Hit or Miss: The Career of John Travolta


Seeing what kind of messed-up half-thuggish hair and facial hair John Travolta is wearing in his next film is like following public appearances of Lady Gaga to see what bizarre outfit she’s concocted next, only Gaga can manage to pull it off at times. But seriously, middle-aged Vinny Barbarino has tried and done everything to “change his image” for a Hollywood and general public that has been unsympathetic.

It seems that ever since John went balls-out and took on dreadlocks for turn-of-the-century monstrosity that was Battlefield Earth, that he’s never really revived his career. Nearly every film he’s been in has been mediocre. Enough to get work, yes, but enough to get respect? Eh. So I’ve poured through the best and worst of Johnny T in honor of the next film that appears to continue the cycle of hair — which is now none — From Paris with Love.

I’m going through Travolta’s most notable films by decade, leaving out only a few for time’s sake. He tends to do well every other decade, so will that trend continue in the actor’ fifth decade of work? Is there a place for him anymore? Who knows …


Saturday Night Fever (1977) – HIT


After premiering on television’s Welcome Back, Kotter in 1975, Travolta became a sensation after the release of the disco movie of all time, Saturday Night Fever. Although from what I remember half of this movie is Travolta swaggering down the sidewalk to disco music, he became a teen heartthrob on a massive scale after this one. A disco-dancing movie is a peculiar way to skyrocket a career, so playing cinema psychologist, you might be able to look at that today and nod your head a bit.

Grease (1978) – HIT

With a background in musical comedy and having his big break in the stage version of this show at the age of 18, where else is a better fit for a teen idol than “High School Musical 1950.” It only helped that Grease went on to become the highest-grossing movie musical of all time, a record that still stands once you negate the classic Disney musicals. Adjust for inflation and it’s one of the all-time biggest movies. No. 26, actually.


Staying Alive (1983) – MISS

On the list off all-time bad movie choices, agreeing to a sequel to your disco film after disco was out of style (and disco did not go lightly) has to be up there. Add to that Sylvester Stallone as the director and the premise being about your disco character trying to make it on Broadway and you have an awful career move. This was the high watermark of a 10-year span where John disappeared.

Look Who’s Talking (1989) – HIT


It might not have been great, but this romantic comedy with Travolta, Kirstie Alley and a baby that talks like Bruce Willis was a big hit in 1989 and it pushed John toward his big comeback in the ’90s (albeit in the ’90s it wasn’t for comedy). The premise was cute enough and people dug it to the tune of nearly $300 million worldwide.


Pulp Fiction (1994) – HIT


Ah, finally. The movie that actually made John Travolta’s career. The number of films he got off playing Vince Vega lasted him at least through the rest of the decade and that was a lot of parts. He would’ve quite likley spiraled into romantic comedy oblivion without help from Quentin Tarantino. As a hit man who earned our sympathies, John was sharp. He earned his second (and most recent, naturally) Oscar nomination for the role. Sadly, it didn’t get much better than that.

Michael (1996) – MISS


Travolta followed up “Fiction” with a similar role as Chili Palmer in showbiz comedy Get Shorty, another solid film, but in 1996 he tried on telekinesis in Phenomenon and wings in Nora Ephron’s Michael. I saw parts of this movie on TV a few months back and the glued on feathers are not the only thing tacky about the film. Here we see John also going with the mistake of long hair again. Perhaps this was the beginning of the hair motif that’s butchered Travolta’s career.

Face/Off (1997) – HIT

Travolta’s second action thriller under the direction of John Woo,  Face/Off has a special place in my heart being one of the first R-rated films my parents ever let me see. Nic Cage and John Travolta wearing each others faces and that chick jabbing a butterfly knife into his leg? That’s awesome when you’re 10 or 11. That aside, this was actually one of Travolta’s better action movies.

A Civil Acton (1998) – HIT

We watched part of this movie in math class one year in high school, I have no friggin’ idea why. This, along with 1999’s The General’s Daughter was the last piece of good press Travolta ever got for doing a drama and really one of his last dramas. He takes on the role of an attorney fighting for the parents of children wanting to sue their water supplier for dumping toxic waste into the water supply.


Battlefield Earth (2000) – MISS


So it begins. This movie keeps popping up as one of the worst films of all-time, not just a terrible appearance from John Travolta in dreadlocks. I never saw it, though like many people at the time, I thought it looked cool given the current state of special effects. Of course I had no idea that this was a Scientology film (it’s based on the novel by the religion’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard) in addition to all the other terrible things it apparently is. People in 2099 will probably cite this as one of the worst movies of the century.

Swordfish (2001) – HIT

Although not a great movie, Swordfish was successful as a run-of-the-mill hacker thriller. This was the movie that rose to fame on Halle Berry’s tits. That’s all there is to say.

Be Cool (2005) – MISS

Get Shorty was a decent movie, but there was no reason to revisit Chili Palmer 10 years later, where he’s moved on from trying to make movies to making it in the music business. Though a different cast, Travolta’s days as a star vehicle in such a way were over.

Wild Hogs (2007) – MISS


Wild Hogs was a surprised financial success, but what Travolta might no have realized was the joke was on him as well as his other middle-aged biker buddies. Everyone knows there’s a difference between being laughed at and with: the old balls biker gang is an example of the former. Since this movie, Travolta has done nothing but garner poor reviews. Even the decent Hairspray had a rotten spot with Travolta’s cross-dressing turn as Edna Turnblad.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009) – MISS


The most recent of my Travolta film experiences and the first of the bizarre facial hair choices. A tattooed trash-talking criminal, Travolta was atrocious and completely detestable. Villains aren’t supposed to be liked, but they’re at least supposed to earn respect for being dastardly. Travolta earns no such credit. He sucks. Period. Will a fully shaved head and a filled-out goatee change his luck? What do you think?


  1. sorority says:

    Enjoyed the posts..

  2. hails says:

    i think john travolta looks handsome and sexy as heck with long hair. also, michael was a total hit. maybe not according to your stats or whatever it is, but you just have to get into it to understnd the whole idea of it.

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