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Sweet roles come easily to Travolta

There is a moment in "Phenomenon," the new John Travolta picture, when his character gets zapped with a strange light from the sky. He was a nice enough guy before he got hit with the light, but afterward he's--phenomenal. He can learn Portuguese in 15 minutes, and get corn to grow where it wouldn't grow before, and tell the guy at the local bar how to rearrange his parking lot to fit in six more cars.

"I'm gonna try a theory out on you," I told Travolta. We were talking about "Phenomenon" last spring, when he was in Chicago shooting another movie. "You have joked at times about your many comebacks. You keep count. I think you've had six comebacks, or was it four..."

"Depending on what you would consider a comeback," Travolta said. "And whether you were really away or not."


"But you've joked about it. So, could the light in the sky that transforms you be like 'Pulp Fiction,' which came out of the sky and zapped you, and suddenly, whatever it was between the audience and you fell away, and they could see you again?"

I said "the audience," but I meant myself. When I saw Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" (1977), he made an enormous impression. He had genuine star power. I liked him. He had it again in "Urban Cowboy" (1980) and "Blow Out" (1981). But then, in movies like "Two of a Kind" (1983) and "Perfect" (1985) and "Shout" (1991) and a lot of others, it didn't seem to be there anymore. He seemed innocuous and too passive. And then, suddenly, in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," the power was back. And it was there again in "Get Shorty" (1995). So did he get hit with career lightning, or what?

"Oh, that's an interesting one," Travolta said. "I like that."

"Because suddenly you're a genius again."

"Yeah. In Hollywood, perception is everything. It's how are you perceived in the moment, and what did you say at what event that offended someone, and didn't offend others and, you know, what are you up to lately?"

It wasn't that he was doing anything so very differently, Travolta said, but that people started to see him in a new way.

"I'm sure I've had the best intentions in picking roles and movies," he said. "But I think inevitably people see you in a certain way. I had lunch with Tom Hanks not long ago, and I was telling him that the Old Hollywood really got me, and I wasn't sure if New Hollywood did. And this revelation came over his face. He suddenly got this whole idea about me, you know what I mean, that kinda moved him. That I even thought that, you know?"

What do you mean by old and new Hollywood?

"In my first go-around, my friends were Barbara Stanwyck, Fred Astaire, Jimmy Cagney, Cary Grant....meaning these were the people who invited me to parties, hung out with me, wanted me to be with them. I didn't quite get the same feeling from my contemporaries at that time. Now, today, it's a different story. I've guess I've been re-invented in a way that's contemporary. But in those days I used to feel odd, because I thought, what is it about this group that loves what I'm doing and kinda gets it?"

"Was it because they saw in you the same kind of charisma that they came to expect from movie stars in the 1930s and 1940s? As opposed to the anti-charisma of other members of your generation, who prided themselves on not seeming like movie stars?"

"Maybe there's something to that. I remember Jane Fonda, when she first met me, said, 'You remind me so much of my father on screen.' I don't know..."

There is a kind of unaffected, sincere quality to Travolta that you also see in Henry Fonda: He is delighted to be invited to the party, and a little shy, and he doesn't always seem to fit as an action hero, but that adds to the interest. He's more convincing in the "Pulp Fiction" kind of action, where he's a little incompetent, and needs a partner like Samuel Jackson to keep him out of trouble.

In an action film like John Woo's "Broken Arrow" (1996), where he's supposed to be the bad guy, you get the feeling they should have sent for Dennis Hopper or Christopher Walken. Travolta is better as the kind of everyman who is unexpectedly thrust into action--the classical Hitchcock hero played by Fonda and Stewart. When he played a character like that in Brian DePalma's "Blow Out," he was perfectly at home.

His underlying sweetness is well used in a film like "Phenomenon," where he plays George Malley, a garage owner in a small California town where everybody knows one another, and they all hang out at the local bar to keep up with the news. After George gets zapped with the bolt from the sky and starts reading six books a day from the local library, some of the locals are threatened by his gifts. But the local doc (Robert Duvall) tells the barflies it's all right to be different. And the local single mom (Kyra Sedgwick) begins to think maybe she can trust him.

"This kind of character is where, personally, my heart is at," Travolta said, "but because I've been so successful on the more cynical level lately, you know, with 'Broken Arrow,' 'Get Shorty' and 'Pulp Fiction,' it's another case of changing my image. All those other movies were wonderful to do, but they weren't as personal to me. I mean, I've been the ring leader in at least four of the violent films that have been out, so it's a nice change for me and I think it could be a nice change for the audience. I think the timing is good."

"I can remember meeting you a long time ago," I said, "and you're just about the same, despite constant publicity about every real and fictional aspect of your life. I mean, it goes on as a weekly barrage, week after week, month after month and year after year, in the supermarket papers. How do you keep your sanity?"

"First of all, I'm hopeless about keeping hope in my life. I can only look at the glass half full. That's why this whole comeback thing is very funny to me because even at my worst moment I thought that things were great, you know--not unlike George Malley. He thinks his birthday party in the movie was the greatest, you know. And what happens to him later, the mind thing, he's able to accept it. He doesn't fight it. That kind of exemplifies how I view life--and, of course, 21 years in Scientology has been a stable force for me."

I was a little surprised that he brought up Scientology, since belonging to the controversial church doesn't necessarily enhance his image, but then I thought, well, it's his religion--why shouldn't be mention it?

"Did your Scientology experiences make the experiences in this movie more appealing to you? Did they seem to fit somehow?" "Some of them did. Not a direct parallel, but I think the idea of knowledge being shared, that everyone has a potential that they haven't possibly lived up to, that man is good...those three things are probably parallel...."

In Dianetics, I said, L. Ron Hubbard writes about getting to the state of 'clear,' and it seems to me that that's what happens to George, when his mind is suddenly freed to operate at its full potential.

"Yes, he's free to read at an alarming rate and comprehend, and assimilate it and actually apply it. That's the key. You can have a lot of knowledge but if you can't actually use it in the world, it's another separate ability. I like the idea that George could take it a step further and use it."

I asked him about the movie he was filming in Chicago.

"It's a comedy about the archangel Michael. It's a Nora Ephron screenplay and she's directing it. I play Michael, and I come down to help out William Hurt and Andie McDowell, but while I'm here, I experience all the physical sensations, like drinking, smoking, and womanizing. The angel is going to do his job but he's also going to get a kick out of everything that the earth has to offer..."

It sounds promising. But then I wondered to myself, is this the right career move? Two gentle souls in a row? That's what derailed Travolta's career the last time. It's in his nature to play gentle, but it's in the nature of Hollywood to give a higher profile to action. He's sweet in "Pulp Fiction," but he carries a gun. He's sweet in "Get Shorty," but he's a mob enforcer. He's sweet in "Broken Arrow," but he blows up a mountain. Maybe it would be a good idea for the archangel to get into a little more than smoking and drinking.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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