It’s hard to think of too many modern movie stars who enjoyed so many bites at box office stardom. In three, arguably four, different phases of his career, John Travolta shot to the top of the box office, stayed atop of the Hollywood tree for a bit, and tumbled.
Here, then, are the various career peaks and troughs that he’s been through…
The Initial Breakthrough
Few stars broke through so quickly and so memorably as John Travolta in the 1970s. Following roles in a few TV movies and TV shows, he got his first big breakthrough with a pivotal part in Brian De Palma’s Carrie, his successful adaptation of Stephen King’s book. That was in 1976.
But the first of two massive hits would follow in 1977, and it’s fair to say that Saturday Night Fever – and the character of Tony Manero – catapulted Travolta onto the world stage. His breakthrough performance, accompanied by his now-legendary dancing, was a phenomenon, earning him an Oscar nomination and pretty much instant fame. And an even bigger role followed. 1978’s Grease, opposite Olivia Newton-John, would make him arguably the biggest movie star in the world.
The numbers don’t lie. We’re used to films almost casually cruising past the $100m mark at the US box office today, but it was almost unheard of back in the 70s. Likewise, American films earning just as much, if not more, overseas was the exception rather than the norm.
Saturday Night Fever coined $237m worldwide, with $94m of that business in the US. One word of note on that: it made $85.2m of that on its original release, and then Paramount re-released it with a PG cut in 1979, which added nearly $9m in America. The film’s US gross is over $300m if you take inflation into account.
The re-release of Saturday Night Fever was no doubt inspired by the success of Grease, and over the course of its lifetime, that much loved musical has picked up just shy of $400m at the worldwide box office. $188m of that is from US cinemas. There’s been one big re-release to contribute to that total, but even so: Grease was and is a major movie musical, and a major box office performer. Travolta, who wisely skipped Grease 2, was on top of the world.
Where did it go wrong?
The bubble lasted for a little while for Travolta first time around, although he wouldn’t see Grease-sized numbers again for a very long time.
That’s because Travolta’s film choices throughout the 1980s were, for the most part, not some of his best. After the huge success he enjoyed in the late 70s, he did kick off the 1980s in style, with Urban Cowboy, itself a box office hit. Brian De Palma’s Blow Out was, at worst, an interesting box office disappointment meanwhile, and Staying Alive – with Travolta back dancing – reached $64m in the US back in 1983. That’s some way off the take of Grease and Saturday Night Fever, but still impressive. His star was still bright.
After that? He made fewer films, and his choices weren’t as strong. Two Of A Kind, reuniting him with Olivia Newton-John, saw the pair in a strange romantic comedy centred around the idea that God is fed up of human beings. Only Travolta and Newton-John can save the world. Which they do, but not many people were watching. Save for documentary That’s Dancing!, that was it until Perfect, opposite Jamie Lee Curtis, in 1985.
Perfect may have dulled in the mind now, but it was a notable flop in the mid-80s. A drama that centred on the world of aerobics, it was hit by critics, and generally avoided by audiences. Travola’s performance in particular was singled out for special, er, ‘words’.
Travolta would be off the big screen for four years subsequently, and would reappear in 1989’s forgettable The Experts. It’s a film most notable for being the one where Travolta met his wife, Kelly Preston. That said, he hadn’t been not working for four years. The Experts was shot in 1987, yet Paramount didn’t release it until two years later, presumably fearing it had a financial disappointment on its hands. Which it did.
The First Big Comeback
Just when it looked as if Travolta’s career had come and gone, he picked a plum project. Again, it’s easy to overlook just what a big deal Amy Heckerling’s Look Who’s Talking was back in 1989, but it was a massive hit out of nowhere, and suddenly, Travolta was back – temporarily – in fashion.
That said, it would probably be fair to say it was more the concept than the star names that did the selling here. The main drive of Look Who’s Talking was centered around the idea of giving a couple’s new baby inner thoughts voiced by Bruce Willis. It made for a decent enough hour and a half at the movies, but it’s just as easily forgotten, in truth.
Still, Travolta’s star was back on the rise. Look Who’s Talking banked just shy of $300 million worldwide. His success would hinge on what films he chose to make next.
What went wrong?
Look Who’s Talking Too and Look Who’s Talking Now. They may have completed a box set, but they almost have you yearning for Rush Hour sequels, they’re that weak.
Look Who’s Talking Too (1989) introduced a baby daughter for Travolta and Kirsty Alley’s characters, and then pretty much told the same jokes, not as well, in less time. It felt a cheap and rushed sequel, and it did just over a third of the business of the first film. That, remarkably, didn’t discourage people though, and thus in 1990, along came Look Who’s Talking Now, which predated the never-ending Beethoven franchise by adding a talking dog. To be fair, Look Who’s Talking Now is arguably the funniest of a generally quite weak comedy boxset. But it took just over $10m in the US, one 14th of the original’s take, and it was decided to leave the whole Look Who’s Talking thing there. Travolta’s career was back where it had been prior to Look Who’s Talking.
