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John Travolta’s 10 best films ranked in order of greatness

I don’t think I’m very cool as a person. I’m just better than anyone else at acting cool.

Although he has a very cool and enigmatic jaunt on the dance floor, John Travolta has had a very tumultuous life. He had risen to fame in the 1970s but subsequently toppled over in the following decade. A resurgence of his career was noted subsequently after he enacted in quite a number of successful films. Despite the lack of Academy Awards to his name, he boasts of a golden globe, Emmy as well as an IIFA Award for Outstanding Achievement in International Cinema. Amicable and sensitive, his characters have been enacted with absolute dedication and perseverance which reflects his prowess as an actor. 

Born to Salvatore Travolta and Helen Cecilia, John Travolta was the youngest of the six children. His father was a semi-professional football player while his mother an actress and singer as well as high school drama and English teacher. All his siblings, inspired by their mother’s love and appreciation for art and theatre, grew up to be actors. However, none so popular as good old John who dropped out of school at the mere age of 17 and travelled all alone to New York City to bag the coveted role in the musical Grease. 

After a successful stint in musicals and screen roles, his breakthrough film roles came prancing into his life in 1977 and 1978 with Saturday Night Fever and Grease respectively. Being enormous commercial successes, the films catapulted his career and earned him a spot among the most sought-after actors in Hollywood. For Saturday Night Fever, Travolta earned an Academy Award nomination and went on to become the youngest actor ever nominated for the Best Actor award. 

After a brief downfall in the 1980s due to commercial failures, Travolta went through a somewhat personal crisis and declined lead roles that went on to be commercial successes. It was Mr Quentin Tarantino who waltzed into his life as an angel with the role of Vincent Vega in his 1994 film Pulp Fiction which turned out to be the highlight of Travolta’s career. With his career being resuscitated, Travolta started appearing in various films. However, tragedy struck in 2020, when he lost his wife Kelly Preston, after which he decided to take a hiatus to be with his children. 

John Travolta is a prolific actor who had the capacity of turning abysmal films into good ones with his commanding on-screen presence. His dance moves have always been the epitome of his ultimate swagger, his expressions top-notch. He has been maligned and put down in various ways but his resilience and determination have kept him going. His career graph is extremely inspiring for it emphasises his never-give-up attitude. 

On Travolta’s 67th birthday today, let us take a look at his 10 best films where he has demonstrated his innate capacity to play any role with effortless ease.

John Travolta’s 10 best movie performances:

10. Primary Colors (Mike Nichols, 1998)

When the roman-à-clef about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential run was published under ‘Anonymous’ it caused ripples. This film adaptation, based on that book, sees a gifted young man by the name of Henry Burton being made to oversee the presidential campaign of the Governor of Arkansas Jack Stanton. Burton silently observes the ever-changing political landscape where Stanton’s ‘wandering eye’ could lead to his doom; Stanton’s difficult marriage with his ambitious wife Susan as well as problems with his advisor is also displayed to the fullest.  

Travolta said that he had based his performance on the behaviour of several presidents, especially Bill Clinton which earned him the nickname ‘Clintonian’. While Travolta could have definitely used more of his personal tactics to portray the role, he ended up impersonating. The film is wisely crafted and gives an insight into the world of politics. Kathy Bates won a SAG award for her brilliant performance.  

“We can do incredible things.”

9. Urban Cowboy (James Bridges, 1980)

Bud Davis, a dashing country boy, moves to Pasadena, Texas and frequents a bar named Gilley’s where he meets a cowgirl Sissy with whom he falls in love. Sissy believes in equality of sexes and although they marry, their marriage is dysfunctional due to Bud’s old-school views of conventional gender roles. They eventually separate owing to misunderstandings resulting from his rival trying ti seduce Sissy. However, he aims to win back her favour by partaking in a mechanical bull-riding competition where he attempts to win. 

