Does the name ‘John Travolta Surprise’ conjure up images of a tasty dessert, like ‘Dreamy Chocolate Surprise’, or ‘Pineapple Surprise’? No? Just me then.
To introduce this week’s film, one is inclined to discuss Travolta’s career in the decade that it was released. As is well-known, Travolta experienced a career lull during the 1980’s before Pulp Fiction revived his career in 1994. In this decade, Travolta made such classics as: Staying Alive (1983), a sequel to Saturday Night Fever (1977) that happens to be directed by Sylvester Stallone, and whose final act involves Travolta writhing around on a Broadway stage in gold short shorts.
Two of a Kind (1983) was billed as a Grease reunion between Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Only in this version, he is a bank robber/inventor, and the fate of the world rests on his shoulders after God announces that he will destroy the entire world unless Travolta can redeem himself. Also, there are edible sunglasses, and Oliver Reed plays a prankster Satan who can stop and start time.
There is also Perfect (1985), where Travolta now plays a Rolling Stone reporter who is covering the rise of health clubs and exercise culture in the 1980’s. He also tries to woo Jamie Lee Curtis. This film is probably best known as the inspiration for the music video of the song “Call on Me”.
What strikes me with these films is the exploitation factor that runs throughout them. Travolta is (visually) used in the same way that women are seen in Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. At least once per film, there is an extended sequence where Travolta is the lustful object of the camera’s eye (see images above). Here, the narrative halts in order for the viewer to look at the object (his body) on screen. I would like to expand on this point by providing one additional example: the film Moment by Moment. Released in 1978, it barely missed the 80’s cut-off. Here, Travolta plays Rick Sunset (“But my friends all call me Strip”) who starts an affair with a much older Lily Tomlin. Aside from the two stars looking identical with matching haircuts and outfits, Travolta, or sorry, “Strip”, is visually sexualized to a much higher degree than Tomlin. The reasoning behind this may have to do with the fact that the film was directed by Jane Wagner, Tomlin’s long-time partner. Throughout the film, while Tomlin is dressed in conservative outfits, Travolta parades around in shorts, speedos and is nude. In one sequence, Tomlin is dressed in white shorts and a shirt, as she reclines in a chair on the beach. As the camera pans left, Travolta walks into shot, framed in a long shot and wearing a speedo and a wet white tank top. As he stops in front of her, he slowly removes his soaking wet tank top in of her. The camera then cuts to a medium long shot, thus inviting the viewer to voyeuristically gaze at his body.
Travolta’s career is characterized by oddities, which I would argue, continued long after his return to form in Pulp Fiction. What is the exploitative difference between Travolta’s early performances and his overacting imitation of Nicolas Cage’s Castor Troy in Face/Off (1997), the thinly discussed Scientology parallels in Battlefield Earth (2000), or the fat-suit and gender-bending performance as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray (2007)? On that note, why are films constantly transfixed with having Travolta bust a (dancing) move? Time and time again, the narrative halts and the camera encircles him to watch him dance. His dancing sequences include Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Perfect, Staying Alive, Urban Cowboy, Pulp Fiction, Michael, Hairspray and The Experts. While Hairspray was presented as Travolta’s ‘return to musical form’ since Grease, his constant dancing in films ranging from comedy to drama to modern western suggests another story.
As the film that we will be screening this week fits into the Trash or Treasure category, I would like to propose that, as an actor and star persona, the case of John Travolta offers us some insightful and alternative modes for thinking about the ‘gendered eye’ of the camera, as well as how a star persona is expressed throughout an actor’s career. As such, the surprise film that we are screening this week is a perfect example of the points that I have argued throughout this blog post, and as such, in a strange and campy way, is a treasure.
So, join us on Friday, February 5th in SS203 to screen one of John Travolta’s masterpieces of the 1980’s, and to vote definitively whether or not it’s Trash or Treasure.
By Mary Reay Arnatt