Career Watch is a vocational checkup of top actors and directors, and those who hope to get there.
Thanks to strong recognition overseas, at 64 John Travolta still carries the clout that gets movies made. But this is not always a good thing: Travolta’s passion project, “Gotti,” debuted in Cannes but opened to $1.7 million amid derisive reviews (Tomatometer: 0%).
Bottom Line: After strutting out of Broadway and television into ’70s movie stardom (led by musicals “Saturday Night Fever,” “Grease,” and “Staying Alive”), the Irish-Italian Travolta languished in the ’80s until Quentin Tarantino gave him his 1994 comeback as hitman Vincent Vega in “Pulp Fiction.” That movie returned Travolta’s swagger and while he hasn’t topped it, Travolta has surfed many career dips and swells without completely alienating his aging fan base. But “Gotti” may be the tipping point.
Career Peaks: Born in Englewood, New Jersey, Travolta landed a role in the touring company of of “Grease.” After breaking out in 1977 disco musical “Saturday Night Fever” and TV comedy series “Welcome Back, Kotter,” he danced away with the 1978 movie version of “Grease,” and audiences later embraced the return of Tony Manero in “Staying Alive.” He wrangled romantically with Debra Winger in “Urban Cowboy,” earned a rave from Pauline Kael for Brian De Palma thriller “Blow Out,” and then treaded water for nearly a decade until “Pulp Fiction” revived his career.
Travolta is renowned for not heeding the best advice, famously turning down two sexy roles that went to Richard Gere: “American Gigolo” and “An Officer and a Gentleman.” He did score in Elmore Leonard’s hilarious low-life comedy “Get Shorty” as well as two John Woo balletic actioners, “Broken Arrow” and “Face/Off,” in which he and Nic Cage engaged in an entertaining game of competitive scenery chewing. Mike Nichols improbably cast Travolta as a Bill Clinton prototype in 1998’s “Primary Colors,” which failed at the box office. Since then, the star has mainly taken paydays as tough guys in foreign-financed programmers like Chuck Russell’s “I Am Wrath” (Tomatometer: 11%) and Jackie Earle Haley’s “Criminal Activities” (Tomatometer: 48%).
Travolta did surge back on television in 2016 with his muggy impersonation of attorney Robert Shapiro in Ryan Murphy’s “American Crime: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” landing his first Emmy acting nomination and win for producing the FX series.
Latest Misfire: “Gotti” is Travolta’s vanity production, nurtured over eight years and shot on a $10-million shoestring with Cincinnati filling in for New York. Based on John Gotti, Jr.’s memoir, the R-rated gangster saga follows the permatanned, egomaniacal John Gotti of the Gambino Crime Family through three decades as he and his wife (Kelly Preston) attempt to hold the family together. “If I robbed a church and had the steeple sticking out of my ass, I’d still say I didn’t do it,” he proclaims.
He winds up in a prison jumpsuit, but the movie presents Gotti more as an ambitious icon of success than a violent evildoer. Kevin Connolly (“Entourage”) took over as director after Barry Levinson dropped out. “He plays the Teflon Don like a cross between Ray Liotta and Alec Baldwin’s impression of Donald Trump,” wrote IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. “It’s the ‘7-Minute Abs’ version of ‘Goodfellas,’ but somehow so much worse than that sounds.”
Believing he had a potential Oscar performance, Travolta took the film to Cannes (at a high cost), has promoted it ceaselessly, and rescued it from Lionsgate’s planned parallel theatrical and streaming release via Vertical Entertainment and MoviePass. But a well-supported 500-theater run still failed to generate heat.
Assets: Travolta started out doing musicals, comedies (“Look Who’s Talking”), and romances (Nora Ephron’s “Michael” and “Lucky Numbers”), and as he got older he gained gravitas — and danger (“A Civil Action,” “The Taking of Pelham 123”). Since “Pulp Fiction,” he has leaned into tough gangster types. He did a marvelous turn in drag as Edna Turnblad opposite Christopher Walken in 2007 “Hairspray,” but he does not show off his charm, and his song-and-dance chops, nearly enough.
Awards Attention: Travolta landed his first Oscar nomination at 24 for “Saturday Night Fever,” followed by “Pulp Fiction.” He won the Golden Globe for Comedy for “Get Shorty.” But he has also been nominated for ten Razzies, winning two in 2000 for the execrable Scientology epic “Battlefield Earth” — which he produced with complete control (Tomatometer: 3%). Careful what you wish for.
Current Gossip: Ever since he joined the Church of Scientology in 1975, family man Travolta has been dogged by speculation and reporting about his sexuality. (The star denies he is gay.) With the noted exception of his cross-dressing role in “Hairspray,” Travolta has leaned away from his vulnerable, sweet side in favor of harder-edged action roles, often in B-movies.
Next Step: In George Gallo’s film noir “The Poison Rose,” Travolta plays Carson Phillips, an ex-football star-turned-PI who takes on a missing-person case that spirals out of control. Fred Durst directs Travolta as a has-been star pursued by a persistent fan in “Moose.” He’s also starring with Michael Madsen in race-car actioner “Trading Paint.” And he toplines as a speedboat racing champion and millionaire in “Speed Kills.” These are not exactly film festival fodder.
Career Advice: Forget about being a leading man with a steep asking price. Change up your management team. Figure out exactly who gave you the best projects, and ditch the rest. Embrace your inner character actor, even in tiny indie films. Go for quality. Be willing to chase the hard stuff. Maybe a generational update of “Saturday Night Fever,” like Sylvester Stallone in “Creed,” would draw fans. Rediscover that cheeky Tony Manero sweetness. Follow the leads of De Niro, Pacino, and Sutherland and do more television — find a cool cable series like “The Sopranos” or “The Night Of.” Do more musicals. People want to see you dance. Go back to Broadway.