If only a major new force in cinema could come along and give it a proper resurrection this time…
The Really, Really, Really Big Comeback
Travolta himself admitted that he wasn’t expecting to be back on top of Hollywood again prior to Quentin Tarantino calling with an offer to do Pulp Fiction. It took a bit of wrangling all round to get him the part, but Travolta’s most memorable role since Grease was now in the works.
Every now and then I read a piece that takes potshots at Travolta’s acting. Pulp Fiction is one film with no shortage of evidence to demonstrate just how good he is on his day. Travolta was rewarded with being front and centre of the most talked about movie of the year. At the heart of a $200m+ box office hit. He was nominated for an Oscar. And in the role of Vincent Vega, he redefined expectations of him on screen.
What’s more, this time he capitalised on it. It was Tarantino that advised him to take the lead role in Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty, and once more, acclaim was showered onto Travolta. The film garnered strong reviews, and good box office ($72m in the US). And this time, the hits mainly kept on coming. In the years following 1994’s Pulp Fiction, Travolta would score box office successes of varying degrees with Broken Arrow ($70m US), Phenomenon ($104m US), Michael ($95m US), and the one-of-a-kind Face/Off ($112m US).
It was Travolta’s best ever box office run, and even box office disappointments such as the ambitious White Man’s Burden ($3m US), She’s So Lovely ($7m US), and Mad City ($10m US) were swiftly overlooked, given that another big hit was around the corner.
Even some of those disappointments still earned Travolta respect, such as his leading role as pretend Bill Clinton in Primary Colors. And he would round the 1990s off with another hit, as The General’s Daughter brought home $102m at the US box office alone. The second half of the 90s had few better, consistent box office draws.
What went wrong?
After a run where Travolta’s hit rate of interesting projects had been strong, his instincts started to falter again. He put plenty on the line in 2000 for the big screen take on L Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth, and the film would – as you more than likely know – become one of the most notable flops of the 2000s, sweeping the Golden Raspberry Awards and taking a kicking from critics the world over. It should be noted that Battlefield Earth has some advocates, but released in the middle of summer, its $21m US take was a big disappointment. The same year, Lucky Numbers fell hard too, grossing just $10m in America.
That said, it’d be wrong to say that Travolta’s career was irreparably damaged by Battlefield Earth. He continued to land leading roles in relatively big movies for most of the decade, but the hard truth is the films weren’t as good, or as interesting. Ladder 49, for instance, may have taken $74m in America, but few fish it out to watch time and time again. Middling hits such as the hilarious Swordfish($69m, US), Domestic Disturbance ($45m US), Basic ($26m US), The Punisher ($33m), and the not very well received Get Shorty sequel, Be Cool ($56m US) kept the bills paid.
Few were forming a line for his movies, though.
The Smaller Bounceback
That said, there was another Travolta career bounce to come.
Come the end of the 2000s, and Travolta found himself part of a trio of big hit movies again. 2007’s Wild Hogs was the big surprise. Opening in March, the film scored a massive $39m opening weekend, against not particularly impressive reviews. Travolta was second billed behind Tim Allen, and above Martin Lawrence and Ray Liotta. And whilst the film didn’t travel as well outside of America, adding another $85m, it took a huge $168m in America. It was the 13th highest grossing film at the US box office in 2007, outperforming Die Hard 4, Rush Hour 3, Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer, and Ocean’s Thirteen.
It also outgrossed a second $100m+ hit that Travolta was attached to in 2007: Hairspray. Again, he was part of a broader ensemble here, but still, the film picked up a cool $200m worldwide ($118m in the US). 2008, meanwhile, would see him get top billing on the poster for Disney’s Bolt, which attracted $309m of business across the globe. That said, the fact that it was a Disney animated movie, and that it featured Miley Cyrus at a point when she was Disney’s ideal family-friendly star probably helped too.
What went wrong?
A couple of other solid performances followed, but the hard truth was that by the end of the 2000s, Travolta had gone the way of many movie stars, and his name couldn’t open a film any more. So far in the 2010s, we’ve seen him in Oliver Stone’s disappointing Savages, and in heist thriller The Forger. The latter has enjoyed limited theatrical exposure, and got a video on demand release in the US.
It’s easy to forget that John Travolta is now 61 years old, and in that time, it feels as if he’s had two or three very different movie careers. Inevitably, the big meaty leading roles tend to land for actors between the ages of 20 and 50 (although those rules do feel like they’ve been changing), and there are times when – sitting through a movie – I’ve wondered quite what Travolta ever saw in it.
He didn’t always help himself with his peers either, reporting being overlooked for an Oscar nomination after insisting on a paycheck of $20,000,001 for appearing in Michael. That was so he could be Hollywood’s highest paid actor, overtaking the $20,000,000 that Jim Carrey had received for The Cable Guy. Other actors didn’t seem quite so keen on the move.
Still: Saturday Night Fever, Pulp Fiction, Face/Off, even Swordfishon a rainy day. Travolta’s back catalog has thrown up – across his three or four careers – plenty of films to enjoy. Surely he’s just waiting for HBO to offer him a meaty TV role next…