FILM / Look who's acting: Staying Alive was dire. Perfect was anything but. Now, courtesy of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, Travolta is back. By Jim White

Unexpectedly, the scene in Quentin Tarantino's astonishing film Pulp Fiction that astonishes more than any other is not decorated in torn body parts, dripping in ketchup or draped in a thick fog of expletives. It is the one where a low-rent LA gangster's moll has been taken out for the night by a heroin-sodden hit-man employee of her boyfriend's. The pair pitch up at a theme restaurant, where all the staff are lookalikes for dead stars: there, waiting tables, are a Marilyn, a Buddy Holly, a James Dean.

When the moll, played by Uma Thurman, suggests to her escort that they take to the dance-floor and engage in a little twist, the shivers running down the audience's spine are almost audible. The minder, embarrassedly snaking his hips, is played by John Travolta. There he is, conducting an imitation of his finest hour - the finger-aloft shimmy-merchant he created in Saturday Night Fever - as pale as those of the living dead around him. The gag is even more astonishing because Travolta was, in the public consciousness at least, as dead as Marilyn, Buddy and James. If not more so.

Other rebirths - Lazarus, Newcastle United, the standing of Norman Lamont in the Conservative party - have nothing on the one John Travolta has experienced since his portrayal of Vincent Vera in Pulp Fiction was first seen at Cannes film festival (where the movie won a Palme d'Or). His name - so recently a synonym for has-been or joke or sad Hollywood failure with a bad Scientology habit - has become currency in the sharpest circles.

Magazines fight for his face on their cover; acres of newsprint are being devoted to his rediscovered prominence; Saturday Night Fever is being re-assessed as the most important movie of the Seventies. The dimple is back.

And it's not because Travolta is merely involved in a film by the coolest (or hottest) of Hollywood directors, but because he steals the film, runs away with it, imposes his authority over the event in a manner not seen since Stanley Matthews trotted out on the Wembley turf for the 1953 Cup Final.

Women, in particular, find Travolta's performance extraordinary. 'You cannot keep your eyes off him,' is a typical critical response. 'Without giving the plot away, there is a point where you don't think he's going to come back on screen and you feel bereft. You experience a sense of loss,' said Kathryn Flett, editor of the men's magazine Arena. With his open, blokish face and nervy eyes, Travolta plays a sleaze-ball by giving the role an odd, almost otherworldly spin. His walk, his voice, his mannerisms convey a menace almost through their lack of it. He has, according to his director, 'a weird persona which throws a whole other colour' on the film.

It is not the first time John Travolta's high-octane performance has carried his vehicle. Nik Cohn, who, in 1976, wrote the New York magazine article on which Saturday Night Fever was based, generously accords that it was Travolta, rather than the yarn, which gave the picture its force.

'The power of his presence defined a time and place; a generation and its world,' says Cohn.

Indeed, Travolta was so convincing as Tony Manero, the blue-collar Brooklyn boy in the white suit playing chicken on the Verrozano- Narrows Bridge, that Cohn spent most of the filming time avoiding contact with him. The Cohn story was a fraud, and he thought Travolta would expose him, so certain was he that the actor was exactly like the character.

Travolta wasn't. He came from comfortable New Jersey suburban stock, thrust into acting by his family. As a young man, he had a small part in Carrie (1976) (he was the one who slaughtered the pig to provide blood to tip over Sissy Spacek's head), performed in the stage version of Grease and was a hit on television as Vinnie Barabarino in Welcome Back Kotter. By the time he was 24, he had starred in Saturday Night Fever (1977) and the film of Grease (1978), which between them grossed more than half a billion dollars. At the time, Pauline Kael said he displayed, 'a vibrating physical sensitivity like that of a very young Brando'.

From there, his career took a nose-dive which even an experienced pilot like him (he has his own Lear, and a son called Jett) could not reverse. After Grease, he played opposite Lily Tomlin in Moment By Moment (1978), in which two actors whose sexuality was under tabloid scrutiny attempted a romantic comedy: so unconvincing was their chemistry, the film became one of the most critically lambasted of the decade. Urban Cowboy (1980) also bit the dust.

Travolta was good in Blow Out (1981) but unfortunately it was directed by Brian De Palma. He was persuaded to grease-up like a junior Stallone in the dire Staying Alive (1983). And, worst of all, in 1985 he starred opposite Jamie Lee Curtis in Perfect.

Like Saturday Night Fever, Perfect was based on a magazine think- piece.

Maybe sensing it would go the same way and be as big a hit, Travolta set about promoting it with unabashed enthusiasm. He did over 500 interviews, in which he tried to project an image of cynical detachment. The film bombed.

Jamie Lee Curtis's career was not affected. But then she hadn't undertaken 500 interviews in which she came across as a prat.

Travolta was seriously damaged by Perfect. An actor who responds best to admiration, he retreated into a shell, pursued by publicity about his alleged gayness (he married soon after they began to appear) and his over-eating (a chocolate obsession pushed him over 16 stone at one stage).

At the same time, actors like Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner, Charlie Sheen even, arrived to cream off the better scripts, leaving him to fight for the straight-to-video stuff. He was rescued financially by the Look Who's Talking cycle of films which began in 1989. Formulaic, sappy, cosy, though, they were hardly likely to resuscitate the critical corpse that was his career.

Men have generally been less convinced by Travolta than women. While Pauline Kael enthused about his 'thick raw sensuality', the film critic David Thomson said he owned, 'a gaunt narcissistic face flabby with self- pity and butterfly lips'.

But Quentin Tarantino had always been a fan. And when his original choice for the part of Vincent, Michael Madsen, went off to make Wyatt Earp instead, Tarantino called up the hero of his youth. Travolta's lack of credibility meant he would take the part that had been turned down by someone else; he did not require, as De Niro or Pacino might, one tailor-written for him. And maybe that is the strength of his performance.

Revelling in a part rather than a vehicle, he has been able to show, once more, what an actor he is.

'Pulp Fiction' opens on Friday (Photographs omitted)

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