the film, an alien race tries to exterminate humanity in the year 3000. The film won seven Razzie Awards, including worst actor, worst director and worst picture. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Presidential pose

    Emma Thompson and Travolta starred as a Southern governor and his wife contending for the White House in 1998's "Primary Colors." The story was a loose retelling of President Bill Clinton's own run for the presidency. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Asserting his faith

    Travolta listens as Claudia Engel, right, from Germany discusses religious persecution she has suffered during hearings before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe on Capitol Hill in Washington. Travolta, a Scientologist, and several other celebrities joined in discussing Germany's discrimination and harassment of members of the church of Scientology. (William Philpott / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Something about his face

    Travolta starred opposite Nicholas Cage in 1997's "Face/Off." John Woo directed this story of an FBI agent who has his face surgerically switched with a terrorist in order to get his brother to confess to crimes. But when the terrorist wakes up with the FBI agent's face, a game of cat and mouse begins. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Heavenly performance

    Travolta starred as the archangel Michael in the 1996 movie "Michael." In the film, Michael returns to Earth one last time to help a washed-up tabloid journalist find love. (New Line Cinema) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Award-worthy

    Nicole Kidman and Travolta toast with their Golden Globe Awards for best actress and best actor on Jan. 21, 1996 in Beverly Hills. Kidman received her award for her role in "To Die For" and Travolta received his award for "Get Shorty." (Jeff Haynes / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. All mobbed up

    Travolta played loan shark Chili Palmer in the 1996 film, "Get Shorty." When he comes to Los Angeles to collect a debt from a movie producer, he decides to trade his nefarious career for a chance to be in the film business. Renee Russo co-stars as a former scream queen who takes an interest in Chili. (MGM) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Men in black

    Travolta starred with Samuel L. Jackson in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film, "Pulp Fiction." In the film, Travolta plays Vincent Vega, a hit man who makes the mistake of agreeing to entertain a mobster's wife for the night only to have her almost overdose right in front of him. (Miramax Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Baby daddy

    In 1989's "Look Who's Talking," Travolta played a cab driver who meets a pregnant woman (Kirstie Alley) on the way to the emergency room just as her son (the voice of Bruce Willis) is being born, and ends up becoming part of her life. The film spawned two sequels. (TriStar Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Ride 'em

    In 1980, Travolta starred with Debra Winger in "Urban Cowboy." Travolta plays Bud, a young country farmer who moves to the city to find work at an oil refinery and finds love with Sissy (Winger), a cowgirl of easy virtue and spirit. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. He's the one that she wants

    Travolta showed he could both dance and sing when he starred opposite Olivia Newton John in 1978's "Grease." An adaptation of the popular Broadway musical, the film told the story of two 1950s high schoolers, one a good girl and one a greaser. The duo fights peer pressure and their differences and even make some personal changes in order to be together. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. All the right moves

    Travolta's life changed when he starred in 1977's "Saturday Night Fever." The film tells the story of a working-class young Brooklyn man who finds an escape from his mundane neighborhood existence at the local discotheque, where he is the "king of the dance floor." (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Bad boy

    In the 1976 adaptation of Stephen King's novel, "Carrie," Travolta played one the teens who planned to humiliate a young girl at the prom, not realizing that she was telekinetic and that her vengeance would be swift and deadly. (United Artists Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Bubble boy

    John Travolta and Glynnis O'Connor kiss through a vinyl membrane in the 1976 TV movie, "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." The movie tells the story of a man who was born with a deficient immune system and must spend his life apart from others in a plastic bubble. (ABC via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. 'What? Where?'

    Travolta looks up at colleague, compatriot and professional poker player Gabe Kaplan in the 1970s TV series "Welcome Back Kotter." Travolta played ladies' man Vinnie Barbarino. (Abc Television / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/9/2009 7:59:10 PM ET 2009-06-09T23:59:10

I just saw the remake of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.” It’s mostly generic and tired, a standard-issue hostage thriller with two alpha leads yakking at each other nonstop in big close-up shots. Denzel Washington is the troubled hero who has to negotiate with manic subway hijacker John Travolta, each of them trying to get under the other’s skin.

