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MOVIES : . . .And for Travolta, the movie has already reignited a career that had stalled since the stratospheric days of ‘Saturday Night Fever.’ ‘It’s funny, one movie can make you, and one movie can remake you,’ he says. : He’s a Hotshot Again

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You’re at a luncheon on a balcony overlooking the French Riviera. It is the day after your latest film, “Pulp Fiction,” had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, the day after you saw the movie for the first time yourself, and you’re here with your director, Quentin Tarantino, and co-stars Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson to discuss it with the international press.

As you move from one table to another, in a media ritual known as the round robin interview, you find that you’re not being interviewed so much as being adulated. The critics and journalists loved the movie, a black comedy about killers and molls and double-crossers, but they are astonished by your performance as a fast-talking, heroin-addicted hit man, and as rude as they may normally be, they can’t stop gushing today.

An actor can’t hear too much praise, you will say later, and you certainly got plenty of it when you were the hottest movie star on the planet. But that was a long time ago--before circumstances and a series of box-office failures drained your popularity, before critics and film industry mavens lost interest, before the tabloids started calling you fat and a religious cultist, before you resigned yourself to perhaps never getting another chance to reclaim your stardom--and the response to you here is overwhelming.

Your name is John Travolta, you’re 40 years old, and you’re afraid you’re going to cry.

*

“At one point, I had to leave one of the tables and gather my feelings,” Travolta recalls, three and a half months later, in the library of his home in an exclusive subdivision of Daytona Beach, Fla. “I didn’t want to cry in front of (the press), but I felt like it.”

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The Cannes Film Festival is famous for launching new stars, and the Palme d’Or won by “Pulp Fiction” in May is having that effect on director Tarantino. But in the case of Travolta, the film, which opens Friday, has relaunched an old star and may be sending him further than he has ever gone.

“Since Cannes, my career has had more forward progress than it did any time after one of my hits,” Travolta says. “In terms of both the quality of the projects offered and the money paid.”

Says Jonathan Krane, a film producer who has doubled for the last 10 years as Travolta’s business manager: “It has been the most direct and immediate response I have ever seen in my life between a performance and the way it was received. From the moment the film was seen at Cannes, (industry) people have been coming to John with offers.”

Though “Pulp Fiction” has so far been seen only at festivals, Travolta has already signed for two new movies, including one--an MGM adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s bestseller “Get Shorty"--that provides the highest upfront salary of his career (which he declined to confirm but is reportedly about $3.5 million), plus a reported $750,000 bonus if he receives an Oscar nomination for “Pulp Fiction” and another $750,000 if he wins.

“I don’t know if that’s ever been done before,” Travolta says of his bonus arrangement with the producers of “Get Shorty.” “Wouldn’t it be something if I started a trend?”

Before taking on the role of Chili Palmer in “Get Shorty,” Travolta will star in “White Man’s Burden,” a low-budget independent feature being produced by Tarantino’s film company and directed by Tarantino’s friend Desmond Nakano. Travolta says he loves Nakano’s story, a dramatic fable about a society in which the roles of whites and blacks are reversed, but acknowledges that he agreed to work with a first-time director partly out of loyalty to Tarantino and to his partner, Lawrence Bender.

“I have to trust those guys because I’m where I am because of them,” Travolta says. “It’s funny, one movie can make you, and one movie can remake you. It’s like I went to the moon, then came back down to Earth, and now I get to go to Mars or someplace.”

Earth to moon in this celestial metaphor is Englewood, N.J., where Travolta grew up, to Hollywood, where he gained quick fame as Vinnie Barbarino in ABC’s “Welcome Back, Kotter” (1975-79) and as Tony Manero and Danny Zuko in the movie blockbusters “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) and “Grease” (1978). For a while, Travolta even reigned atop the rock charts as a recording artist.

Moon to Earth was his fall from grace after the 1985 flop “Perfect” and a series of movies that were barely released in theaters. His fall was broken by the popular “Look Who’s Talking” series, but his role did little to resurrect Travolta as a dramatic leading man.

