Friday, May 6, 2011

On Being an Icon -- Reflections on John Travolta and "Blow Out" (1981)

Being an icon is tough.

Being an icon must be one of the hardest parts to play in show business. First of all, it's not a part you can audition for -- it is thrust upon you like "chosen one" status in any Joseph Campbell-inspired story. You become an icon because a role you play taps into some psychological reservoir in the collective unconscious of our culture. James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Bogart, Steve McQueen, Bette Davis, Jack Nicholson...the list is impressive and full of celebrities we can name on two hands.

Being an icon is hard, but once you have that status, you either need to die or find some way to keep your status without screwing it up. Nicholson has had the best success, sitting courtside at every Lakers championship game. The others all died early enough to be remembered fondly. And for the old icons, like Elizabeth Taylor, they retired shortly after their prime to ensure they would always be remembered for what mattered most.

So, the question then must be asked. What the hell happened to John Travolta?

Travolta got his big career break as Vinnie Barbarino in the TV series Welcome Back, Kotter. He played the goofy tough guy -- the wise guy. His career path was taking him in similar directions as he soon found himself cast as Billy Nolan in Brian DePalma's adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie. From 1976-1981 he played some of cinema's most iconic characters: Tod in The Boy in the Bubble, Danny Zuko in Grease, Bud in Urban Cowboy, and of course Tony Manero in both Saturday Night Fever and Stayin' Alive.

Then his career took a turn for the worse and he started taking on crappy scripts and doing talking baby movies. His career from 1981-1994 is a wasteland, a 40-year walk in the desert in which Travolta was mostly a laughing stock, or worse, forgotten. His icon status was shattered.

But redemption is part of the game, too, as much as the idea of having greatness thrust on you. It wasn't until Quentin Tarantino rescued him for 1994's Pulp Fiction that Travolta reclaimed his lost mojo and re-established himself as an icon. But since then, what has he done? Lame action flicks like Face/Off and From Paris with Love. Wretched comedies like Road Hogs and Old Dogs. Cross-dressing in fat suits, playing washed up gangsters, and starring in one of cinema's worst examples of religious proselytizing: Battlefield Earth. Travolta's gone for icon to washed-up type. I doubt he'll be remembered so much for his greatness in the late 70s/early 80s as much as for the wasted potential.

I can see why James Dean died young, why Orson Welles fled the industry, and why Marlon Brando went into seclusion. There's no way you can live up to the expectations of being an icon. It's easy being a character actor, like Peter Lorre or Steve Buscemi or John C. Reilly. People will always remember when you were perfect in a movie, and never remember your clunkers. Icons, on the other hand, rise and fall with their work -- it's a blessing and a curse. One moment they're worshipped, as all good icons should be; the next they are burned on a pile of celluloid dreams.

At the apex of his status as Hollywood's next great icon, Travolta starred in DePalma's 1981 masterpiece as Jack Terry, a B-movie sound man who records the audio of a car accident that results in the death of the Pennsylvanian state Governor and Presidential hopeful. When we meet Jack Terry, he is a man bored by his job, thoroughly surprised -- and depressed -- by the fact that he's made five shitty exploitation films in two years. He's so bored that he doesn't even have much concern for the issue of a lame scream that needs over-dubbing during a kill scene in his current project Co-Ed Massacre.

It's not until Jack witnesses and records the car accident that he feels that spark of life again. He dives in after the car and manages to rescue Sally (Karen Allen) from the wreckage. She turns out to be a make-up counter attendant who seduces men on the side for a seedy private dick (Dennis Franz) so he can get blackmail photos. Jack falls for Sally, but it seems he likes her more for the thrill she represents than for anything about her personally. It's not until Jack reveals his backstory that we see how layered and fucked up he is. He worked with the cops after a stint as a communications officer in the military. His job was wire tapping for Internal Affairs. A miscalculation on an investigation would up costing an officer his life, and that led Jack to punishing himself by working sound on movies even Roger Corman would be ashamed to put his name on.

Travolta's performance is one of cinema's best. It is a textured performance, as layered as any cliched onion. With each scene, he reveals the depth of Jack's character like a good sound man balances layers of sound in a film. The complexity is electrifying. In the film's final shot, after Jack has been dealt the most awful blow possible, he is devastated by the most horrific sound ever for him -- the recording of Sally's final scream -- as it is used as the over-dub for the missing scream in Co-Ed Massacre. The terror, the guilt, the shame on Travolta's face is heartbreaking and as frightening as any look you're likely to see in a more traditional horror film. DePalma's lens captures each nuance of the expression and lingers until we are left as paralyzed and uncomfortable as Jack himself.

Blow Out is a gem. It's a cleverly crafted thriller that leaves you spellbound and unsettled, which good thrillers should do. This largely hinges on Travolta's performance, and leaves you wondering what the hell happened to him. Since Blow Out, Pulp Fiction is the only great film he has made. Prior to it, he had made at least four great films and was quickly on his way to becoming the greatest icon of his generation. Now he just seems to be wasted potential.

Maybe there's something to dying young after all. If you're an icon.

If you are interested in having the ending of this great film spoiled, here are the last nine minutes:

1 comment: