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10 must-see John Travolta performances

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.

‘Grease’ 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.

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.

‘Perfect’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.

‘Hairspray’
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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