Now, thanks to Tarantino, a 31-year-old fellow high school dropout who had been a fan of Travolta’s since grade school, the star is headed for Mars or someplace.

“It’s like this young man comes into my life and gives me an opportunity to rekindle the kind of career people expected from me and that I expected from myself,” Travolta says. “There was always a trickle of hope brought in with each production, but last year, I just decided to live my life and stop worrying about (my career). Then, within a couple of days, I got a call from Quentin.”

To appreciate the full impact of that call, you have to imagine another lunch scene, this one in the restaurant of Beverly Hills’ Four Seasons Hotel. It was there, early last year, where Travolta and Tarantino--whose first feature, “Reservoir Dogs,” had made him one of the hottest directing prospects in the industry--first met.

“I was writing ‘Pulp Fiction’ then, but I didn’t have John in mind for a part,” says Tarantino, an inveterate movie buff who can recall Travolta’s films with almost scene-for-scene detail. “In the back of my mind, I hoped we’d get along and that I could work with him later, but I just wanted to meet him.”

Travolta says he agreed to the lunch because his agent and friends urged him to, and because he was flattered by Tarantino’s enthusiasm. The guy was hot, sure, but after taking a look at the ultra-violent “Reservoir Dogs” on video, he wondered, “What would I be doing in something like this?”

The Four Seasons lunch was another gusher for Travolta, who nourished himself on Tarantino’s praise. And Emma Thompson, who was eating at another table, dropped by to flatter him some more. Thompson, who won the best actress Oscar for the previous year’s “Howards End,” had been a Travolta fan since her uncle took her to see “Saturday Night Fever,” she told him; then, turning to Tarantino, she admonished him to “put this man in one of your movies; he needs a good movie.”

Travolta had been in similar situations before and didn’t think there was anything special going on.

Tarantino, who collects board games based on movies and TV shows, ended that lunch by inviting Travolta to drop by his West Hollywood apartment the following week to play the games he had that were based on “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever.” Travolta agreed.

In the “Grease” game, Tarantino says, each person plays a disc jockey collecting hit records. “When we started, John said, ‘This is a really lame game,’ but every time a song title came up, we’d both start singing. You’re not supposed to, but we did. It was great.”

If Tarantino’s neighbors were wondering why two grown men were belting out the lyrics to “You’re the One That I Want” that night, what they were doing was sowing the seeds of Travolta’s comeback. Tarantino went back to writing “Pulp Fiction,” suddenly inspired to tailor one of his principal characters for the star, while Travolta went blithely on with his life.

As grim as things may have seemed to outsiders looking at Travolta’s career, the actor says he was on a personal high in 1993. He had married actress Kelly Preston in 1991, and their son, Jett, was barely a year old. The couple divide their time between homes in the Spruce Creek Fly-In development in Florida, on an island off the coast of Maine and in Carmel.

Travolta, an avid flyer since age 16, owns three jets (yes, his son was named for his hobby), and he keeps the two smaller ones--a Lear and a vintage Vampire British fighter--in the hangar behind his house in Daytona Beach. With wealth, lovely homes, a beautiful wife, a son he says has given him a sense of wonder and vulnerability he had never known before, Travolta was facing his 40th birthday with everything his heart desired--except a flourishing film career.

How did an actor who, at 22, was being heralded by some as the new Marlon Brando, end up making movies that barely went to video, let alone theaters, a decade later?

“Up until 1985, I think I made all the choices I was supposed to make,” Travolta says. “But when the onslaught of wonderful young actors came on the scene--Tom Hanks, Cruise, Costner, Mel Gibson--it was suddenly less interesting to give me all the best scripts. It wasn’t that there weren’t hits or some good work after that, but it wasn’t at the top level. . . . I had to settle for third and fourth choices and make the best of what was offered to me.”

