Few actors have had as many ups and downs as John Travolta. He first found stardom as the star of the 1970s-era “Welcome Back, Kotter.” Then, thanks to “Saturday Night Fever” and a polyester white suit, he became an international superstar and went on to define the skin-deep, superficial Me Decade, along with disco and inflation. With the cartoon-ish musical “Grease” under his belt, he all but pigeonholed himself as a modern-day song and dance man.
However, by the late ’70s, Hollywood wasn’t making musicals anymore and Travolta had to redefine himself. With 1994’s “Pulp Fiction,” he did just that. In between, he made some atrocious films.
Unfortunately, after a moment on top of Hollywood’s A-list in the late ’90s, Travolta is back to being a punch line. But he’s still trying. After all, how many middle-aged stars will dress in drag and a fat suit (as he does in “Hairspray”)? That alone makes Travolta unique.
“Saturday Night Fever” (1977)
1977 was a landmark year for New Yorkers for so many reasons, most of them bad: a city-wide blackout, wide-spread crime and arson, a serial killer on the loose and — maybe worst of all — disco was in full-swing. The latter was assisted by the release of this film, which made Travolta a star and defined the ’70s. Despite the horrible clichés it introduced — that string-laden Bee Gees music, those silly dance-floor moves, that polyester suit — it remains a remarkable movie with a timeless story as old as the Big Apple itself. A kid from Brooklyn, Tony Manero (Travolta), wants out of his dead-end neighborhood; he falls for a girl and together they make a fresh start.
“Pulp Fiction” (1994)
Sometimes actors are their own worst enemies. It took Travolta six months to say yes to Quentin Tarantino when the director approached him to do this film. Six months?!? At this point in his non-career, Travolta was doing “Look Who’s Talking” films and TV movies (more on that later). Thankfully, he accepted Tarantino’s offer and cinematic history was made, not to mention a career reborn. While, it’s still not Tarantino’s best film (that would be “Reservoir Dogs”), it’s one of Travolta’s finest performances. Not since his fellow New Jersey native Frank Sinatra’s triumphant return in “From Here To Eternity” has a Hollywood career made such a spectacular comeback.
“Get Shorty” (1995)
Along with “Out of Sight,” “Get Shorty” is the best film ever made from an Elmore Leonard novel (an unfortunately overcrowded category). Travolta shines here, again in a quasi-comical role as a mobster (see how having a vowel at the end of your name gets you stereotyped), but he makes the most of it. Showing off his acting skills, he blends in perfectly with an amazing cast that includes Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Danny DeVito and a pre-“Sopranos” James Gandolfini. All turn in wonderful performances and, along with Robert Altman’s “The Player,” create one of the best films ever made about Hollywood.
“She’s So Lovely” (1997)
Another film made in the wake of Travolta’s post-“Pulp Fiction” success that illustrates his dramatic abilities. Although he plays another thug with a vowel at the end of his name, Travolta, part of a love triangle along with Sean Penn and Robin Wright, is poignant as a man desperately trying to hold his family together. “She’s So Lovely” is an underrated, delicate character study penned by the late John Cassavetes and directed by his son, Nick Cassavetes, and it shows that Travolta can, like any great actor, slip away into a character.
Before anyone complains about the inclusion of this cheesy 1978 musical, let’s be honest: this film has become part of American mythology. In the 1970s, the Eisenhower-era 1950s began to look like Camelot to the Baby Boomer generation. And “Grease,” with its fairy-tale look at high school, is pure cinematic confection, a comical ode to juvenile delinquency, back when James Dean was king. Not that today’s kids care about that. They just love the rock ’n’ roll soundtrack and the on-screen chemistry of Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. After all these years, “Grease” is still the word.
“Look Who’s Talking” (1989)
See what happens when Scientologists get together? This brainless, bottom-of-the-barrel comedy unites Travolta with a pre-900-pound Kirstie Alley. Travolta’s future “Pulp Fiction” co-star Bruce Willis provides the voice of their little talkative bambino. And to think, this film was considered a sort of comeback for Travolta, who after some terrible film roles was then residing in the Where Are They Now files.
“The Punisher” (2004)
Leave it to Travolta. When he finally decided to do a comic-book movie, he chose one of the lamest costumed crusaders of them all, Marvel Comics’ “The Punisher.” Basically, Thomas Jane is a vigilante whose wants to avenge the death of his loved ones (stop me if you’ve heard this before) and guess who’s the villainous mastermind he’s out to destroy? Yep, that would be our boy Travolta. Movies like this give comics (and their film adaptations) a very bad name.
“The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” (1976)
The same year that Travolta starred in “Welcome Back, Kotter,” he appeared in this made-for-TV movie that became a pop-culture punch line (as so much of the 1970s did). Sad to say, I remember when it first aired. I distinctly recall Travolta, as a boy who has to live in a bubble because he has no immune system, trying to show off for the girl he loves by doing push-ups and clapping between each one. When you’re six years old, this is quite dramatic. Unfortunately, Travolta was 22 at the time; that’s old enough to know better.
By 1985, when this film was made, Travolta was on his way to bottoming out. “Saturday Night Fever,” “Grease” and “Urban Cowboy” were albatrosses around his neck. He was expected to be a dancing fool in every movie (in that regard, “Perfect” is somewhat of a departure, he doesn’t dance, but he gets to perform a choreographed aerobics workout with Jamie Lee Curtis — in a pair of barely there shorts). Wanna laugh hard? Go to YouTube and look up the dance sequence.
“Battlefield Earth” (2000)
And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, there is “Battlefield Earth.” Travolta really, really, REALLY wanted to make a movie of this L. Ron Hubbard sci-fi novel. Apparently, nobody else did, but he used his movie star clout to get it done. The result? One. Of. The. Worst. Films. Ever. Made. On. Any. Planet. The plot — what plot? It’s something about aliens and the year 3000 and some other nonsense that he and Tom Cruise probably think is really, really cool. However, it is worth watching (don’t rent it — hello, YouTube!) just to see Travolta in all that crappy makeup, delivering those terrible lines with a straight face. Now, that’s acting.