Often referred to as the “country music version of Saturday Night Fever”, the film was adapted from an article in Esquire magazine. Although Travolta’s character views are quite despicable in retrospect, he has fiery on-screen chemistry with Debra Winger’s Sissy. The upheavals in their relationship are well-portrayed; however, one cannot help but feel like punching Travolta (despite his buff size) due to the problematic views he harbours in the film. 

“Sometimes even a cowboy’s gotta swallow his pride to hold on to somebody he loves.”

8. Hairspray (Adam Shankman, 2007)

John Travolta appears in this ground-breaking gender-bending role as an agoraphobic drag mother Edna Turnblad. After his incredible performance as Danny Zuko in Grease, he was the most sought-after for this role. He earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance. 

The film is set in 1960s Baltimore and revolves around Tracy Turnblad who loves dancing. She decides to audition on “The Corny Collins Show” and ends up winning which turns her into an overnight sensation as she transcends the conventional barriers in dance. Her talent and status threaten to dethrone the existing lead Amber and thus incorporate representation and diversity in the show. 

“Oh, Wilbur, to think that I almost stopped her from reaching for the stars!”

7. Blow Out (Brian DePalma, 1981)

Jack Terry is a sound technician whose sounding fails to live up to his director’s standards for a slasher flick. While he researches on finding the perfect scream, he chances upon an accident where a car stumbles off a bridge into the river. He is able to save one of the passengers by the name of Sally while the other passenger, a governor with the intention to run for President, is dead. As he investigates the tapes, he starts a dangerous romantic relationship with Sally and treads perilous waters which entangle him in dark and horrifying conspiracies. 

It is a film about making films and the importance of finding the perfect sound effect. Grisly and horrifying, the ending scene is sure to leave the viewers terrified as the director applauds Jack’s work while he recoils in disgust having to hear Sally’s painful screams over and over again. Travolta as Jack Terry portrays his character with the right amount of balance. The overall cynicism of the film, as well as the sick political motives goading murder and sex, leaves an ever-lasting impact on the audience.

“It’s a good scream.”

6. Get Shorty (Barry Sonnenfield, 1995)

As a Miami loan shark, Chili Palmer works for the psychopathic Bones, after his boss Momo dies. Bones assigns the task of collecting debt from Harry Zimm, a Hollywood producer, whose oeuvre includes trashy horror films. When Palmer meets Zimm’s preferred leading actress, there a romantic tension between them. When he pitches his own life story as a film plot, he quickly realises that as a mobster his life is no different from that of a Hollywood producer. 

Travolta received a Golden Globe for his performance as Chili Palmer in this film. Despite his diverse performances, he has not received any other award. He thrives in an entertaining comedic role in this satire.

“I don’t think the producer has to do much, outside of maybe knowing a writer.”

5. Face/Off (John Woo, 1997)

Sean Archer is an FBI agent whose vendetta against a terrorist Castor Troy arises when the latter’s stray bullet kills his son and injures Archer. He undergoes a face transplant surgery to take over Troy’s life and learn of all the secrets in order to protect the innocent while the cunning Troy take over Archer’s life. What ensues is a complex cat-and-mouse chase where the two men try to get to each other’s throats via heightened dramatisation of action sequences. 

To some, the film might seem to have an unbelievable and silly premise. However, both Travolta and Nicolas Cage received high praise for their electrifying performances. The film teases the viewers’ psyche as they have to reevaluate every scene trying to figure out who is the real character and who is the ‘other’. With dramatic violence and intense fight sequences, the film sees Travolta as a wonderful revenge-seeking heroic character.    

“It’s like looking in a mirror only… not.”

4. Carrie (Brian DePalma, 1976)

Adapted from Stephen King’s eponymous 1974 novel, the film sees Sissy Spacek as the titular Carrie White who has telekinetic abilities. After being emotionally abused by her fanatic mother Margaret who believes her to be possessed by a Devil and being bullied for menstruating in the school shower, followed by being dunked in pig blood by the bullies, Carrie unleashes her powers to avenge herself. 

