Be Careful What You Wish For

Sometimes fame doesn’t turn out the way you hoped or expected.  Hollywood is filled with cautionary tales of actors who zigged when they should have zagged.  This article from the March 1993 issue of Movieline magazine connects subjects from the WTHH series with some regulars from the early days of the Golden Raspberries.  Perhaps the most entertaining thing about the article is how wrong it turned out to be with the benefit of hindsight.  Twenty-five years ago, Rob Lowe, John Travolta and Julia Roberts were struggling with their careers.  But all three of them bounced back strongly before the decade ended.  Christopher Atkins, not so much.

You’re the best-looking kid in your graduating class, and you secretly dream of hopping a bus to Hollywood where you’ll be immediately discovered and turned, overnight, into a star. Stranger things have happened, right? Well, before you leave home, we suggest you read the following cautionary tales. Perhaps these six case studies of “instant” fame–Julia Roberts, Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald, John Travolta, Linda Blair and Christopher Atkins–will make you think twice about what can happen after your dreams come true.

Case #1: Rob Lowe

Case Study: Talent That’s Only Skin Deep

Home movies have always figured in Rob Lowe’s story, right from the start. As a teen in Malibu, he and pals Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen made their own films while waiting to break into real ones. It was something of a foregone conclusion that Lowe would get a shot, because while there are many pretty boys in Hollywood, there aren’t many as drop-dead beautiful as he is. Lowe marked time making TV shows till he and Estevez got their big break in 1983, in Francis Coppola’s florid film version of The Outsiders. In a cast packed with the stars of tomorrow, he stood out: that face, that body, that nude shower scene all drove prepubescent girls into a frenzy. This marked the start of Lowe’s tour of duty as a teen sex symbol, which lasted five long years and ended, as it began, with fleeting footage of Lowe in the altogether.

By the time he’d made the lame older woman/younger man sex comedy, Class, and the unsuccessful film version of John Irving’s novel The Hotel New Hampshire, Lowe was already more famous offscreen–many a fan cut out photos of him on dates with Melissa Gilbert–than he was on. The box-office failure of his first starring vehicle, Oxford Blues, did not dent his popularity. Lowe then found himself in two back-to-back films, matching cinematic bookends that managed to create a lot of talk. The first of these was St. Elmo’s Fire, a shallow saga about Life After College that created the offscreen clique of chummy actors called the “Brat Pack.” Lowe and (St. Elmo‘s co-star) Demi Moore then made About Last Night . . . , a shallow saga about Moving In Together, a long way from the David Mamet play that spawned it. These two films made Lowe look like a leading man, but “look” is the key word: Even the much-publicized promise of Lowe in a jock strap couldn’t scare up an audience for the movie that came–and went–between St. Elmo’s Fire and About Last Night . . . , the ice-hockey drama Youngblood. Lowe retreated from the burden of carrying any one movie on his shoulders by carrying off the small role of a small-town retarded lad in Square Dance–and won critical praise, though no box office.

Aping Ryan O’Neal in What’s Up Doc? for Doc director Peter Bogdanovich in a flat farce called Illegally Yours did nothing for Lowe. Then director Bob Swaim tricked up Masquerade, a gigolo-lusting-after-wealth thriller, by encouraging Lowe and Meg Tilly to do (decidedly wan) imitations of Montgomery Clift and Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress. The descent had started. Soon it snowballed into an avalanche. Lowe made his lamentable singing debut–playing Prince Charming opposite someone dressed up as Snow White–on the 1989 Oscarcast. In just one musical interlude he became a Hollywood joke; he topped that when a legal suit was filed saying that he had “used his celebrity status” to induce a jailbait-aged lass into having sex while his camcorder caught it all on videotape. Though the charges were later dismissed, the media and countless comedians had a field day at Lowe’s expense; pirated copies of the videotape in question rapidly made this Lowe’s most-seen performance.

One might not have guessed, after these two public spectacles, that Lowe would think it prudent to play a devilish seducer of innocent victims whom he videotapes while they are engaged in sex–but Lowe, amazingly, did. Though the trailer for Bad Influence, with Lowe, on videotape, peering out of a TV set and commanding, “Don’t touch that dial!” made audiences laugh knowingly, it didn’t sell any tickets when the film opened. After that bomb and a straight-to-video disaster, Stroke of Midnight–in which he, unbelievably, played Prince Charming to Jennifer Grey’s updated Cinderella–offers of leading roles in films dried up for Lowe. Nowadays, he’s reduced to trying to make it appear that he’s both a good sport and not just another pretty face–in other words, making like a young George Hamilton–playing cameos in hits (Wayne’s World), duds (The Dark Backward), and even on Broadway–that last refuge of the out-of-work Hollywood actor. Well, perhaps not the last–he bravely (read: foolishly) thought it wise to get mowed over by Maggie Smith and Natasha Richardson in the BBC/Great Performances televersion of Suddenly, Last Summer.