Washington comports himself without much personality, so it’s up to Travolta to alleviate the predictable tedium with some shrieking hissy fits, some gun waving and some really strange mustache dye. And that is pretty much all I need in order to be fully entertained by John Travolta.

He comes equipped with a set of bells and whistles that sometimes make up for real acting and sometimes make you wonder what he’s going on about. Either way, you wind up entertained, often just by his sheer nerve.

At its most memorable, his work involves grand gestures or Method-y body transformation or stabs at artistic depth. And truthfully, not being ironic here, but I don’t make distinctions with him. When he’s good he’s good. When he’s bad he’s good. He can play it either way and I’m happy.

I’ve said it before in print, but I think it bears repeating: Sometimes there is no “good” or “bad,” there is only boring and not boring, and Travolta is rarely boring. In a long career full of ups, downs and confusing zig-zags, here are my favorite Travolta moments:

‘The Boy In The Plastic Bubble’
When I was a child I thought Travolta was really funny on “Welcome Back Kotter.” I just knew he’d be a cool older brother to have around the house — your own personal lunkhead to make you feel better about yourself. But then I saw him in this TV movie (while a babysitter talked to her boyfriend on the phone in the kitchen, a move that kept us from late night snacking and allowed her to avoid me and my little brother) and realized that he was not, in fact, Vinnie Barbarino. He was a soulful young man who couldn’t be with Glynnis O’Connor because her girl germs might actually kill him. I knew he’d catch a cold and die at the end when he left the bubble, and that moved me tremendously. To die for love. There was nothing deeper than that. I haven’t watched it since, though. Some stuff from your past is not meant to be revisited.

‘Saturday Night Fever’ and ‘Urban Cowboy’
Once I realized that he was an actor and not a tiny doofus who lived inside the TV, I was obsessed with the idea of seeing an R-rated movie about disco where he did a lot of exciting dancing and grown-up swearing. And as a very young person who hadn’t seen too many R-rated movies yet (this was back in a time when people didn’t routinely take 6 year olds out to multiplexes at 10:00 p.m. for screenings of “Hostel”), I was genuinely shocked by all the misogyny, rape, F-words, C-words and underwear bulges.

This was a guy staking his claim on his career with a character that was all petulance and wild sex; he would have kicked the bubble boy in the face and then laughed about it, while his thug-friends took turns sodomizing the immune-compromised teen. That this performance turned people on to white Dacron suits instead of scaring them away from Travolta forever is a testament to how strange the 1970s really were. Then he was in “Urban Cowboy,” which was the same movie but with Mickey Gilley instead of the Bee Gees.

I have it on pretty good authority that the 1950s did not involve this kind of behavior. Still, though, there is not a person alive who doesn’t like this movie. How can you hate that wild dance contest “Hand Jive” part or the cool racing for pink slips part or the drive-in moments or the carnival at the end where Travolta and Olivia Newton John sing “You’re The One That I Want,” and the moral of the film — in order to find true love you have to turn yourself into a slut — becomes a national anthem? Travolta is at his goofiest and singing-est and least full of himself here.

‘Moment by Moment’
Few people have seen this film. I’ve seen it four times. It is monumentally bad. It is also monumentally hilarious. This movie and, I assume, the people in the movie, thought they were making art. And in a way they were, because to watch Travolta brood and pout over love interest Lily Tomlin is to see the most fully realized on-screen depiction of airless malaise, Jacuzzi-based ennui, Vidal Sassoon-ed self-absorption, and ambiguously sexual torpor ever. EVER. It is at this time that Travolta’s career stumbled its way onto a really fascinating and wacky path.

‘Staying Alive’
That troubled but occasionally sensitive lout from “Saturday Night Fever” is back but now it’s the ’80s and he has no hang-ups about his masculinity, not one single problem with running around in a loincloth, headbands and allowing a team of off-camera follicle technicians to wax his entire body and spray baby oil all over it. And director Sly Stallone let his brother Frank sing on the soundtrack. Those Bee Gees, who needed them in 1983? Nobody.

