John Travolta is one of the greatest actors of his generation. It goes without saying that he is one of my favorite performers. It is never an insult when people tell me one of my performances reminded them of John Travolta. He has been the single most influential person to my approach to performing.
Putting together a Top 10 List of the best John Travolta films was a huge undertaking. He has turned in so many wonderfully nuanced performances over the years it is hard to narrow it down to just 10. Some of the films are shoe ins, but some might surprise you. I am hoping you’ll take some of my top ten as suggestions and take the time to watch them for the first time or rewatch them for renewed entertainment.
10) Gotti is one of John Travolta’s more recent films in which he plays crime boss John Gotti, who many referred to as the “Teflon Don.” The film co-stars Travolta’s late wife Kelly Preston as Gotti’s wife Victoria. The film was originally set to be released in December 2017, however the distributer (Lionsgate) sold the film back to its producers. After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, Gotti was released by distributers Vertical Entertainment and MoviePass Ventures in 2018. The film chronicles three decades of Gotti’s crime empire. Although it was panned by the critics, I felt that Travolta does an excellent job carrying the film on his shoulders and I think it is important that one of the pictures he made with Preston be among the Top 10.
9) Get Shorty is a 1995 comedy about Chili Palmer – a gangster from Florida who ends up in Los Angeles on a mission to collect a debt from B-movie producer Harry Zimm (played to perfection by Gene Hackman). Taking advantage of the situation, Palmer pitches Zimm on a film idea that gains legs and introduces him to the Hollywood system. It is a fish out of water story about an East Coast low level gangster parading around in Hollywood. The film is filled with great supporting performances from Danny DeVitto, Rene Russo, Dennis Farina, and Bette Midler.
8) I Am Wrath is a 2016 action thriller a run of the mill middle aged man whose wife is murdered in front of him. Even though Travolta’s character Stanley identifies the murderers in a police lineup, the corrupt police let the perpetrators go. That is when Stanley goes home and excavates a hidden trove of weapons and passports – suggesting a former life outside the law. It turns out Stanley is quiet the killing machine, and with the help of a Special Forces friend played by Christopher Meloni, he puts the wheels of justice in motion. Travolta is great as a one-time killing machine who put that life behind him, only to have to unexpectantly return to it one more time.
7) Phenomenon is a 1996 film in which John Travolta plays an everyday Joe named George who one night at the local bar sees a white light in the parking lot that nobody else sees. He is inexplicably transformed into a genius, able to read books in minutes instead of days allowing him to learn entire languages at the drop of a hat. Has he been touched by God? Have aliens experimented on him? You have to watch the film to find out. And the journey that the film takes you on is a very enjoyable ride. Travolta gives one of his finest performance.
6) Urban Cowboy is a 1980 romance set against the backdrop of a country and western bar where riding the mechanical bull is the favorite pastime for its patrons. John Travolta plays Bud Davis who is in a love/hate relationship with Sissy – a fiery independent woman played by the always delicious Debra Winger. Sometimes referred to as “Saturday Night Fever with country music”, the film features choreography by Patsy Swayze, an acclaimed dance teacher and mother of the late Patrick Swayze. The film grossed $47 million in the U.S.
5) Look Who’s Talking is a 1989 romantic comedy staring John Travolta and Kirstie Alley. Alley plays a single pregnant woman and Travolta plays the cab driver who takes her to the hospital and witnesses the birth of young Mikey. The thoughts of Mikey are voiced by comedic great Bruce Willis. Although peas from different pods, Travolta and Alley’s characters eventually find a romantic connection. It is a great movie that really shows off Travolta’s comedic skills.
4) Saturday Night Fever is a 1977 dramatic film set in the disco clubs of New York in the late 70s. John Travolta earned his first Academy Award nomination for his performance as 19-year-old disco king Tony Manero. The story is based on a 1976 New York magazine article written by British writer Nik Cohn. The film was a huge financial success earning $237 million worldwide and helped to popularize disco music. The soundtrack features the Bee Gees and is one of the best-selling movie soundtracks of all time.
3) Face/Off is a 1997 film from Chinese action director John Woo. It stars John Travolta and Nicolas Cage as an FBI agent and a terrorist who through movie medicine magic literally switch faces and infiltrate each other’s lives. It is a master class in acting as Travolta establishes the FBI character and then plays him a totally way when he becomes embodied by Cage’s terrorist character. Cage is just as phenomenal establishing his character as a bad guy and then having to fight for justice when he becomes inhabited by the FBI agent. This is one of Travolta’s finest acting achievements.
2) Grease is a 1978 song and dance movie based on the Broadway musical of the same name. It is hard to think of anyone else in the role of greaser Danny Zuko other than John Travolta. To say this film was an influence on my life would be an understatement. I still remember being a little kid dancing around my living room singing along to my sister’s Grease soundtrack album. Since then, I have directed stage versions of Grease twice, I have produced a production of Grease once, I choreographed a production once, and I played Danny Zuko once as well. It’s a story of the new good girl in town falling for the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Travolta is great. He shows he can sing, dance, and act. The film features a supporting cast of Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing, and Jeff Conaway. It remains one of my favorite movies of all time and has grossed over $369 million worldwide.
1) Pulp Fiction is a 1994 American crime drama written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. In it, John Travolta plays a hitman named Vincent Vega which landed him his second Academy Award nomination. Had he been nominated as a supporting actor I believe he would have won. The film is told out of chronological order which adds to its brilliance. The film also features Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Eric Stoltz, Christopher Walken, Bruce Willis, and Ving Rhames. The film totally changed how I viewed films from a story telling point of view. Travolta actually earned less money then it cost him to have his family with him for the shoot, but it was a worthwhile gamble because the film revived Travolta’s then struggling acting career.