Case #2: John Travolta

Case Study: The Pinup of an Entire Generation

If the studio star-making system died in the late ’50s, it must have rolled over in its grave 10 years later with the arrival of such genuinely new faces as Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand. “The ugs,” as one studio exec termed these stars, changed all existing notions of how famous faces should look, which inevitably paved the way for a teen sensation that regular-looking kids could call their own. Whether one thought John Travolta’s droopy eyelids and perpetual pout gave him a look that was “smoldering,” “simian” or “stupid”–and all three opinions were voiced when he popped up in the 1976 Carrie–teens were already hip to him as Vinnie on the hit series “Welcome Back, Kotter,” causing Hollywood to sit up and take notice. That’s par for the course–what’s unusual is that Travolta’s first two starring roles were in Saturday Night Fever and Grease, both all-time moneymaking champs.

Saturday Night Fever, really just another teen coming-of-age story, turned into a Zeitgeist phenomenon that spoke directly to the hearts of teenagers everywhere. When Travolta strutted his stuff to The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” young movie audiences went wild, then went home and put big posters of Tony Manero on their bedroom walls. Travolta’s likable turn, equal parts obtuse-hothead-you-knew-in-high-school and ’70s-sensitive-lad-yearning-for-some-thing-better, garnered him not only an Oscar nomination, but the cover of Time magazine as well.

Sounds grand, but earlier case studies like Betty Grable or Jayne Mansfield could have told Travolta that it’s no picnic becoming the pinup of your generation–and Travolta, in that tacky white suit on that tacky flashing-lights floor, really was the icon of the Disco Decade. That a pinup’s fans move on to a new flavor-of-the-month wasn’t immediately apparent, because Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever backers–Paramount and the Robert Stigwood Organization–had just the right follow-up vehicle for him, the movie version of the lamebrain Broadway musical Grease. Turned out in black leather and a ducktail do, Travolta seemed–at least to ’70s kiddies whose idea of the ’50s was formed by “Happy Days”–the very embodiment of a sexy Bad Boy. Grease kidded the ’50s without a soupcon of wit, and the entire cast was much too old, but it didn’t matter: co-star Olivia Newton-John had a top-10 hit song, Travolta did a mean hand-jive, and the money rolled in.

When Travolta teamed up with Lily Tomlin to make Moment by Moment, a dementedly bad soap opera, his lack of any real acting ability was brutally exposed: that ever-ready twinkling grin couldn’t hide the bad script and worse performances. Stung by jeering reviews, Travolta withdrew until Paramount came up with Urban Cowboy, which owed most of its success to the scene-stealing, bull-riding Debra Winger. Travolta then teamed up with Carrie director Brian De Palma for the tired Hitchcock knockoff Blow Out, which quickly died. After three movies that had done nothing for him, Travolta decided to mine the gold in sequelsville–an idea that sounded good on paper, but went disastrously (if riotously) astray.

For the Fever follow-up, Staying Alive, Travolta pumped up, up, up under the tutelage of auteur Sylvester Stallone, then bared his newly buffed bod in a Bob Mackie-designed loincloth–a mood decidedly more Chippendales than the film’s setting, Broadway. Though he’d resisted the inevitable reteaming with Grease co-star Newton-John–he’d wisely passed on playing opposite her in Xanadu–Travolta now cashed that chip and together they made a dreadful bit of whimsy, Two of a Kind, that was so on-the-cheap, it looked like a TV movie blown up for the big screen.

It seemed pretty clear that Travolta’s massive following of just a few years back had disappeared. But in an attempt to revive the “good old days,” Travolta reteamed with Urban Cowboy director James Bridges on Perfect. As Travolta had bared nearly all on a cover of Rolling Stone to hype Staying Alive, he was the least likely person alive to play a Rolling Stone reporter hot on the trail of “airheads” who had “pumped up” their bods. The whole thing might’ve worked better had Jamie Lee Curtis and Travolta switched roles, with her as the journalist and him as the aerobics instructor. Perfect quickly sank from sight and with it went the last traces of Travolta’s starring days.

He disappeared for four long years–a lifetime in Hollywood–till he tried the comeback trail with The Experts, a fizzle you don’t want to see on video. Another low-budget no-brainer followed, with Travolta playing fourth banana to Kirstie Alley, an infant and–the humiliation!–Bruce Willis’s voice; unexpectedly, Look Who’s Talking hit a nerve with baby boomers having babies, and proved a box-office windfall. There was lots of “Look Who’s Back” chatter, but it just wasn’t true: everything else Travolta touched, from Look Who’s Talking Too and the ever-heard-of-it? Chains of Gold to Boris and Natasha and Shout, stiffed. While there’s no doubt a killing is yet to be made if only he’d return to TV series work, Travolta has only dipped a toe into that pond, doing a Harold Pinter play for director Robert Altman. You missed it? No, you didn’t.

Case #3: Julia Roberts

Case Study: The Cinderella Syndrome (a.k.a. “Poof! It’s Midnight”)

You think she doesn’t belong here in this history of career burnout? Think again. It all started out so well, too . . .

Julia Roberts came out of the gate looking like a thoroughbred who was born to race. She deserves credit for making the best of the early opportunities she was given, and blame for not making the most of the rest of them. Roberts’s rise, meteoric even by Hollywood standards, began well before the public had even heard of her. If few moviegoers caught her two 1988 “teen” films, the dud Satisfaction or the sleeper Mystic Pizza, the word shot around the industry that here was the Next Big Thing. Some older folk likened her to Katharine Ross, another gamine golden girl who rode a winning grin and a tawny mane of hair to stardom in two back-to-back hit pictures. Roberts, however, eclipsed even those expectations with her next four movies, but as we will see, she didn’t escape the same fate that befell Ross. Let Ross tell what happened: “I did become what you call hot . . . I got offered so much stuff that I ran in the opposite direction. I didn’t know how to deal with it.” Nor did Roberts.

Hollywood was so impressed that Roberts held her own in the high diva territory of Steel Magnolias, she garnered an Oscar nomination. Then came her genuinely charming performance in the 1990 monster hit Pretty Woman. It was her first good role–and her last good one to date. The film made her the biggest star in the movie industry, which gave a needed jolt to Flatliners, a New Age gothic redo of Altered States that made zero acting demands on Roberts. Suddenly her private life became a matter of public record; her romances with co-stars–Satisfaction‘s Liam Neeson, Steel Magnolias‘ Dylan McDermott, Flatliners‘ Kiefer Sutherland–had America all agog over which “prince” would win the hand of this Cinderella-like “princess.” Stomach-turning to be sure, but Roberts, to her credit, didn’t seek out this tabloidish publicity; instead, she had to endure having her every move scrutinized by the press as if she were one of the Royals.

In a role abandoned by Kim Basinger, the damsel-in-distress heroine of Sleeping With the Enemy, Roberts rode the wave of her popularity to score yet another box-office bull’s-eye. This by-the-numbers thriller could not have worked with anyone else; it was the audience’s powerful affection for Roberts that drove the film to megasuccess. Despite the box-office numbers, a discerning few noted that Roberts was giving the same performance–plucky spunk, big hair, disarming laugh–from movie to movie. This is, of course, how many a star’s career was built under the studio system, but it didn’t seem to be anything Roberts was doing by choice. Roberts’s next movies confirmed her small range. Dying Young had almost no call for her signature honeyed charms, but she fell back on them anyway. Sold solely on her name, this saga of a nurse who cares for, then falls for, a dying man who does not die, failed to draw an audience. Hollywood was mildly aghast. To recoup the loss, Roberts went into a project that must have sounded like a sure thing: co-starring with both Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams, who would bear the responsibility for pulling in the audience. This was Hook, and so much was wrong with it that perhaps only a handful of people noticed just how bad Roberts was–in a role she should have pulled off easily. Apparently at a complete loss as to how to play Tinkerbell, Roberts was so clearly ill-at-ease that, grinning and glassy-eyed in a big ball gown, she seemed to have wandered onto the wrong set.

Roberts then did the unthinkable: at exactly the moment she needed to show off her ability to bounce back–Pretty Woman II would have been a smart commercial move–she stopped working altogether. Not counting her supporting role in Hook–that’s what it was, regardless of billing–or her fleeting cameo in The Player, Roberts has not been on-screen in a starring role in nearly two years now, and it’s been even longer than that since she carried her weight in a lead part. This is an eternity in Hollywood, as the male Julia Roberts, John Travolta, proved. There have been several projects that didn’t get made, owing to money and/or co-star squabbles; lately she’s formed her own production company and cut a deal with former Fox honcho Joe Roth.

There’s no question that Hollywood will invest in her again–anyone with an eye knows she’s got the proverbial “it.” But can she get “it” together? And if she does, will her marquee value ever again make a film as lackluster as Sleeping With the Enemy into a smash hit? The smart money says that Roberts has seen her glory days; as one studio insider put it, “I want to see her back on top. I just don’t want to spend my money to risk putting her there. Let someone else do that–then, if she comes back strong, I’ll pay her whatever she wants.” The end of this story has yet to be written; it sure isn’t “happily ever after” for now.

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Posted on March 7, 2018, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Page 2 has gone AWOL.


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