The 20 million dollar man

In the Seventies, John Travolta was a phenomenon, a craze - then it all fell apart. Now he's back, bigger than before, and maybe even better. David Thomson looks on; Is it the Scientology? Or do those kind eyes show us a rare man?

IT'S THE look on John Travolta's face that intrigues you, somewhere between a drag madonna and the most tender horse you ever saw. There he is, tipped over in the shower cabinet, having been given the complete red rinse with his own gun - and one of the droll marvels of Pulp Fiction is that, yet to come still, is the big scene where Winston Wolf supervises the against-the-clock clean-up of Vincent and Jules, getting the blood and the brain and the membrane out of their hair and their nostrils and deep- sixing their red-rinse clothes. This will come after Vincent's dead already, so that's part of the forlorn beauty of the look on Travolta's face in the shower, his head sideways and at rest, the long, lank hair waiting patiently for putrefaction, and the look in his faraway open eyes so wistful, so knowing, so lugubrious: "If only."

Half the reason why Pulp Fiction got its foot in the door of being spiritual is in the look on Travolta's face. The other half is Samuel L Jackson's immense Jules, the hit-man who actually credits the miracle they have seen and takes the hint and realises there's more to life than taking a dump in a strange john, while you're making your way through Modesty Blaise, and coming out to get the unexpected red rinse just because the Pop Tarts - cinnamon flavour - pop at the wrong moment.

Part of the fun of being in a movie theatre when Pulp Fiction hit was that sense of gratitude and pleasure in so many that John Travolta had come back, and that somehow he was his old goofy, cool self, yet stranger still. Is it the Scientology? Or do those kind eyes show us a rare man?

Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia says that in the late 1970s, John Travolta - out of Englewood, New Jersey, and in his early twenties - was "highly popular". Nuts. Travolta was a phenomenon, a craze, and an outrage to logic and any scheme of trained talent. If you were into Grease and Saturday Night Fever - and I had an 11-year-old daughter who was - it wasn't enough to see them, and see them again; you had to keep seeing them, or doing them. It was love, and I'm sure at some vague level it was a sexual awakening for 11-year-olds. No one had ever quite made less of an attempt to act while being so sensational, so motile, so cool, so self-conscious, or so lost in his own reverie on screen. Travolta moved to a kid's yearning.

Dads liked him, and went along with it, because Travolta was so plainly decent and good-natured. So gentle. I don't think there was the remotest hint that the guy would ever grow up, but you felt your daughter's fantasies were being safely, sweetly, indulged. Travolta was the baby-sitter from heaven: he'd entertain the kids, make sure they ate their spinach, and know just what to do in the event of a nuclear disaster. Above all, he'd talk to the kids as equals, and every now and then, just to wow them, just to transport them, he'd do his thing - comb his hair, walk across the room, or snap to attention the way Tony Manero does in Saturday Night when the can't-stop-the-music starts.

So it was, in 1994, when Pulp Fiction arrived, the 11-year-olds were 28 or so, and the dads were still able to remember. First of all, it was a treat to see Travolta and Jackson in the car doing the Royales-with- cheese and foot-massage routines. You could see the larky grin on Travolta's face at being given talk as smooth as disco. And then, when he and Uma Thurman go out for the night, you saw it coming - Tarantino was going to get the dude up there on the shiny floor. Have him take his shoes off and get into it.

What followed - let's admit it - was a 40-year-old, carrying too many Royales with cheese around his middle, and just a bit creaky. But he never lost his cool. And bit by bit, Uma's slinky Egyptian moves encouraged him and he was moving. Which is the thing Travolta was made for. He did train as a dancer; he was in Grease on Broadway before the movie. But he had always known how to dance like an inspired, or possessed, amateur - he danced like someone fantasising. Once you have that principle in mind, you can read Travolta the actor - he isn't great with lines, but he moves, he stands, he poses, he actualises like no one else on the screen. You have doubts? Just look at how he walks as he and Jackson quit the Hawthorne Diner at the end of Pulp Fiction - it's strutting, it's floating, it's hilariously self-conscious, it's John Wayne, or a very solemn seven- year-old doing Wayne. And the world went crazy again for him.

Which wouldn't have been possible, of course, if he hadn't also fallen, or gone away, or whatever, between then and now. You have to go back to the record books to appreciate just where Travolta stood in, say, 1978. He had been one of the gang - Vinnie Barberino - in the TV hit, Welcome Back, Kotter, which ran from 1975-79. Then his two smash movies had done such business that they immediately ranked in the top 20 box-office successes of all time. In 1978-79, in America alone, in Jimmy Carter dollars, Travolta's pictures took in close to $170m in rentals.

As quickly as it had come, the bloom faded. There was a most uncomfortable romantic pairing with Lily Tomlin in Moment by Moment. He ducked out of American Gigolo and let Richard Gere capitalise on that begging portrait of tailored Eighties attitude. Urban Cowboy was another hit, but rather less because of Travolta than because of Debra Winger, who seemed so much tougher and more experienced that you wondered why the script insisted on having her character soft on Travolta. It was apparent, already, that Travolta didn't get off on his own daydream in adult or challenging company. He was like those kids who ask to watch their favourite movies or TV on their own - so they can do psychodramas without parental witness.

THE rest of the Eighties made a sad story for Travolta: he was pretty good in De Palma's Blow Out, but the picture was a flop; Staying Alive, the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, saw the actor's shy charm flummoxed by the florid plastic empti- ness of director Sylvester Stallone; Two of a Kind reunited him with Olivia Newton-John, but contended only in that crowded category, worst film of the decade; Perfect was too camp for its own good, soft-headed, and trying to be obsessed with Jamie Lee Curtis's body - this with an actress who has always been up to her eyebrows in irony. There was a gap of four years before Travolta appeared in The Experts, a disastrous comedy that had waited on the shelf two years before anyone had the nerve to release it.

