Much has been said of John Travolta’s mid-1990s comeback, a strange and divine exit from the doldrums of 80s busts and talking-infant films. It took discussing foreign processed meat with a Jheri-curled Sam Jackson and a bloody death on the toilet for the man synonymous with disco’s then-cold-sweats to see acclaim again. Travolta’s reemergence is notable, but it’s an easy, warmed-over talking point. As a bit of pop-culture mythology, that narrative has overstayed its welcome, despite its fortuitous placement at the very crux of an industry in flux, not entirely dissimilar to citations of Easy Rider and the New Hollywood. It’s well-known that Pulp Fiction was also the cinematic spark for an American new wave of independent production. The “New Hollywood” of the late-1960s and early-1970s and the independent rise of the mid-1990s are well-studied, documented, and regurgitated. But in the middle of these significant cinema epochs is a star who weaves those threads of the Hollywood mythos into his very being.
John Travolta is a veritable icon of silver screen history. On the rise in the late 70s after Carrie and Saturday Night Fever, the beloved-by-Kael wunderkind saw himself rubbing elbows with Hollywood’s golden age. Early on, he befriended his heroes Barbara Stanwyck and James Cagney and was lauded by François Truffaut. During that time, there was no celebrity like him. He wasn’t just a face or a performance, he was a zeitgeist. He occupied the same cultural moment as Robert De Niro and Taxi Driver, yet Travolta’s fresh-faced virility became the day’s fashion, despite his gritty, lived-in performance as Tony Manero. De Niro, alongside method acting contemporaries like Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino, would capture the dark unease of the era with their haunted, psychological portrayals of lost, desperate men. But Travolta was destined to be fused to a movement; his looks and charm – on film and in the public – would make him the figurehead of the moment. He was the public’s dream, while De Niro and others were their nightmares. Fast forward to the 1990s, after a down period when he thought his career was kaput, and the man is being courted by Quentin Tarantino.
Yet it feels intellectually simple to glance at his career and say Travolta has had his comebacks. The guy was doing a career renaissance before Downey, Jr. and McConaughey made it cool. Alas, this narrative has dogged him since he applied the hair extensions and muttered “Roy-ale with cheese” as existential hitman Vincent Vega. Delineating the “comeback” as a critical apparatus is a simple, demeaning way of assessing a career, of labeling and shelving an artist for future wear. Establish the narrative, make it a talking point, and eventually, it becomes embedded in the cultural consciousness. (Just read these interviews from the last two years – with The Daily Beast in 2014 and Parade earlier this year – for evidence of the machine in motion.) Its function dismisses the previous labor of an actor and shapes the understanding of the work to come. “The Comeback” has plagued most considerations of Travolta’s late-period work, including his role in the new indie Western In a Valley of Violence. We’ve been too distracted by his previous lives to give any real credence to the work Travolta has done since.
Tarantino’s monumental achievement—as well as the better film, Get Shorty—was just a catalyst into a far more interesting latter-day career for Travolta. 1996 proved to be a fascinating year for the resurrected idol. It serves as a lens through which to view seeming career footnotes critics and the public alike don’t talk enough about. While Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty would usher Travolta back into the hearts of an adoring public, it would also help him realize his true mediated self. His roles in Broken Arrow, Phenomenon, and Michael, respectively, are a distillation of Travolta’s je ne sais quoi. This phase would push him through the logical trajectory his inimitable concoction of celebrity and ability always seemed to lean toward.
There’s a tweaked sense of Old Hollywood to Travolta’s performative style that belies modern notions of acting. The method influence of American cinema in the 50s yielded a cinema of psychology that runs through to today’s work. Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey lose half their internal organs, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams fashion a near real-life matrimony of torment, and Rooney Mara pierces and inks herself into anarchy. Acting today is a bodily psychologization that filters the method into the very marrow of the thespian. The mind’s battleground has extended outward for the 21st-century person; acting is a holistic body politic. Digitalized mediation of the modern self has brought a new awareness to the physical. In stark contrast to this new method are actors like Nicolas Cage and Travolta, who would work together in 1997’s Face/Off. Theirs is an extremity of affect where the psychology is the surface. This style takes broad emotive expression and turns it into subtlety. It plays as intensely lived-in theatricality without being overly-psychological, like Hollywood with street smarts. They work to put on their roles so as to take them off when they’re done. It’s a workmanlike severity of style that goes against the modern grain. From actors like Stanwyck and Cagney, Travolta evaded method and pressed into performativity-as-affect.
His 90s work tapped into his certain charisma which Pauline Kael prescribed him after seeing the made-for-TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble: “a character actor, looking like a leading man.” His 1996 roles seem extracted from the elemental fiber of the man himself: a rogue pilot gone nuclear, an aw-shucks rural simpleton-turned-Christ, and a tubby, gold-hearted archangel. Out of the three films, Woo’s Broken Arrow is the most entertaining, allowing the actor to dive into a villainous histrionic that parallels the operatic beats of the director’s explosions and gunfire. In Jon Turtletaub’s Phenomenon, a film that could be called Travolta’s Passion, his blue-jeaned, hulking Christ can’t ascend above a plodding and obvious script and a director’s ever-cloying hand. Michael gives a more accommodating space for Travolta to play the cigarette-smoking, lite-beer drinking heavenly being, but director/co-writer Nora Ephron’s utilization of the character as mere plot device leaves much to be desired. Twenty years hasn’t been kind to these films. Despite the man’s renewed star power, each project, aside from Broken Arrow, seems to play into the architecture of the comeback. The films are hardly worthy of their star. Nonetheless, it’s hard to watch them and deny his passion for the craft.
