For a time, the cinematic embodiment of cool was John Travolta. Two of his earliest films, 1977’s Saturday Night Fever and 1978’s Grease, established him as an actor of swagger, a cocksure and hip performer who could represent both a ‘50s-era version of popularity and the chic of the Disco era. In the ‘90s, for an even briefer time, Travolta’s star rose again because he was once again able to tap into his innate sense of coolness. The obvious example is his second wind of stardom brought about by the perfect storm known as Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, released in the fall of 1994 to widespread acclaim. Generally, Travolta’s career got a shot in the arm after the release of Pulp Fiction, leading to him starring in a handful of action films and comedies intended to re-cement him as an A-Lister.
To hear Travolta say it, Tarantino had more than a helping hand in his immediate choices post-Pulp. Over the span of just a handful of months in late 1995 and early 1996, Travolta co-starred in three films: Get Shorty, White Man’s Burden, and Broken Arrow. The latter action film (which inspired the name of film site Ain’t It Cool News, in news you can truly use) was from one of Tarantino’s favorite action filmmakers, John Woo. White Man’s Burden, which proposed an alternate history in which white people were discriminated against, based on the color of their skin, by black people, was produced by Tarantino’s cohort Lawrence Bender. In the Los Angeles Times, Travolta said it directly enough: “He recommended both these movies I’m doing now, ‘Get Shorty’ and ‘White Man’s Burden.’ It was kind of his managerial influence on me.”
That managerial influence only resulted in one true success, however – just one movie that actually served as proof that John Travolta still had the ineffable quality of cool, and it arrived one year after Pulp Fiction. Even if Tarantino hadn’t been directly encouraging of Travolta’s involvement, the connection would be unavoidable. After Pulp Fiction, he went on to adapt one of the many great novels from crime author Elmore Leonard with the 1997 classic Jackie Brown. But John Travolta got there first as the star of the 1995 adaptation of Leonard’s novel Get Shorty. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this week, Get Shorty remains the one truly emphatic example of Travolta using his newfound starpower to line up with the perfect project.
It’s not that Travolta was wanting for options after Pulp Fiction. Throughout the rest of the ‘90s, he once again turned into a well-known and welcome quantity. Aside from Get Shorty, he starred in a handful of action films such as Broken Arrow and John Woo’s operatic actioner Face/Off with fellow A-List ham Nicolas Cage. And there were comedies too, like Nora Ephron’s Michael, as well as his Clinton-esque turn in Mike Nichols’ Primary Colors. Even films like The General’s Daughter wound up doing decent box-office numbers in part because of Travolta’s commanding presence.
Yet the one thing that Get Shorty asked of Travolta is one thing he shies away from in so many of his roles. It’s the one thing, in fact, that made up the title of the inevitable 2005 sequel to Get Shorty, a sequel whose inevitability was as assured as its badness: Be Cool. The original film, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, needed Travolta at that exact moment in his career as much he needed the role of slick loan shark Chili Palmer. Chili starts out in Miami before winding up in Hollywood, involved with Hollywood producers, big-name movie stars, and the rough-and-tumble sorts behind the scenes. The film thrives on Travolta’s calm charm, embodied in a single exchange, as Chili deals with some sordid bad guys led by the enigmatic Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo).
“Excuse me, but who the f**k are you?” one of Bo’s faux-tough guys asks after some contentious back-and-forth with Travolta’s protagonist during a house call to a Z-movie producer who Chili’s helping out. Chili answers without hesitation and without raising his voice, “I’m the one telling you how it is. That’s not too hard to figure out, is it?” We can attribute some of what makes Chili Palmer such a fascinating antihero to both the script and to the source material. (Scott Frank, Get Shorty’s screenwriter, is clearly one of the few writers who could so confidently tap into Leonard’s distinctive voice; he went on to write the stellar adaptation of Out of Sight in 1998.) But the script demands a specific type of performance from its star, and Travolta succeeded amazingly, especially considering how rarely he tapped into his reservoir of cool moving forward. The key to the role comes early enough, after a few curlicue twists send Chili to Hollywood. When Chili arrives, it’s in the dark of night at the home of the aforementioned Z-movie producer Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman) to collect the man’s casino debt.
“Look at me, Harry,” Chili intones calmly. “I am looking at’cha,” Harry says shakily and offhandedly. but what Chili really wants is for Harry — and anyone he orders to look at him — to peer right into the depth of his soul, to understand that he means business. He needs the other person to grasp that, as he says later on, he’s the one saying how it is. Throughout the film, Chili isn’t just ordering others to look at him, but he’s trying to teach them how to pull off the same trick. Harry can only do it well over the phone, to another Miami gangster (Dennis Farina); in the same room, he folds like a cheap table. (A quick note: as firm as Travolta is, watching the often-terrifying Gene Hackman play such a weenie is both very funny and very strange.) But the “Shorty” of the title, Martin Weir (Danny DeVito), gets it quickly enough that he’s able to intimidate Harry in spite of just being an overpaid actor.
The blend of coolness and toughness is what made John Travolta John Travolta. There was nothing cooler than watching Tony Manero swagger his way down the streets of Brooklyn, or Danny Zuko boogying with the T-Birds, decked out in his slicked-back hair and leather jacket. And Vincent Vega, before he’s gunned down unceremoniously, evinces an old-fashioned sense of cool, dancing his way to victory at Jack Rabbit Slim’s with the boss’s wife in a scene whose choreography as iconic as any of Travolta’s disco moves. Yet after Get Shorty, Travolta’s filmography descended quickly. There were a few solid enough entries after Get Shorty (though this writer isn’t the biggest Face/Off fan), yet Travolta rarely ever even tried to harness the innate charm that had turned him into a movie star. The few bright spots, such as his supporting turn as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, were overshadowed by still-laughable flops like Battlefield Earth, and felt intended to make Travolta a walking joke. (And then there are films like Gotti, about which…well, never mind.)
Even Travolta’s return to Chili in Be Cool was a pale reflection of what he’d pulled off in 1995. The film felt like an attempt at a one-two knockout punch, reminding audiences why his star had been revived; it wasn’t just that he was playing Chili Palmer again, Travolta was reuniting with Uma Thurman! And you better believe they’d dance on screen too! That superficial reunion aside, Be Cool proved how singular Travolta’s talent could be, and what its limitations were. Though Travolta returned, only DeVito joined him; Be Cool even had a different director and screenwriter. Chili Palmer was the perfect role for John Travolta, but only at the right moment.
John Travolta had a moment and a half in the mid-’90s. Few actors are fortunate enough to play such memorable, enduring characters in modern popular culture, let alone four. Though his career has dwindled over time, Travolta had one last gasp of cool in 1995. Get Shorty was not a repeatable success, arriving at a period in American cinema when mid-budget films for adults were the norm, not the exception. Revisiting the film is a reminder that while Travolta can’t do it anymore, there was a time when he could stare anyone down, command their attention, and do it with a smile.