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.
Next: Grease and Urban Cowboy