Rob Edelman: Travolta/Gotti

Aug 13, 2018

The year only may be more than half-over, but I already can submit my vote for the worst film of 2018. That would be GOTTI, a biopic about the infamous mobster John Gotti, with John Travolta in the title role. Now Travolta is a charismatic actor and the film’s dismal failure is not his fault, but GOTTI is poorly written and cliché-ridden. It is an abysmal film, and it is yet one more example of Travolta’s long-standing inability to consistently choose first-class film roles.

Of course, this was not the case at the start of his career in the 1970’s, when TV’s WELCOME BACK KOTTER and his iconic star-making presence in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and GREASE earned Travolta instant acclaim. However, whenever certain actors embrace stardom, the question becomes: What will they do for an encore? Will they maintain that fame? They may earn headlines and awards now but in, say, five years, will movie lovers even remember them? Will they be asking, “Gee, what was the name of that actor who appeared in such-and-such film? Whatever happened to that actor?” For after all, as one year eases into the next, endless wannabe stars are hyped as “the new James Dean” only to become flavors-of-the-month (if not the week or day).

This might have been the fate of John Travolta. Indeed, after a series of films that either were box office duds or critical fiascoes, he found himself top-lining titles that did not even make it into theaters. Instead, they were released direct-to-VHS. So if John Travolta wanted to continue his career after his mid-1980’s decline, what would have been next for him? A role in a dinner theater production of THE ODD COUPLE, co-starring with a middle-aged David Cassidy? An Edd “Kookie” Byrnes-like appearance in a GREASE revival?

What happened next to Travolta was well-publicized and quite astounding. Enter Quentin Tarantino, who cast him in PULP FICTION, released in 1994. How many has-been actors reinvent themselves and rise above the purgatory of direct-to-video movies the way Travolta did in PULP FICTION? His presence as super-hip hit man Vincent Vega allowed him to emerge as a mature, tough, super-cool dude in the style of Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield, and his idol, James Cagney. In PULP FICTION, Travolta offered glorious evidence that his talent had been present all along. It just had been misused. Unfortunately, however, across the years-- no, across the decades-- this misuse continued.

Granted, not all of Travolta’s post-PULP FICTION films have been dreadful. In GET SHORTY, released a year after PULP FICTION, he did well playing another suave but tough gangster. But for every GET SHORTY, there have been endless clunkers. How many, for example, have seen-- or even heard of-- such titles as I AM WRATH, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES, LIFE ON THE LINE, and THE FORGER? All were made between 2014 and 2016. And the latest Travolta dud is GOTTI, as dismal a film as you likely will see in 2018.

Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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