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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

October 09, 1994|Jack Mathews | Jack Mathews is the film critic for New York Newsday. and

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.

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"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."

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.

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