Called a “landmark horror film” by leading magazines, DePalma’s brilliant cinematography gave the film a different space of its own. Although Travolta does not appear in a lead role, he is extremely despicable and vile as the school bully Billy Nolan who joins his equally evil girlfriend Chris Hargensen in pushing Carrie to the very threshold of patience. They derive sadistic pleasure in bullying her and make her life a living hell. Billy meets a very desirable end and one cannot help but wish they died a bloodier death. 

“It was bad, mama. They laughed at me. Hold me, Mama. Please hold me.”

3. Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978)

Set in the greaser generation, the local guy Danny Zuko meets Sandy Olsen on the beach and falls in love with her. After a whirlwind of summer romance, it is discovered that they both attend Rydell High School. Sandy tries to reconcile with Danny but is humiliated when he rebuffs her to maintain his cool-boy attitude in front of his gang. They keep getting embroiled in various encounters through which they realise their mutual love for each other, while Sandy herself undergoes a transformation from being the stock innocent and virginal character to a female greaser.

One of the most popular teen-age musicals, the film has garnered a massive cult following. With the quintessential bad-boy-meets-good-girl theme, the film sees John Travolta as Danny Zuko who tries to maintain a double-life while being desperately in love with Sandy. He keeps the film going and prevents it from going sour. He lights up the screen on fire with incomparable swagger, upbeat dance moves and energetic madness. The film is a love poem for the greaser generation and with its infectious and catchy dance numbers, remains a timeless favourite even over four decades after its release. 

“That’s cool baby, you know how it is, rockin’ and rollin’ and what not.”

2. Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977)

Tony Manero, a 19-year-old Italian America, is caught in the dreadful shackles of everyday life by working a job and living with his daily. To seek escape, he visits a local disco where his exemplary dancing skills win him the appreciation and applause he craves. While he rebuffs he advances of Anette, a neighbourhood girl, who is in love with him, he enters an upcoming dance contest with an attractive woman named Stephanie to whom he is attracted much to Anette’s dismay. As the competition draws closer, he grows more and more disillusioned as the world starts falling apart. 

The poignance of the story lies in the various heavyweight issues it deals with including racial discrimination, sexual assault and gang violence. The film is shouldered by the one and only John Travolta whose mesmerising dance performances, as well as an energetic on-screen presence, adds to the beauty of the film. He hits the bull’s eye with a perfect Brooklyner accent and portrays the role of a disillusioned teen with effortless ease. Once he is on-screen, one cannot afford to pay attention to the ancillary characters, given his overwhelming presence and captivating performance. 

“There’s ways of killing yourself without killing yourself.”

1. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) 

Pulp Fiction is a product of Tarantino’s eccentric mastery and made him a household name. The narrative transcends chronology to mirror the anthological structure of Tarantino’s favourite pulp magazines. John Travolta, who had become a lost- Hollywood star, had his career resuscitated by Tarantino when the later roped him in to play the role of Vincent Vega. Tarantino’s brutal and complicated crime and drug-fuelled odyssey through L.A.’s underworld witnesses Vincent and his partner, Jules Winnfield to recover the stolen briefcase containing valuable possessions from the gang and return it to Marsellus Wallace, while constantly evading the seductive advances of his boss’s wife, Mia Wallace. 

Level-headed and rational under the effect of heroin, Vega saves Mia from a heroin overdose by plunging adrenaline into her chest. He is not afraid of having a good time and likes to have things under his control.  Unfortunately for him, whenever he goes to the bathroom, mishaps occur. Mia’s overdose, the coffee shop robbery, as well as his murder at the hands of Butch, occurs right after he visits the toilet. Much like the iconic dance scene, which was supposed to be ‘The Twist’ but was mainly improvised on spot, Travolta danced his way back into mainstream Hollywood with the character of Vincent Vega. 

“You play with matches, you get burned.”

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