At the moment John Travolta is in one of his favorite places: up in the air. Thirty-nine thousand feet above the ground, in the cabin of his Lockheed JetStar 731, he leans back and lights up. “I always liked the smell,” he says, although his cigar looks incongruous with his boyish face. “My father used to have one every night, and it reminds me of home.”
For Travolta the comforts of home can be found aboard the plane, which seats 10 and serves as his sanctuary. After takeoff the steward changes from one black-tie outfit to another. The printed menu distributed on board lists the gastronomical pleasures that constitute a star’s supper: poached artichoke hearts, salad of radicchio and sweet corn, mille-feuille of king salmon with mousseline de mer. Before departure the catered meal arrived in a silver stretch limo. In a swivel chair Travolta puffs with his feet up. As his current co-star, Jamie Lee Curtis, observes, “In terms of life-style John’s very much a movie star in the old tradition. He loves being a movie star, and he makes no bones about it.”
Travolta is flying from Los Angeles to New York for the premiere of his new feature, Perfect, the 10th movie in his erratic screen career. Since he considers himself one of Hollywood’s most interviewed celebrities, his career in a sense has provided on-the-job training for Perfect, in which he plays a Rolling Stone reporter tracking a drug scandal and health-club mating habits in Southern California. These days interviewing Travolta is like auditing the IRS. Since making Perfect he can rattle off a journalist’s tricks of the trade faster than you can use them on him. But John Travolta and Adam Lawrence, the movie’s protagonist, do share one crucial characteristic. “Adam treats every interview as a seduction,” says Travolta. “John Travolta treats every encounter that he likes as a seduction. If there’s someone who’s appealing on any level, I like
to seduce. I don’t mean that sexually—but in terms of communication. In fact that was probably the most clever aspect of using me for this role.”
After the arrested adolescence of Staying Alive and Two of a Kind, Perfect also represents a clever turning point for Travolta: This time, he gets white-collar work as well as the girl. “He’s the most intellectual character I’ve ever played,” says Travolta, 31. Co-star and longtime pal Marilu Henner agrees: “For the first time Johnny’s showing a thinking man’s sexuality.” At a press conference in L.A., however, one newspaper reporter said to Travolta, “I noticed there was never a scene where you showed your chest. I wonder if that’s because you have a much better body than most journalists?” Yes, Travolta still works out as he did during the shooting of Staying Alive, but no, he’s not as fanatical about maintenance as he was then. “There’s no one who likes the pleasures of the body more than I do,” he says. “Food, sex, the works.”
If Perfect suggests that Travolta is finally growing up onscreen, he’s also calming down off. Although Perfect has been branded as severely imperfect by most critics, he doesn’t consider it a do-or-die movie—as he did Urban Cowboy after Moment by Moment. “You know what it is?” says Travolta, who likes to ask as many questions as he answers. “I know now that one movie isn’t going to make all the difference for me. And believe me, that’s settled me down a lot.”
When Travolta considers the ups and downs of his career, he fashions himself redressed for success. After Saturday Night Fever transformed him from actor to phenomenon, “What I was wanting to happen in my life was what I thought would make me happy. And the interesting thing is, a lot of it did. There’s this part of me that said, John, who are you fooling? Success may entertain you immediately, but will it have any lasting effects? But it did make me much happier. I think setting a goal, going after it and getting it does make one happy. And there’s nothing wrong with that either.” In the age of angst, Travolta has proved to be an anomaly: the unapologetic movie star.
Glamour may be unglamorous among Hollywood’s new inconspicuous-consumption stars, but not with Travolta. “There’s an innate sense of glamour about John,” says Perfect producer-director Jim Bridges. “He lives his life in a way that’s exciting to hear about.” Since buying the JetStar a year ago, Travolta has spent 200 hours in it, flying to England, Greece, France and Egypt. In addition to this 550 mph plane, he owns a Constellation and a Cessna Citation. Parked at his 17-acre Santa Barbara ranch are a Jaguar, Rolls, Mercedes, Cadillac, Thunderbird and a limo. “My theory is, if I saw a star resentful of what he has, I’d say, how dare he? God, if somebody is not going to live it to the fullest, why did you want it? Growing up, if I had thought while watching Bonnie and Clyde that Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway didn’t jet around and dress up and have fine things, it would have killed me.”
