What the Hell Happened to John Travolta?
John Travolta is the King of the Comeback. Where most careers involve a rise and a fall, Travolta’s career is a roller coaster or peaks and valleys. In the 70’s, he was a pop culture icon, in the 80’s he was a has-been and in the 90’s, he reinvented himself as an Oscar-nominated tough guy. Today, you’re more likely to see him on tabloid covers than headlining a movie. What the hell happened?
Travolta started off on the stage in New York in the touring production of Grease. Eventually, he moved to California where he started making TV appearances like The Boy in The Plastic Bubble.
We’ve got a lot to cover here, so we’re just going to skip to 1975 when Travolta was cast in Welcome Back Kotter. Kotter was a sitcom developed around stand-up comedian, Gabe Kaplan. Kaplan played a teacher at an inner-city school and Travolta played one of his delinquent students known as the “Sweathogs”.
Kotter was a big hit during its first couple of seasons. This lead to lots of merchandising opportunities including a board game based around Travolta’s catch phrase, “Up your nose with a rubber hose.”
Interestingly enough (for me anyway), the actor standing-in for Travolta in that commercial was a young Steve Guttenberg.
While still appearing on Welcome Back Kotter, Travolta made the leap to film with Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, Carrie.
By now, there have been umpteen adaptations of King’s novels. Some have been adapted more than once. A remake of Carrie is currently underway. But De Palma’s Carrie was the first and it set the bar too high for most of the adaptations that would follow.
Travolta’s role was relatively small. He played the boyfriend of Carrie’s primary tormentor, Chris, who was played by Nancy Allen. But Travolta was involved in some of the movie’s more memorable scenes. He was the one who slaughtered the pig for the bloody climax. And when a blood-soaked Carrie left the flame-engulfed prom, Travolta’s character tried to run her over.
The following year, Travolta entered pop culture history with Saturday Night Fever. The image of Travolta in the white leisure suit dancing to the Bee Gees is bigger than any movie. It has come to symbolize an entire decade.
But Saturday Night Fever is nothing like its image. The soundtrack may make you want to dance, but the movie is actually a depressing melodrama about a guy who feels trapped in a meaningless existence he can only escape on the dance floor.
The movie was based on an article in New York magazine about the budding disco culture, Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night. Ironically, the writer of the article later admitted that he had made it all up. As an Englishman, he was baffled by the American dance craze. So he based his story on a “Mod” friend instead.
Saturday Night Fever got mostly positive reviews. It was nominated for several awards including Best Actor for Travolta. Film critic, Gene Siskel claimed Fever as a personal favorite. He even went so far as to buy Travolta’s leisure suit at an auction.
Fever wasn’t just a hit. It was a smash that dominated the pop culture landscape. It ushered in the Disco Era. The soundtrack was the best-selling soundtrack album of all times. Eventually, the popularity of disco eclipsed the movie. So when the disco backlash started, Saturday Night Fever was marginalized along with it.
In 1978, Travolta was still appearing on Welcome Back Kotter. But he was no longer a regular. Instead, he was credited as a “special guest star”.
He followed up Saturday Night Fever with the big screen adaptation of Grease co-starring Olivia Newton John. Grease has a double-nostalgia thing going for it. It is intended as a loving look back at the 50’s. But it is so of its era, that it captures the feeling of the 70’s just as well.
Grease was nowhere near as critically acclaimed as Saturday Night Fever. In fact, most critics at the time didn’t like it. But audiences loved the catchy musical numbers and elaborate dance scenes. Grease was another huge hit for Travolta.
Responding to the success of Grease, Paramount Pictures re-cut a PG version of Saturday Night Fever to play as a double feature with the more family friendly musical. A few years later, Paramount would try to recapture the success of Grease with a sequel. But Grease 2 was such a disaster that it nearly killed Michelle Pfeiffer‘s career in its infancy.
Travolta’s winning streak came to an end later that year with Moment By Moment.
In Moment By Moment, Travolta played a young drifter who starts a romantic relationship with a wealthy older woman played by Lily Tomlin. It was a romantic pairing no one wanted to see. And very few did. Moment By Moment got terrible reviews and was a huge bomb at the box office.
In 1980, Travolta recovered from his first flop with Urban Cowboy opposite Debra Winger.
Urban Cowboy was basically the country music version of Saturday Night Fever. While it wasn’t as successful or well-reviewed as Fever, Cowboy did get decent reviews and did well enough at the box office.
Posted on September 2, 2012, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actor and tagged entertainment, grease, john travolta, movies, pulp fiction, saturday night fever. Bookmark the permalink. 143 Comments.