It's not exactly that Travolta was on the rocks. He was always very shrewd about business, and as he took $2 or $3m to make each of these horrors, his participation money from Saturday Night, Grease and Urban Cowboy kept him very rich. Maybe that took the edge off his need for work, or his judgement. But in a personal way, he was a lot less resolved. In the Seventies, he had been involved with the actress Diana Hyland. Nearly 20 years his senior, she had actually played his mother in the TV movie, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976), where he was a youth born without an immune system. She died from cancer - in his arms - while he was making Saturday Night Fever.

In the Eighties there were rumours about Travolta being gay or bisexual. He never comments on such reports, except in sly rumination that leaves the questioner feeling crass: "Some people might look at it as a way of lessening my reputation, and other people may look at it as heightening the reputation." Still, the most elegant "mind your own business" isn't quite enough from a movie actor who depends in part on conveyed sexual fantasy. Travolta's gentleness, his childlike grace, his getting off on his own dream - these are all things that "macho" actors flinch from. Which is a way of remarking that Travolta has always been reaching in unusual directions.

Late in the Eighties, he got into an Amy Heckerling movie, Look Who's Talking, in which he played the ideal baby-sitter who becomes Kirstie Alley's husband and thus father to her child. The movie worked because of Travolta's rapport with the kid, and with Alley. Why not, the gossips said, aren't they both Scientologists? Travolta had been exploring L Ron Hubbard's self-help spiritualism since 1975. It had been a vital support for him, and the structure for a genuine concern with metaphysical issues. Plenty of people who know as little as I do about Scientology have mocked Travolta's candour. When he accepted the Golden Globe for his performance in Get Shorty, he cheerfully thanked Hubbard's message. Tom Cruise - another Scientologist - is a lot more guarded. Whatever, the religion means a great deal to Travolta - and no admirer of Pulp Fiction can miss the dogged, but liberating sense of fate exhibited by his Vincent Vega.

Look Who's Talking ran to two sequels, of diminishing quality. Elsewhere, Travolta was still choosing projects that didn't get released - like Eyes of an Angel, in which his chief company was a little girl and a dog. And then Quentin Tarantino cast him in Pulp Fiction, certain that the fading career had done nothing to change his iconographic importance. By then, Travolta was married, to the actress Kelly Preston. They had a son, and Vincent Vega carried him back to a salary level high enough to let him keep building his collection of aircraft - real ones.

In hindsight, it's a puzzle that Travolta and Jackson only got Oscar nominations for Pulp Fiction - and a further riddle that the white man was nominated for best actor and the black for supporting actor. True, Travolta has his scenes with Uma Thurman, but Jackson has a duologue with Tim Roth. They are a pair, not just an intricate study in friendship, two actors doing riffs off their roles, but two roads in a search. The more you see Pulp Fiction, the more ghostly and angelic Travolta becomes, and the bolder and more prophetic Jackson seems. They are like brothers out of Dostoevsky.

Oscars didn't matter. Travolta was set up, and he was lucky again. When that laborious agoniser over his own decisions, Warren Beatty, decided not to play Chili Palmer in Get Shorty, Travolta jumped in. He became the centre of a flimsy, artificial but entertaining picture in which a Miami loan-shark takes on Hollywood. What does he do in the movie? He wears cool, dark clothes; the bulky actor has turned very cute over costume. He watches others in a mix of amusement and disbelief. He delivers a few knockout lines as if he was adding fudge sauce to a sundae. And he stays in effortless command. It's not acting; and Get Shorty hardly rates as a drama or a story. It is a set of routines, all too evidently indifferent to a warning line from Pulp Fiction: "Just because you're a character doesn't mean you have character."

Get Shorty was a popular hit in the States, and plenty of people were amazed and hurt that Travolta didn't get another Oscar nomination for it. There's a widespread feeling that he deserves some large award. Could it come from his next film, Broken Arrow? Two weeks in a row, in February, this has been the most successful film in America. Directed by John Woo, it has Travolta and Christian Slater as co-pilots of a Stealth bomber. They set off for an exercise over the Utah desert. But Travolta's evil genius has plans: he means to hijack the Stealth's two nuclear weapons and sell them back to the US government.

Travolta doesn't have evil in him - but he has found a terrific gesture, brushing the underside of his chin with the backs of his fingers. Don't be surprised if you see Americans doing this all the time. It's a 10-year- old's idea of evil, in a mastermind who is as smart and attractive as an action figure who talks trash. Broken Arrow is being compared to Speed, but it's not as good because Woo has so little real interest in human beings - as opposed to cuts, angles and explosions. (The picture includes a nuclear bang, the long-term effects of which are dismissed with chilling slickness in the rush to make a buck.) And Travolta stands there, grinning, tossing off his lovely, sinister gestures or posing like Napoleon so that you forget the stupid story. He holds the camera like few others alive today, and he has a confidence now that begins to offer a chance of growing up. At 42, it's about time.

His projects are lined up years in advance. In Phenomenon, for instance, likely to open in America for Christmas, he plays a man possessed of extraordinary intelligence. And then, later this year, for $20m, he takes on a special challenge. ($20m? Why not, he's playing two guys?) He goes to Paris for Roman Polanski to do a version of Dostoevsky - The Double - about a cool dude who wakes up one day to find the world contains his mirror image. You can see the look of horror and curiosity on Travolta's face. If only because he has always seemed to carry his own intellectual or spiritual mirror with him, this is something to look forward to. Travolta is back, bigger, wiser and as assured as a genie, no matter that he still looks like a sweet kid whose dream has come home.

! 'Get Shorty' (15) is released on 15 March; 'Broken Arrow' (15) is released on 12 April.

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