Travolta insists that things were never as grim as they may have seemed to outsiders examining his career. There was always something going on, offers he didn’t take, or things that didn’t pan out.

He thought he had it wired in 1989, when he starred in a Michael Douglas-produced drama called “The Tender” and in Robert Altman’s one-hour dramatization of Harold Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter.” But “The Tender” got caught up in a bankruptcy and has never been released, and “The Dumb Waiter,” in which Travolta plays a cockney British hit man, was dumped by ABC in a low-viewer time slot.

Altman raves about Travolta’s performance in “The Dumb Waiter,” while acknowledging that he agreed to consider him only because he was asked to by a network executive.

“I would never have cast him based on what I’d seen him do before,” Altman says. “I was impressed with his confidence. He said he could do it and I believed him. . . . I was thrilled with what he did, and Pinter just loved him.”

When you look at Travolta’s career in the context of what was going on in Hollywood, he seems as much a victim of timing as of mismanagement. He arrived at the very moment the studios were trying to target youth audiences with either special effects or fad movies, and with his good looks, dramatic talent and music ability, he was the perfect candidate for those pop culture movie events.

“Saturday Night Fever” tapped into the disco craze, “Grease” into ‘50s nostalgia, “Urban Cowboy” into cowboy chic, “Perfect” into the health club singles scene. When Travolta wasn’t in films exploiting pop culture trends, he was being exploited himself, in Sylvester Stallone’s “Staying Alive” and in “Two of a Kind,” a listless comedy whose only draw was his on-screen reunion with “Grease” co-star Olivia Newton-John.

“Because he rose so fast, when the chain was broken, he fell very quickly,” says movie critic Gene Siskel, who ranks “Saturday Night Fever” among Hollywood’s greatest coming-of-age movies. “After that, people put him in a box. He was perceived of as a youth performer. People loved him so much in that youthful role, they didn’t want to let it go.”

The truth is that even if Travolta had wanted to try some small, “serious” films, the industry wasn’t making many of them in the early ‘80s. Only at the end of the decade did the studios begin to recognize the viability of movies aimed at older audiences. By then, Travolta’s image was closer to that of Tab Hunter than Marlon Brando.

“I don’t think people doubted he was a good actor,” says “Pulp Fiction” producer Bender. “But there was the perception in Hollywood that John Travolta was not going to get your movie made.”

Travolta himself acknowledges that when “Look Who’s Talking” was being developed, the studio would green-light it only if one of five actresses--Kirstie Alley, Meg Ryan and Goldie Hawn among them--would agree to co-star. The movie, released at Christmas in 1989, eventually grossed $138 million, and the first sequel, “Look Who’s Talking Too,” sold another $47 million in tickets. Travolta made a lot of money through profit participation, but the level of scripts being offered to him did not improve.

Re-enter Quentin Tarantino.

While Travolta was preparing for the third “Look Who’s Talking” movie in Vancouver, Canada, Tarantino was tailoring the role of hit man Vincent Vega in “Pulp Fiction” for him.

“After meeting John, I kept thinking of him whenever I was writing for Vincent,” Tarantino says. “I had another actor (Michael Madsen) in mind when I started out, but I could see John doing it. When I finished, I called him and said, ‘I’m sending you something. Look at Vincent.’ ”

“It was an amazing script,” says Travolta. “Beyond clever, it was alive and unique and real. I thought, ‘I would love to do this character, but there is no way in hell they’re going to let me.’ ”

Travolta’s instincts were right.

“The reaction was ‘You can get anybody in the world--why do you want John Travolta?’ ” Bender says.

Travolta said at a press conference in Cannes that Tarantino had put his job on the line to get him in the movie, and publicly thanked him for it. Tarantino says he didn’t have to go quite that far, saying he persuaded the film’s financial backers with “my enthusiasm.” Even after he was approved for the role, Travolta had to sign on for a fee that he says didn’t even cover his expenses.