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If “Moment by Moment” was seen as a forgivable misstep, this one was enough to send critics lunging with their knives and forks. But I like it because it’s really about hubris and excess and the crippling effects of bloated ego. I also love the steely determination on Travolta’s face throughout the entire film. As if he was invested in keeping his career afloat and ready to do what it took. Any other approach to watching it involves taking it seriously, but when this much fun is at stake that’s always unwise.

The downward career spiral turns into a freefall. I’m sure that mattered to Travolta. But the day a movie star starts caring about my career trajectory is the day I start caring about theirs. I just want to have a good time watching a crappy movie. And nothing is more awesome and good-time-guaranteeing than films about dippy cultural trends in their ascendancy. This one had word processors and aerobics. Of course everyone figured those word processors were going to be a fad but that aerobic dance was here to stay. That just makes it better.

And aerobics is the star of the movie, even more than Travolta. It’s kind of like he’s the waffle and Jamie Lee Curtis’ leotard is the butter and syrup. “Perfect” is not only exciting to watch, it’s educational. You learn about what hotbeds of vice and naughtiness health clubs were in the mid 1980s, and if you watch it on DVD you can exercise along to it. I have nothing more to say about Travolta’s performance in this film. That’s how strong the aerobics are.

‘Pulp Fiction’
I love that this film gave Travolta’s career the kiss of life it needed. There is no amount of torture in modern warfare equivalent to the “Look Who’s Talking” movies and we can thank Quentin Tarantino for seeing a brother in need and throwing him a lifeline. What’s great about Travolta’s performance here is that he goes full circle, picking up the loose ends of Vinnie Barbarino and Tony Manero and fusing them together into something even dumber and more profane than their original manifestations allowed. He was made comfortable enough with his past to revisit it and update it for a new audience. And because the wheels of Hollywood destiny usually spin in predictable patterns, his second shot at stardom led to self-indulgent stuff like…

Phenomenon’ and ‘Battlefield Earth’
I live in Los Angeles, where we have streets named after L. Ron Hubbard, where the Scientology building on Hollywood Boulevard has one of the most beautifully designed neon signs in the city. Next to that building, every December, there’s a “Winter Wonderland” display put up by the church. And it’s a lot of fun. If you go the UCLA book fair, there are people there who will let you touch an E-Meter just for kicks. I know the Scientologists get a lot of folks bent out of shape, but to me that religion is just another colorful thread in the fabric of life here in Southern California. I’m not a part of it, but I have no beef.

I especially have no beef with Travolta’s involvement in it or with his two most Scientological movies. “Phenomenon” is a supernatural drama about special healing powers that plays like “The Cross and The Switchblade” for people who’ve read “Dianetics” instead of the Bible. And “Battlefield Earth” is one of the all-time, hands-down craziest things you will ever witness. It allows Travolta to give himself over fully in a wild-eyed Bette Davis-wrestles-with-Pee-Wee Herman impersonation while dressed as the Predator. Some musical numbers would have kicked it up “Grease”-level magic.

‘Primary Colors’
After “Pulp Fiction” but before “Battlefield Earth,” he tried on a different type of alien costume: Bill Clinton’s. As a Clinton-like politician, Travolta is funny, rueful and biting. It was a reminder that Tarantino hadn’t just fluked him back into a compelling performance and that occasionally he could be directed without a lot of backtalk. He was capable all along. But when you’re down in Hollywood, you can stay down for a long time. People forget that you’re able. Just ask Mickey Rourke.

His third body-modification performance. The donuts it took to plump him up to Clinton’s big-and-tall status needed lots of prosthetic help for his role as Edna Turnblad. And if you watch him sing and dance his way through this movie, it’s clear that being allowed to hide — as an alien or a jovially chubby president or an even more jovially chubby woman, bizarre attempts at a Baltimore accent notwithstanding — frees Travolta. He shakes off his anxious self-awareness and tendencies toward strident weirdness in the more conventional thrillers he seems to wind up in, and allows himself to get loose and experience joy. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the service of his religion or of a bouncy, retro, racial-integration-comedy-as-gay-rights-metaphor musical, he seems happiest when he’s hidden under tons of makeup. Here’s to more of that.

Dave White is the film critic for Movies.com and the author of “Exile in Guyville.” Find him at www.imdavewhite.com.

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