Tuesday, April 3, 2007

John Travolta is becoming an old hand at this comeback thing.

The 53-year-old star of “Grease” (1978) and “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) fell back to earth, hard, in the 1980s. It took Quentin Tarantino applying the defibrillator paddles, courtesy of 1994’s “Pulp Fiction,” to grant him new creative life.

Recent times have found the Oscar-nominated actor’s career in a fresh free fall courtesy of such busts as “The Punisher” (2004), “Swordfish” (2001) and “Be Cool” (2005).

Now, his career looks as if it’s about to be reborn.


Audiences continued to ignore critics this past weekend to bring the box-office total for Mr. Travolta’s “Wild Hogs” to $135.4 million — keeping it in the top five in its fifth week of release. The baby-boomer biker comedy ranks as one of the 10 most popular March comedies ever, according to www.boxofficemojo.com.

Better still is the buzz building over Mr. Travolta’s next feature, the movie version of the musical “Hairspray.” The audience at the recent ShoWest gathering gave footage from the film an extended standing ovation. Locally, select District media got a glimpse of the film Friday at the German Cultural Center in Northwest.

The actor dons a dress and a fat suit to play Edna Turnblad, the heroine’s mother. He won’t look like we’re used to seeing him, but it marks the first time in nearly 30 years that he’s singing and dancing on-screen again.

Anyone who has seen Mr. Travolta move knows that’s three decades too long.

Joe Leydon, a contributing writer for MovieMaker magazine and film critic for Variety, says Mr. Travolta is like Madonna and Michael Jackson in his ability to reinvent himself.

“He started out as a soulful young hunk in a TV sitcom and parlayed it into movie stardom,” he says.

Later, he morphed into a character actor, taking both hero and villain roles after wearing out his welcome as a hunky leading man.

“John Travolta has been a movie star for 30 years … longer than Humphrey Bogart was, or Clark Gable,” Mr. Leydon says. “He’s been able to maintain his career through some dry spells without making made-for-TV movies or going back to television.”

Mr. Leydon suspects one reason for Mr. Travolta’s longevity is the way he comports himself in the public eye.

“He lives his life off camera in a modulated, moderated fashion,” Mr. Leydon says, adding that the actor, a Scientologist, rarely appears in the tabloids or on the New York Post’s infamous Page Six.

The actor also enjoys an enviable type of Hollywood insurance, a buffer created by his past performances.

“It helps that every so often, Travolta gets an iconic role that keeps him visible even when his new movies are flopping,” Mr. Leydon says, noting that sales of the “Grease” DVD remain strong.

Choosing inferior projects will doom any actor, but for a while it looked as if Mr. Travolta’s problems had less to do with his roles than with his performances.

Compare, for example, “Get Shorty” (1995) and its sequel, “Be Cool.” In the former, Mr. Travolta epitomizes impassive strength, and that confidence made the film’s humor pop. He seemed like a different actor the second time around. Where was the menace, the sense of a keen intellect working behind those famous blue eyes?

In “Wild Hogs,” Mr. Travolta is having fun again. For a while, his mood is contagious, at least until the story’s hackneyed turns get the better of him.

Just imagine the time he’ll have kicking up his heels in “Hairspray.” The ShoWest convention could be a hint that plenty of people can’t wait to see that.

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