LOS ANGELES--I was thinking back to a day at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, when I had lunch with John Travolta after the screening of "Pulp Fiction." It was clear that the movie represented the rebirth of his career, and he wryly observed that, after all, his career seemed to consist of one comeback after another.
First came TV's "Welcome Back, Kotter," "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease" in the late 1970s and "Urban Cowboy" in 1980. Then it was nine years before his next big hit, "Look Who's Talking," in 1989. And another five years (including two dismal "Look Who's Talking" sequels) before "Pulp Fiction" renewed a career that has rarely stepped wrong since; his hits have included the Hollywood crime comedy "Get Shorty" (1995), the John Woo action extravaganza "Broken Arrow" (1996) and the new age "Phenomenon" (1997), in which a mysterious development multiplies a simple man's intelligence.
Now comes an ambitious straight dramatic role, ranking with the underrated "Blow Out" (1981) and "Primary Colors" last year. In "A Civil Action," which opens Friday, he plays a personal injury lawyer who unwisely gets emotionally involved in representing the parents of 12 children who possibly died of leukemia after drinking polluted water.
This is not your usual Hollywood lawyer, with the big courtroom scene in the last reel. The movie, written and directed by Steven Zaillian ("Searching for Bobby Fischer"), is based on the best-selling book by Jonathan Harr, winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction. It is about law in the real world: Not about truth and justice, but about strategy, reality, and how firms can go broke by taking the wrong case.
For Travolta, it's a good role and a wise career move, taking him into the realm of straight drama. One can imagine Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt or Nick Nolte playing the character. Travolta was ready for it.
"My commitment is so much deeper than when I was a kid," he said. "In those days I was happy that I had a film career, but I needed to sow my oats. At this point I feel more dedicated to acting, and my choice and judgment have improved. I'm lucky to get the first shot at a script like this, and this time I'm smart enough to say yes, where years ago I used to say no."
He's a pleasant, soft-spoken guy. He likes to be liked. Zaillian uses that quality in "A Civil Action," where Travolta plays a lawyer who wants to think of himself as hard-boiled. The lawyer only takes on cases he thinks he can win; his firm eats the costs, hoping for a big share of the settlement. When Travolta's character gets personally involved, the movie gets fascinating: instead of treating that as a plus, it shows how emotion can actually work against the client's best interests. The lawyer points out the mistakes that others make by caring too much. Then he makes the same mistakes himself.
"It was interesting, in the first half of the movie, to turn off all my sensitivities and instincts to be empathetic and sympathetic," Travolta said. "We've all met cold, distant, arrogant people. But to try to portray one is really a great challenge. That was different for me." In one scene early in the movie, Travolta's character even has a little speech about how much various categories of deaths are "worth" in personal injury suit. He sounds like a financial analyst.
"He's the most complex character I've ever played," he said. "That's because he doesn't always know which way he's going. His firm is going broke, that's for sure. Is he working from ego, professionalism, or what?"
His opponent in the film, played by Robert Duvall in a performance of masterful small touches, is a technician who lurks behind a facade of folksy eccentricity. One of the intriguing things about the Duvall character is that he is almost always right about the case, the law, the strategy, and the outcome.
"He knows I'm not as wise as he is," Travolta said. "I'll still make the mistakes even if he tells me about them. But he gives me warning points and ultimately that $20 scene is the big pivotal moment for both of us. It's my favorite scene in the movie."
That's the scene where Duvall puts a $20 bill on the bench between them, in a courtroom corridor, and asks Travolta to add six zeros to it, and settle out of court for that sum. He believes he'll win but it's worth $20 million to cover his bet.
"From his perspective, it's that's simple," Travolta said.
So he should take the money? "A Civil Action" isn't about solving immediate problems. It's about what happens when emotions grow so deep they swamp a rational legal strategy.
"A Civil Action" came after another fine performance by Travolta in "Primary Colors," where he played a presidential candidate not a million miles apart from Bill Clinton. The movie made my Best 10 list for its insights into the political drama that has been playing out all year, but did only moderately well at the box office.
"It was a success but it not a megasuccess," Travolta said. "I think that political films have a sort of ceiling in how many people they will appeal to. It's like westerns have a certain market. Because the timing was so acute [the movie was released during the early Lewinsky furor], people thought it might be a superhit, but actually it did exactly what I expected it to do."
Turning back to "A Civil Action," Travolta said he'd only recently finished the voice-over narration for the film.
"When I went to say, "If you had to do it all over again, would you do it?"--well, how Zaillian structured that question just moved me so." I know what he means. Most films don't leave room for such doubts. At the end of "A Civil Action," you're left with a guy who has all the right feelings and instincts, and maybe needed some of the wrong ones.