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Travolta vs. Willis: May the best man win

The man in the white leisure suit takes on Mr. Yippee-ki-yay. By Mike Miller
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John Travolta and Bruce Willis have gone from TV heartthrobs to big-screen stars. They’ve played cops, schleps, action heroes, villains and have been in the armed forces repeatedly.

They’re two of today’s biggest stars, yet recently you wouldn’t know it from the duds they’ve been starring in. But I’ve got high hopes for Travolta’s new one, “Be Cool” and for Willis’ “Hostage” and for his role in the ensemble film noir “Sin City.”

Yet when it comes time to choose which actor to see, how do you decide? Don’t worry, I’ve done the dirty work for you.

Breakthrough performance
On TV, Travolta was a teen heartthrob as one “Welcome Back Kotter’s” sweathogs, while Willis charmed Cybill Shephard out of her pants on “Moonlighting.” But each man's breakthrough performance is on the big screen is easy to spot: Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” (1977), while Willis’ was a decade later in “Die Hard” (1988).

Travolta danced, strutted and charmed his way through a movie that showcased the ’70s disco craze, but the movie — because of Travolta — hasn’t gone the way of disco. It’s still great today, even if the bellbottoms and platforms shoes aren’t. Travolta was nominated for an Academy Award for playing Tony Manero (Vinnie Barbarino can act!), gave us all dance moves to copy, and showed us that if you had great hair, you can go far. Well, great hair and a white leisure suit.

This was also when we got that first peek at the Travolta strut, which surfaces in his best stuff like “Get Shorty” and “Pulp Fiction.”

Willis’ John McClane wasn’t that different from TV’s David Addison, just a little tougher and he was allowed to cuss. Well, make that a lot tougher. (You try running around a skyscraper after running barefoot across a floor of broken glass.) He’s so good it spawned two sequels and gave him the wisecracking, cocksure persona that he often uses. It’s what he quietly does in “Nobody’s Fool” and in “Pulp Fiction,” just without the action sequences.

This established Willis as a guy who could carry a movie and an action movie, no less. That’s a great market to break into, one that Travolta’s never been able to match. Stuff like “Face/Off” and “Broken Arrow” just doesn’t match up. EDGE: Willis.

Defining performance“Die Hard” is the best action movie ever, and I can’t imagine anyone else in the role of John McClane. McClane’s the everyman, the balding action hero with the pithy comebacks and a never-ending supply of curse words. It’s easy to imagine yourself acting just as Willis did — that is, if you happen to be trapped in a building with an office full of hostages. Willis owns this role. Everyone who’s come after is just imitating him.

Travolta could’ve been Tony Manero forever and had a decent career. And he would’ve been if not for Quentin Tarantino. As Vincent Vega in “Pulp Fiction,” Travolta pulled himself out of “Look Who’s Talking” hell and danced with Uma Thurman, learned how to pound an adrenaline shot, debate the merits of an “According to Hoyle miracle” with Samuel L. Jackson and told the world that the French drown their fries in mayo, call the quarter pounder a “Royale with cheese,” and made me want to drink a $5 shake.

It was the movie of the ’90s — it showed a new generation what it meant to be cool, even if Vincent was a long-haired, overweight gangster with a heroin habit. EDGE: Travolta.

Staying power
They’ve both been maddeningly inconsistent throughout their careers. Gene Hackman and Michael Caine would be proud. Travolta’s trying to re-start his career with “Be Cool,” a “Get Shorty” sequel; Willis is resorting to making another “Die Hard.” (Though I can’t wait for either film.)

Travolta’s best years were the “Fever,” “Grease,” “Urban Cowboy” stretch, and then again with “Pulp Fiction,” “Get Shorty,” “Broken Arrow” and “Phenomenon” (though my brother Steve wants to wring my neck for including that one). Willis’ best run went “Pulp Fiction,” “Nobody’s Fool” and “12 Monkeys.” SLIGHT EDGE: Travolta.

Willis has three types of roles: charming rogue, tough-guy cop and the brooder. He’s tried to add comedy, but I consider this a variation of his charming rogue character. This was the guy who women loved on “Moonlighting” and wooed Rachel on “Friends.”

Travolta has four: East Coast tough guy, over-the-top bad guy and authoritarian figure. His other character is the down-on-his-luck everyday guy, who can surface in comedies (“Look Who’s Talking”) or moodier movies like “White Man’s Burden” and “Mad City.” He also played an angel once, but I’m still trying to forget that one. He was pleasantly reserved in “Ladder 49” when he wasn’t guilty of overacting for the first time in years. The best example of his range is “Primary Colors” where he embodies Bill Clinton ... I mean, “Gov. Jack Stanton.” Forget the annoying smirk; he nails the body type. Travolta not only takes a broader range of roles, he also does them better. EDGE: Travolta.

Star powerBoth guys’ box-office mojo has faltered recently. Willis’ lone 2004 offering, “The Whole Ten Yards,” was DOA and he hasn’t had a hit since 2000’s “Unbreakable.” The year before he had a monster in “The Sixth Sense.” Travolta had a modest success with last fall’s “Ladder 49,” but that was a long time since “The General’s Daughter” (1999).

