Travolta's Cannes Closeup

By Nicholson, Amy | Variety, May 8, 2018 | Go to article overview

Travolta's Cannes Closeup


Nicholson, Amy, Variety


Cannes, 1978. That's when John Travolta realized his life had changed. The month before, the New Jersey sitcom kid's first starring film role in "Saturday Night Fever" had disco-danced him all the way to the Oscars. He lost, but here he was walking into the Hotel du Cap with his parents, past the topiaries, across the white marble floors, and "Bam!" says Travolta, still astonished by the memory, "I was on the cover of Time magazine."

"Travolta Fever" it screamed. In the photo, he was wearing a white suit and dancing. Of course he was. It was the way America pictured him. But for the first time, 24-year-old Travolta realized he'd gone global. "It was surreal," he says from his home in Los Angeles. "I was clocking for the first time the magnitude of what was happening to me. And little did I know that 'Grease'" - the movie he was in Cannes to promote - " would follow and even be even bigger."

So of course, he's celebrating the 40-year anniversary of that breakthrough moment in Cannes, where Travolta will receive Variety's inaugural Cinema Icon Award at the Hotel du Cap and premiere his latest film, "Gotti," on May 15. On May 16, he'll host a Cinema Masterclass at the Buñuel Theatre in the Palais and a screening of "Grease" on the beach.

Picture Danny and Sandy embracing in the surf as audiences bury their toes in the sand. Does he think people will sing? "Are you kidding?!" laughs Travolta. "Of course! It'll turn into a sing-a-long, it'll turn into a dance-a-long - it'll be wild!

"When I've sung a song that's effective, or danced and people like it, I like the admiration," admits Travolta, "but I'd rather they get up and sing with me or dance with me."

He hopes his masterclass will inspire practical, tangible, usable advice for the upcoming talents who tell him his movies made them want to act. "I'm willing to share anything I do know," says Travolta. "Everyone has a degree of ability."

An early tip: Memorize your lines before you audition. Some schools insist that starting rough makes an actor more impressive on set. "There's no time for that!" says Travolta. Producers deserve to pass on someone clutching their script. "All the people that memorized it and have the fortitude to create something for you? They're showing you right there that they can do it."

Travolta's speaking like a producer, which increasingly, he is. After two early experiments with "She's So Lovely" (which also played Cannes) and "Battlefield Earth" (which didn't), he didn't produce anything for 15 years. Since 2015's "Criminal Activities," Travolta's taken a more hands-on approach, producing 10 episodes of the Emmy-winning FX series "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson" and his long-gestating passion project, "Gotti."

"The only reason I'm more interested in producing is because I'm finding that unless I take responsibility for what I've done, it may not get done in a way that I want," says Travolta.

In today's rocky film landscape, the path to financial success changes every 18 months as Netflix, Apple and MoviePass shake up the terrain. Yet, people are too nervous to tear up their old maps. He's frustrated by what he calls the "automaticity" or "robotism" in the industry, where studios feel pressured to spend $25 million marketing a movie when only $5 million of that might reach the target audience, a waste he likens to "throwing a bunch of dimes at a telephone booth, hoping one gets in."

"Why they're comfortable with that is astonishing to me," says Travolta. "We didn't get into the business for a 9-to-5 kind of automatic life. We did it because of the creativity. So why would you accept such a boxed-in form?"

He's no longer content just showing up on set and "allowing the fates to have the outcome." When he looks at the future, he sees independent producers and studios learning to break that formula and find innovative - and, presumably, cheaper - ways to promote and distribute their films. …

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