Ironically, in an earlier incarnation, prestige perks nearly poisoned Travolta’s career. A celebrity’s insecurity can often be measured by the size of the entourage, and in the frenzy after Saturday Night Fever, Travolta was increasingly seen as a pampered phenomenon who couldn’t function without his attendants and couldn’t flourish with them. When director Bridges first worked with Travolta on Urban Cowboy and the circumference of Travolta’s inner circle, he nearly left the project. Bridges recalls confronting one of the hangers-on: “I said, ‘I cannot make this movie this way. When I want to talk to John, I cannot have to go through three secretaries.’ Once John got rid of all those people, he was much more comfortable. He feels secure, and some of it has to do with listening to his own voice.”
For Travolta a more important milestone was an inevitable occasion: turning 30 in February 1984. Birthdays are bittersweet occasions for Travolta. As the baby in a family of six kids, he grew up with elderly parents. “I’m realizing that for so much of my life I had an older viewpoint; I saw things as an older person,” he says. “That’s common among change-of-life babies. So I have this dichotomy where I’m either like super young or feel like I’m coming to the end of my years.”
For his 30th birthday Travolta had planned a barnstorming celebration. “I was going to get into my plane and fly to different cities and celebrate.” Instead he had a panicky change of heart. He sent for his sister Margaret and her family in Chicago and threw a small party on his ranch. “I have it on videotape. It’s so weird. If you’ve seen photographs or film of those old-age homes when they have kids’ birthday parties with hats and things—that’s what this looked like. It’s really sort of pathetic, you know,” he says. Only in retrospect does Travolta realize that 30 was a turning point. Says Henner, reflecting on the changes in her confidant, “Your life starts to take shape at 30. You don’t have to make excuses for who you are anymore.”
The subject is poses. With a flick of the wrist and a raising of the chin, Travolta assumes a feminine, haughty voice that sounds familiar. “Take a letter,” he says. “Tell my fans that I’m going to change my shirt.” He’s doing Faye Dunaway doing Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. “When the head of Pepsi-Cola teams up with a movie star, what an act!” he says.
To understand Travolta you need to understand about Mommie Dearest. For most, the movie was a perverse joke. For Travolta, the movie really made an impression. In the Englewood, N.J. household where he was raised, “We were a theatrical family; my mother loved that era,” says Travolta. Helen Travolta, an actress and drama teacher, used to mirror the movie star poses of the day in photographs. “We have pictures of her holding my sister Ellen up and kissing her in profile like the stars did in magazines.”
There’s more than Mommie Dearest in Travolta’s repertoire. “There’s a really zany comedian in John, which is a side he’s never shown onscreen,” says Henner. His impersonations know no ethnic or sexual boundaries, ranging from Stevie Wonder and Jimmy Stewart to Cyndi Lauper and Barbra Streisand. If there’s one thing Travolta enjoys more than being earnest, it’s being entertaining. “Then there’s Warren Beatty,” continues Travolta, and the eyes squint. “You have to know Warren to appreciate it,” says John in a reasonable facsimile of Beatty’s breathy inflections. “Warren has a little trouble with his eyes that borders on Hasidic.”
The point isn’t just that everyone is material for Travolta; every impersonation is issued with a disclaimer: “He’s really a friend.” The point isn’t just that those impersonations are telltale signs of Travolta’s most ingratiating role—the star-struck star. The point is, in private or public, performing is Travolta’s favorite form of seduction.
In a way Travolta and his latest character are a Perfect couple: His most complicated long-term relationship, after all, has been with the media. In the fast, Feverish days he was viewed as the boy in the plastic bauble. With Staying Alive he was the body that Sly built. With the possible exception of Cher, no other contemporary actor has so well mastered the essential Hollywood art: Reinventing yourself constantly is the best way of staying alive. “People have either complimented me or criticized me for my choice of material, but it’s worked,” says Travolta. “You surprise people with a new ability, and that will keep up interest. It’s all about keeping up interest.” He has already contracted for his next incarnation: movie director. He plans to start production this fall on a drama about, appropriately enough, money, happiness and the pursuit of both. “It’s about a family that loses its wealth and has to deal with that,” says John.
The night flight is nearing its end. If Travolta had kids, it would probably be the smell of this jet not the smell of cigars that would remind them of home. Around midnight the plane approaches an airport in Teterboro, N.J. Down below, awaiting the return of the native, is a trio of limos that will spirit Travolta and his crew into Manhattan. For John, coming home means calming down. As the runway lights rapidly converge and the ground rushes forward in the dark, Travolta isn’t worried about the landing. Instead of looking out the window, he is staring straight ahead and singing The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Aloud. Alone.