John Travolta is talking about the allure of the classic Hollywood starstheir knack for establishing immediate intimacy with the audience. He mentions Barbara Stanwyck, who played the toughest, smartest broads of the '30s and '40s and who received an honorary Oscar in 1982, presented by Travolta. "If you'd met Stanwyck," he explains, "she would have crushed you with her ability to adore and adorn you, almost like a Southern belle." Then, to the journalist he's met only an hour before, Travolta says, "Stand up." When a movie star of three decades' eminence tells me to rise, I obey, and I'm now facing Travolta, nearly nose to nose. He clamps me in a python embrace. His blue eyes and soft voice start to flutter. "Oh, you came here to give me my Oscar!" he whispers in a dewy approximation of Stanwyck's purr to Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve (right before she devours him). Without easing his grip on mehe's still in the moment 25 years agohe says in his own voice, "And I'm standing here thinking, 'She's an 80-year-old woman, and I am captivated.'"
And I'm standing there thinking, I am a captive. But a willing one. Though I'm startled at having been spot-cast to play Travolta to his Stanwyck, I'm also tickled by what his actress wife Kelly Preston, who a few minutes before served us iced tea and scones, might find a curious sight: one middle-aged, heavyset man bear-hugging another. In a way, Travolta's giving me an in-person demonstration of the intimate bond he has created with moviegoers and is ever ready to display. "I have a tacit agreement with the audience," he tells me when we return to our respective couches, "that 'John's gonna do this thing now, and it'll entertain us.'"
And it's not as if Travoltathe sultry young stud of Saturday Night Fever and Grease, the wily thug of Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty and Face/Offhasn't been up close with another guy recently. In his new movie, Hairspray, based on the 1988 John Waters comedy and the 2002-Tony-winning musical, he does a funny-passionate dance with Christopher Walken. And Walken leads. Travolta, walking in the pumps of Divine in the earlier film and Harvey Fierstein on Broadway, plays Edna Turnblad, the beyond-zaftig Baltimore mom of a '60s teenage girl who dreams of appearing on a local TV dance show. (Walken is Edna's incorrigibly besotted husband.)
It's the most vivacious movie musical in ages, and Travolta is a big reason why. Encased in a foam-rubber fat suit, and channeling Blanche DuBois and Miss Piggy, he reveals his feminine side in a way that could have made Stanwyck smile in appreciation. And though Edna hasn't quite the agility of Saturday Night Fever's Tony Manero, Travolta is still a dancing champ at any weight.
Travolta hasn't sung in a musical in nearly 30 years, but he was practically born to the form. In the New York City suburb of Englewood, N.J., his Italian father Salvatore owned a tire shop, but his Irish mother Helen ran what John, the youngest of six, calls "the family business": show business. Mom directed local theater works; the other kids acted or studied music. John worked at becoming an actor-dancer-singer, and at 17 he almost won the title role in the Broadway Jesus Christ Superstar. The part he did get that year was in a summer theater revival of The Boy Friend. He has a word-perfect memory of the audition: "The producer, who was 93, said, 'There are people here who can sing and dance better than you. But nobody has as much fun on stage. I can't resist you. You're contagious. I am going to hire you because I have so much fun watching you.'"
The kid rose quickly through the ranks: Broadway debut at 20 in the World War II musical Over Here!, the lead role in the Broadway Grease at 21, TV fame as sexy Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back, Kotter at 22. Then the Fever struck. Travolta radiated old-time star quality in his first major film role; he had the strut, the moves and the blinding white suit to be a disco dreamboat. Six months after Saturday Night Fever, which had a boffo domestic box office of $94 million, came Grease, which earned twice that.
And six months after Grease: a stupendous flop, Moment by Moment ($11 million). He had endured the first big up-down in a notably seismic career. Urban Cowboy boom, Two of a Kind bust; Staying Alive a zig, Perfect a zag. The sassy-baby Look Who's Talking was his top grosser since Grease; then he had another recession until Pulp Fiction pegged him as the cool bad guy and won him a string of hits. Another soft phase set in until this year's comedy smash Wild Hogs.