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Class Acting

With remarkable candor, John Travolta talks about the highs and lows of his tumultuous and fascinating career—and what he's learned along the way.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

(continued from page 2)

Travolta's first big splash as an actor came in 1975 as Vinnie Barbarino, in the popular high school sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter." The next year he starred in Carrie, a Brian De Palma thriller. Then, in 1977, lightning struck: Saturday Night Fever. As Tony Manero, a paint store clerk propelled by dreams of dance-floor glory, Travolta took America by storm. Overnight, disco tunes and dancing swept the nation. Saturday Night Fever became a landmark film, an emblem of both a decade and a generation. At the tender age of 23, John Travolta was flying incredibly high. He was a teen idol, a Hollywood sensation, and in some eyes he was even an icon of American popular culture. On a promotional tour in London, wild crowds almost crushed his limo.

For a few short years, Travolta tasted only glory. Grease, the now-classic high school musical starring Travolta and Olivia Newton-John was a huge hit in 1978. Then he donned cowboy duds and scored another success with Urban Cowboy. In 1981, in De Palma's Blow Out, Travolta earned high praise for his portrayal of an obsessive sound man who accidentally records a political assassination. At the box office, though, the film sputtered, and his career began sliding into the hard times of the 1980s, what Travolta now refers to as his "cool" period.

One of his first real lows came in 1978 with Moment by Moment, with Lily Tomlin. The critics savaged it; the film bombed. But Travolta learned a lesson that has served him well ever since. "The critics came down hard on that movie-- and on me. I started to take it personally and then I thought, 'If this is what's going to happen--where I can do no wrong, and then suddenly one movie can make me wrong, well...'

"I'll give you a parallel. When I was 18 years old, I went to Las Vegas for the first time. The first 10 minutes, I felt it was the most glorious place I had ever known in my life. I was so happy. My $10 turned into $20. Well, in the next 20 minutes, my $20 turned into $30--in debt. And I said, 'Wait a minute. If in 20 minutes' time, this was the best place in the world and then suddenly the worst place in the world, then there's something wrong with this place.' When Moment by Moment happened, when I was the most celebrated star to come into movies since Rudolf Valentino, when I could do six projects in a row and do no wrong, and then for one project to put that kind of cast on everything else, I said, 'There's something wrong with this. And because there's something wrong with this, I'm not going to ever take either side too seriously.'

"So I approach it like a business now. I say, 'OK, how are the reviews for the movie? OK, good. Did we get Siskel and Ebert? Good. Did we get The New Yorker? The New York Times? The L.A. Times? Good. OK, what quotes can we use from the articles? OK, use that one. And that one.' And it comes down to this: did we do a good enough product, in a majority of critics' eyes, to use what they say to promote the movie? I always like the reviews to be good. But if they're not, instead of taking them seriously, I just put them on the side and say, 'They're not usable.'" So here is one of Travolta's laws of how to survive Hollywood and its fickle finger of fate: good or bad, never take reviews to heart.

Faced with a series of disappointments in the 1980s, Travolta went into a period of deep introspection. He became a devout follower of Scientology, and he set out to broaden his horizons. "I traveled the world but I based myself in the United States. I was in Santa Barbara for 10 years, and I was in Florida for six years. Within all that time, I traveled." In 1993, with Sylvester Stallone at the director's helm, Travolta did Stayin' Alive, a sequel to Saturday Night Fever. The film lacked the fire and freshness of the original, but it did well at the box office. But not well enough to catapult Travolta back into Hollywood glory.

During these low years, Paris became a welcome anchor for Travolta, both as an artist and as a man. "All my favorite movies are French," he says now, moving on to a bit of sea bass. "A Man and a Woman and Going Places--in French, Les Valseuses--are my two favorite movies. My two favorite American movies? I don't know, they've changed over the years. But I think A Man and a Woman is the most romantic movie ever made. Just because it captured the real feelings of two people falling in love, and it had music that matched those feelings and images that matched those feelings. It was a marriage of all three. To me, every image of that movie looks like a work of art."

Going Places, released in France in 1973, was a raw, biting comedy that needled bourgeois society and launched the careers of two budding French talents, Gérard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere. Travolta was impressed. So, on his first trip to Paris, in 1978 during a promotion for Saturday Night Fever, he went looking for Depardieu.

"I had seen Going Places in 1974, and I just loved him ever since that movie. So by the time 1978 came around, four years later, I sought him out. I thought, 'I'm in Paris. This is probably where he lives. I've got to find him.' And I found him. He couldn't speak a word of English. And I just basically told him through a translator how crazy I was about him. And we struck up a friendship. He was blown away that someone from that far away would come seek him out. He learned a little English for me, and I learned a little French from him. And we had this very interesting relationship.

"Gérard was very much the kind of man that I responded to. He was affectionate. He was smart. He was artistic. And approachable. Whatever neurosis he may or may not have had was not affecting his relationships. He was spirited and funny and all those great things that I like in a person, but in particular I liked in him as a man. Because it's tough to be a man in the world, I think. I don't think men know how to do it. How do they remain all these things and be effective and all that stuff? I just think that innately Gérard has it, and he isn't afraid of any part of his personality. I really like that."


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