- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2003

John Travolta will be among the celebrity presenters again at the Academy Awards tomorrow night. It's his ninth honor of this sort. He also was an Oscar nominee for best actor in "Saturday Night Fever" in 1977 and "Pulp Fiction" in 1994. For Mr. Travolta, however, this year's ceremony will always be the Oscar night that might have been. For years, Mr. Travolta's name and interest helped keep afloat a quirky, risky-sounding latter-day musical called "Chicago." Three times Mr. Travolta was offered the role of Billy Flynn, the smooth-talking, expensively tailored defense lawyer played by Richard Gere in the movie favored to dominate the 75th anniversary Oscar show. Three times he said no.
The actor talked about the role that got away during a recent visit to Washington to promote a new movie, "Basic," in which he plays a Drug Enforcement Agency operative summoned to investigate shadowy events at an Army Ranger base in Panama.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, "Chicago" was an on-again, off-again candidate for adaptation from stage to screen. In the later stages of this protracted purgatory, Mr. Travolta was the prime candidate for the role that ultimately went to Mr. Gere.
"I was offered the role three times," Mr. Travolta recalls. "I was supposed to be the glue that would hold it all together. Potential leading ladies came and went. They kept looking for a concept and a director. But the idea that I would be in it was kind of a constant."
Beware of constancy, however; you're sure to be taken for granted. After the selection of Rob Marshall to direct the movie, "Nobody said, 'Let's meet with the director,'" Mr. Travolta says. "I needed that meeting and a pitch that would clarify what his vision was, assuming he had one. They just said, 'Well, we have a director now. Will you do it?' I wanted to hear Harvey Weinstein at Miramax say something more. Like, 'You're really right for this, John, so please meet with the director and find out what he has in mind.' Just that. Nobody did it."
Mr. Travolta interpreted this nonchalance as a deal-killing breach of etiquette. "I was denied my seduction on 'Chicago,'" he argues. "We had five meetings before I agreed to do 'Basic.' That's all part of the courtship. But this was take it or leave it: 'You gonna do it or not?' You'd think that if you had been approached repeatedly about playing a role, someone in authority would say, as a final gesture, 'How about meeting the director?'
"I probably should have made that overture myself, but I didn't. I took it as a danger sign: If they didn't think it was necessary to sell the vision, they probably didn't have one. It was all a terrible misunderstanding, I guess. But look at the silver lining. I might have been devastated again when the Oscar nominations came out and I was the only one in the cast who wasn't nominated: 'Oh, no. I was the one who kept it together, but [Im not] going to the dance. What did I do wrong?'"
Having enjoyed this mock effusion of self-pity, Mr. Travolta observes that the show itself always seemed troublesome material for the screen.
"I saw it on the stage three times," he recalls. "Twice with Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera, where it worked better because of their spirit, but to me it was always too cold. It needed what the movie has achieved: the warmth and humor of Catherine [Zeta-Jones], Renee [Zellweger] and Richard. I must have known that in the back of my mind that if you had really appealing performances, there would be this alchemy. The show would still have its dark patches, but they wouldn't predominate. There would be enough levity and high spirits to balance things."
While acknowledging that he could have had fun as Billy Flynn, Mr. Travolta remarks, "I also think I needed the sort of parts Catherine and Renee have to really do my thing. You know what I mean? I wanted to do all those dance moves."
Not that the triumph of "Chicago" and the hopes it has aroused for a new golden age of musicals is all bad news for the star of "Grease" and "Saturday Night Fever," two of the three top-grossing live-action movie musicals of all time.
"There's a ton of possibilities again," says the dominant musical star of his era in Hollywood. "The same ["Chicago"] producers want to do 'Guys and Dolls' and 'Pal Joey' and 'Into the Woods.' I think I'm more right for 'Guys and Dolls' and 'Pal Joey' than I would have been for 'Chicago.'
"The older shows always worked for me," he says. "My favorite movie musical of all time is 'An American in Paris.' I've suggested a remake, but people think it's untouchable. I'm not sure that's true. That would be a dream project. Gene Kelly had so much sex appeal, and it would be so great to do that Gershwin score."

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