THE WAY THEY WERE – A look back at the movie stylings of JOHN TRAVOLTA
Submitted: @mckra1g, March 2, 2011
One of my life’s overriding fascinations is observing the confluence of pop culture and the society which consumes it. Pop culture is both arbiter and mirror of the trends, catch-phrases, fashions and consumption of those who interact with the media that serves as the conduit between Artist and Audience.
In social media parlance, I guess the term that best describes the ingratiation of pop culture to society is ‘going viral,’ which is quite apt when you stop to think of it. A virus supplants the host body’s cells with its own, altering the very fabric/nature of that which it invades.
By way of reference, I was watching this year’s Oscar broadcast with a huge number of other folks at a renovated theatre – most of us strangers. However, when a certain actress came up to claim her hardware, I leaned over to the guy beside me and in a stage whisper said, “She has ‘man hands.’” He grinned, then nodded. Within a few syllables, we had formed a common point of reference, based wholly on pop culture. Fascinating, yes?
So when invited to contribute to the fabulous digital scribblings here at the Bunker, my mind immediately went to the movies and how they influence public perception, behavior and social norms. Whether the 1940s and Capra-esque fare, 50s horror-schlockian flicks or modern day sci-fi ‘what-ifs”, movies have traditionally been about operating within the theoretical, while reflecting the possible.
Drilling down, my mind began to deconstruct the movies from the most obvious point of reference: the actors. Even though we know on an intellectual level the amount of technical virtuosity that goes on behind the scenes, our eyeballs mostly focus on the actors who bring the stories to life. Some actors have been irrevocably typecast (ie. George Reeves), while others have been able to transcend roles and society is willing to suspend their urge to pigeon hole them as easily. Today, we’re going to feature a few offerings from the filmography of John Travolta, whose movie career has included its share of culture-influencing and culture-bending films.
To begin with his early career, over a span of three years through his movie choices, Travolta captured the essence of the bad-boy, working stiff, virile schmoe, interpreted through the lens of three distinct decades:
The 70s: His portrayal of paint salesman by day, disco royalty by night in Saturday Night Fever (1977) accomplished a number of things. Revived disco (a topic for another day); set women’s hearts a flutter, established a national interest in dancing (spawning the career of Deney Terrio, among others) and ended with Tony Manero’s white suit landing in the Smithsonian Museum. His (in)famous dancing provided the template for wedding and would-be dancers thenceforth – the hallmark “pointing pose” embedded firmly in the collective conscious. Through Travolta, an icon was created from the ether. Not bad for an everyday guy from Jersey.
The 50s: In 1978’s Grease, Travolta gave us Danny Zuko: the leather-jacketed, chain-smoking smitten-by-purity greaser. Portraying the archetype of The Man Who Can Be Redeemed by the Love of a Good Woman, Zuko represented a yearning for a return to The Good Ol’ Days for part of his audience, and was able to breathe new life into the musical genre (whose most recent successful interpretation was West Side Story). Rather than establish any pop references, Travolta’s Zuko provided a “comfort food” sort of benchmark in terms of pop culture outposts. His role was an homage to the heyday of the American 50s and the love affair with the car, the drive-in movie and American Bandstand.
The 80s: Urban Cowboy’s honky-tonk lothario Bud was another role Travolta portrayed that influenced trends across the country. The Texas bar Gilley’s became a tourist destination, people who had no business wearing cowboy hats were buying Stetsons and otherwise sane people became willing to break their backs clambering up the side of mechanical bulls (in a pop culture trickle-down bonus, the use of a mechanical bull is featured prominently in a Hardee’s commercial, selling, presumably, hamburgers ).
Much like the homage to the 50s that Grease was, Urban Cowboy also carries vestiges of a simpler time. Through the lens of the movie, the frontier of the Wild West has been homogenized and mechanized, much like the bull.
And then came the dark years – the rest of the eighties was pretty much a wash for Travolta, with the exception of the career-reviving 1989’s Look Who’s Talking. There isn’t much iconic about this film, per se, but it was the vehicle that rescued Travolta from movie oblivion, so I list it here. In proving through his portrayal of single-guy taxi driver James, that he could carry a movie, Travolta became bankable again. It was this quality (among others) that lead him straight into the path of Quentin Tarantino.
Pulp Fiction. Love it or hate it, it gave Travolta the opportunity to establish the role of Vincent into Hollywood retro-noir prototype. I could write an entire blog entry about the influence and affect Pulp Fiction had on the industry for both traditional and indie films. At times an homage and commentary on various genres, Pulp Fiction itself is iconographic, replete with pop references, but also spawning them too. The dance scene between Uma Thurman and Travolta was itself referenced in the film Be Cool, featuring the same actors. Furthermore, speaking only for myself, it’s difficult for me to order a Quarter Pounder at McDonald’s without thinking of the exchange between Travolta and Samuel Jackson.
Now financially secure beyond his wildest dreams, Travolta had the latitude to accept the role of Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. Based upon his successes with Grease almost thirty years earlier, producers were intent upon securing Travolta for the part. His cross-dressing turn opposite Christopher Walken in the 2007 version of Hairspray wasn’t iconic in and of itself, but the pedigree of the film was. In 1988, cult film impresario John Waters had created a musical confection whose cheerful soundtrack carried a message of racial equality that needed to be heard. Travolta’s chops as a dancer from his childhood and Broadway experience informed his performance in this film, and he imbues the role of Edna with a true grace and humility.
Six films from a roster that includes 63 titles. I would be interested in hearing your take on other roles Travolta has had that speak to you. Are there favorites? Are there other pivotal performances that had an impact or otherwise resonate with you?
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER – Tony Manero (1977)
GREASE – Danny Zuko (1978)
URBAN COWBOY – Bud (1980)
LOOK WHO’S TALKING – James Ubriacco 1989
PULP FICTION – Vincent Vega (1994)
HAIRSPRAY - Edna Turnblad (2007)