“I said to (Miramax Chairman) Harvey Weinstein, ‘I’ll accept this, but isn’t this inverted? I grew up thinking that if you did some work, you got paid for it.’ I just had to look at it as an investment, and it worked out pretty well.”

In the final analysis, of course, it’s the performance, not the casting gimmick, that has returned Travolta to the Hollywood A-list. With shoulder-length hair and earrings, his six-foot frame swollen to a sluggish 200 pounds, Travolta plays Vincent as a gently disoriented sociopath, talking his partner’s ears off about the comparative qualities of American- and foreign-made French fries while preparing to carry out a Mob execution.

As critic Pauline Kael observed about him early in his career, Travolta is a great physical actor--"he has the gift of transparency,” she wrote--and you can hardly look at Vincent floating along on a heroin high and not giggle.

There is certainly nothing transparent in Travolta’s appearance. He was more than 40 pounds heavier for “Pulp Fiction” than he was for “Saturday Night Fever” and is unabashed about it. There’s a scene in the film where he is compelled to strip, and, by his own description, it’s not a pretty sight.

“When I saw that scene for the first time in Cannes, I went, ‘Ooh.’ I told Quentin, ‘I’ll do this, but if I turn around and show my big ass, audiences will be going, ‘Do we really have to?’ ”

Asked about his weight now, Travolta runs through the numbers as if they were part of his resume. He weighed 180 as Barbarino, 160 as Tony Manero and nearly 230 as the expectant father of Jett Travolta. “When Kelly ate,” he says, “I ate with her.”

Tarantino says Travolta offered to bulk up for the role of Vincent, but they agreed that a middle-aged hit man addicted to heroin and french fries wouldn’t spend much time in the gym.

The real genius was in Tarantino’s casting of Travolta, says the star’s supporters. “There is a sweetness that’s always there,” critic Siskel says. “That’s a real powerful thing in him.”

“John has a quality of vulnerability and emotional connection that is evident in every movie he’s ever done,” says producer and business manager Krane. “You get it from him no matter what kind of character he plays.”

John Badham, who directed Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever,” ranks his Oscar-nominated performance in that film as one of the finest he has ever seen and says it would have been a different movie with anyone else in the role.

“Tony Manero was the most negative, rude, manipulative, using kind of character that I’d ever seen in a script,” Badham recalls. “An actor without sympathy would have made him totally hateful. John brought a quality to him that made him work, made audiences feel something for him.”

Seventeen years later, Travolta seems to have done the same thing in “Pulp Fiction” for Vincent Vega, a lowlife thug with a quick trigger and a kindly spirit.

There is a scene in “Pulp Fiction” in which Vincent accidentally shoots a man in the head, creating a mess in his and his partner’s car that takes them the next 20 minutes of screen time to clean up.

“That scene to me was the hardest part of saying yes to the project,” Travolta says. “In the original script, I shoot the guy once in the throat and he’s still alive, so I have to shoot him in the head to put him out of his misery. Then we worry about the mess. It was the scene most like the torture scene in ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ and I didn’t think it was going to be funny.”

Travolta ended up suggesting changes that both soften the cruelty of his character and take the entire sequence directly into black comedy.

However “Pulp Fiction” does at the box office, Travolta says, it has already changed his life and his thinking about the industry that coveted him, rejected him and is now coveting him again.

“Warren Beatty told me something 10 years ago that I didn’t quite believe,” Travolta says. “I asked him, ‘Warren, what’s more important: movies that do well from a box-office point of view or movies that the industry admires more?’ Without a beat, he said, ‘What you need to do is impress the people who can further your career.’ I thought he was crazy, but I can’t disagree now. The perception of ‘Pulp Fiction’ is changing the perception of who I am in Hollywood.”

As for Tarantino, the fan who rescued the star, it all seemed so obvious.

“It drove me crazy in the last five years seeing John in the movies he’s been in,” Tarantino says. “I looked at them and said, ‘Why aren’t directors taking advantage of him? Don’t they know they have this great natural resource out there?’ ”

They do now.


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