So it’s a stretch to say either is a money-making guarantee. Let’s go to the numbers.

For those that love the weekend box-office grossing movies, this will make perfect sense. For everyone else, bear with me. Willis has two movies that grossed at least $200 million and another four $100 million entries, including voiceovers (like “Look Who’s Talking,” where Willis’ gets credit for a substantial role). Travolta has six $100 million flicks, though if you take inflation into account, “Grease” out-grosses anything Willis has, including “Sixth Sense” (Its $188 million take turns into $480 million according to But I just care about the bottom line. Willis has a higher career-gross and has a better average per picture. Too many “Lucky Numbers” and “Two of a Kind” for Travolta.

If I’m a movie executive, I rely on Willis’ reputation to put people in the seats. Travolta needs a great role. EDGE: Willis.

Biggest bombTravolta might be as well known for his failures — “Staying Alive,” “Perfect,” “Basic,” — than for his better movies. Willis has done his best to catch up with stuff like “In Country,” “Mercury Rising” and “The Story of Us.”

But Willis’ biggest blunders almost killed his career. You can have a “Bonfire of the Vanities” or “Hudson Hawk” in there somewhere. But back-to-back? And then follow those with “Billy Bathgate,” “Last Boy Scout” and “Striking Distance”? Wait, I left out “Death Becomes Her.” In two years, he managed to make six awful movies and two of those — “Bonfire” and “Hawk” — are legendary bombs. Like I said, it almost killed his career. That’s like re-releasing “Staying Alive” every six months.

But leave it to Travolta to top Willis. After Tarantino resurrected his career — which did die, unlike Willis — Travolta finally got “Battlefield Earth” made and released in 2000. Travolta was ecstatic. Based on a book by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Travolta was incredibly proud of this flick. It cost a bundle, but he was so certain of its success, he had franchising hopes for it. Oops. For all the grief Willis and Tom Hanks get for “Bonfire,” Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty get for “Ishtar” and Kevin Costner gets for “Waterworld,” this is the biggest bomb ever. Makes my head hurt just to think about it. EDGE: Willis.

Biggest hit
Time to be kind. Willis has the numbers and one of the best action trilogies ever. Plus, he’s made some great movies, regardless of box office, like “Nobody’s Fool,” “12 Monkeys” and, of course, “Pulp Fiction.” But “Sixth Sense” is his biggest. It had people talking about the surprise ending, quoting creepy Haley Joel Osment and made a star out of M. Night Shyamalan. Of course, considering what Shyamalan’s done lately, I might hold this against Bruce.

Still, Travolta’s got him here. There’s more than just money at stake here and “Sixth Sense” didn’t have the cultural impact of “Fever” or “Grease,” even if wins at the box office. “Fever” helped disco right along and if you doubt the staying power of “Grease,” ask any high school girl — or most any woman, for that matter — to sing any of Sandy’s songs. Then think about the catsuit Olivia Newton John wears. EDGE: Travolta

Sex appeal
I had to defer to my friends on this one. I’m told I have terrible taste in men.

E-mails sent to women friends of mine weren't in total agreement, but the basic consensus was that Willis is sexier, but Travolta's marriage material. (This also helps explain why men can’t figure out women. If someone likes Bruce because he’s confident, another dislikes him for that reason. Travolta seems like marriage material, but someone else thinks he’s revolting. And the rest of us men in the world are simply left confused.)

Some samplings:

“Bruce Willis has never appealed to me. No matter what role he played, he came across to me as the guy in high school who was full of himself. Now, John Travolta is another story. I could see the sex appeal there. He's got a sexy voice and, of course, the dancing adds to the appeal.”

“By far, John Travolta. What makes him sexy is not only his appearance in a room, but his love for his wife. He loves his wife and kids. That makes him sexy!”

“Bruce Willis. There's more mystery in his eyes and chicks dig that. He also has that slow smile. With John Travolta, everything is out there on the table right away.”

“I choose Bruce Willis. He seems to have gained in sex appeal over time. But I would totally marry John Travolta before Bruce. Travolta clearly has better husband qualities.”

“Not crazy old Revolta. Although, Vinnie Barbarino was hot, and boy can dance. But Bruce Willis: perhaps at his hottest even during his late-stage ‘Friends’ role.”

“I’m gonna have to go with Travolta on this one. He's just more charismatic and those blue eyes...mmmm. Guess he seems a little more huggable.”

Bruce wins out, which bodes well for a follicly challenged male like me. EDGE: Willis.

Wild card
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that head-to-head, Willis kills Travolta. Literally. Butch Coolidge guns down Vincent while Vincent’s on the toilet, with Vincent’s automatic, no less. That should count for something, right? On the other hand, Travolta beds Willis’ mom in “Look Who’s Talking.” Still... EDGE: Willis.

Final verdict
Willis wins out thanks to his action movie history, sex appeal and the fact that I still can’t get over “Battlefield Earth.” I’m a forgiving guy, but that’s one debacle Travolta may never overcome.

Dancing with Uma again in “Be Cool” is a start, but just a start. Here’s hoping Chili Palmer struts his stuff well.