That passion is highlighted in his primary performative mode. He imbues zero to little psychology to these characters other than what’s written in the script; they’re more skins than minds. Each new performance is a new set of tics, which Travolta typically imbues in the face. Character takes mold just centimeters from the brain. Take his obsession with cadence. Broken Arrow’s Vic Deakins talks constantly through gritted teeth, a sign of frustrated machismo that’s seemingly been arrested at 10 years old. George Malley, Phenomenon’s meek mechanic, is a confluence of airheadedness and a backwoods mumble. Words leak through George’s mouth, whereas Vic’s are hammered through.
Cadence is followed by facial and bodily expression. In Michael, Travolta’s face is a radiant echo into the man’s soul. He beams with a good-heartedness that can only be drawn from an internal joy. (Michael, as a character, seems more like the real-life Travolta than anything.) He’s also a boisterously slinking lothario, an American pied piper defined by a penchant for sugar, beer, and sex. His potbelly is a gluttonous echo of Touch of Evil’s Hank Quinlan, though here it’s a signifier of a merry life, not a greedy one. (Interestingly, in Get Shorty, Travolta’s Chili Palmer expresses his cinephilia by attending a screening of Welles’ noir classic.) His Christ-figure in Phenomenon expresses a meekness in shy smirks and sterile physical blocking. He hardly seems to want to touch the woman he supposedly has the hots for. And it’s the one film of the three where Travolta seems to physically struggle through the performance. There are numerous moments where his physical affect never matches the line readings; the words spill from his mouth, but his face and body never sync up.
Along with cadence and physical expression, Travolta locates his characters in costume. Just look to his black mock turtleneck and ever-present cigarette with flamboyant hand gesture in Broken Arrow, or his heavily denim’d, grease monkey Messiah in Phenomenon, or his dirty-bird, long-tressed ancient love guardian in Michael. He is all surface, noticeable since his portrayal of Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever. While it is one of his most method performances, right in the midst of the New Hollywood fervor, his physicality is still key. You can’t disco like the man did without knowing your body. That knowledge of the body permeates all of his performances. His face may have gotten him roles in his youth, but his philosophy of the face defines him. He’d rather put on the character than allow his roles be his celebrity persona with bits of character strewn about him; the roles affect him and not the other way around. This particular Travoltian quality shows he’s more character actor than leading man, and his output in 1996 highlights this. Those films would set the stage for his career to come, more so than that of his resurrector.
Writing about actors isn’t an easy task; it’s like diagramming a matrix, forced to make sense of complicated, embedded persons. The biography of the thespian is schizoid in nature, but the myriad of characters and history creates a texture through which to view an actor. Sometimes the best hermeneutical approach is to allow a life’s narrative tell itself. John Travolta’s career has grazed nearly all of the edges of Hollywood history. Yes, his unique brand of celebrity has allowed him a certain mythos, but his unpredictability keeps us going back to see more. That whatsit quality is best revealed in a 2013 interview with Variety when Travolta recalls preparing for Face/Off’s character switch with Nicolas Cage: “Nic is very stylized in his personality, there’s a voice and a cadence and a walk that’s easy to hold onto, which I could imitate very easily… [but] Nic said, ‘I can’t find you in any of these movies, I don’t know who you are. There’s just all these characters.’” Nicolas Cage, one of the tic-iest of actors in cinema history, can’t even parse Travolta’s essence.
Older age has allowed the 62-year old stalwart to venture into even more daring roles. Hollywood isn’t as interested in selling his visage anymore, so he can press further into his mechanics, into his own allure. Shaved heads and funky facial hair are new elements in his arsenal. His Woo-ish theatricality, honed in ’96 and ’97, is found in recent films like Tony Scott’s underrated The Taking of Pelham 123 or Pierre Morel’s subpar From Paris With Love. Distinct from his 90s villains, Travolta has found a way to thread his modern-day baddies with pathos, something he’s learned from his George Malleys and Michaels. His late-period work is riddled with misses, yet he manages to still draw interest. He’s always trying, always working. He loves the craft and the artistry. He’ll grow a silly chinstrap beard and a wanting Bosnian accent for Killing Season opposite a phoned-in Robert De Niro, and never flinch from character. Or follow the tradition of going full drag for Edna Turnblad in the musical remake of Hairspray and own it. This year, he accomplished his best work in ages in Ryan Murphy’s television miniseries American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, where he was given freedom to go full-Travolta. The elder chameleon wears thick make-up, obvious hair plugs, and big physical gestures to make himself into lawyer Robert Shapiro. And it works. While the show is an ensemble piece, not unlike Pulp Fiction or Get Shorty, he commands scenes with his eternal charisma.
Twenty years ago, three films set the stage for the latter years of an idol. Janet Maslin, in her 1996 review of Broken Arrow states that “Mr. Travolta [still] hits all the right insolent notes and opens up a whole new world of villainy-minded career choices.” Little did she know, the world that opened up in 1996 paved one of cinema’s most idiosyncratic careers, full of villains yet grander than them. While it’s yielded its fair share of disappointments, his career is a compelling study in Brechtian distance where his theatricality plays into, yet constantly morphs, his mythos. His architecture of celebrity and performance has allowed for a unique fluidity to navigate channels of the craft that most wish they could do. Rarely has he been given the material to match his gifts; most don’t know what to do with him. He’s an alien of the cinema, and we’re the better for it that he’s stayed among us.