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A young John Travolta made Grease watchable—and a huge box-office smash

A young John Travolta made <i>Grease</i> watchable—and a huge box-office smash
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The Popcorn Champs

The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?

John Travolta was 24 years old when he became quite possibly the biggest movie star in the world. Travolta, a high-school dropout from New Jersey, had entered America’s living rooms two years earlier as a wisecracking Brooklyn high-school meatball in the hit sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. Then he made two back-to-back smashes: one deeply depressing gritty-realist social drama, one sunny and cheesy retro musical. Both movies, different as they might have been, where built around the spectacle of John Travolta shaking his ass. The first of those movies, Saturday Night Fever, was a cultural sensation that made Travolta one of the youngest Best Actor Oscar nominees in history. The second, Grease, was the single biggest box-office hit of 1978.

Saturday Night Fever, which came out at the tail end of 1977, made for a very strange box-office success. It’s a truly depressing movie. Travolta’s Tony Manero is a deeply flawed character, one who’s really only good at dancing. Over the course of the film, Tony’s life falls apart. He quits his job, gets into meaningless brawls, watches his friend die and his family disintegrate, and attempts rape. Tony’s a rough hang. But he’s a perfect character for the stammering, strutting, inarticulate, beautiful John Travolta. The film truly comes alive whenever Travolta dances.

Saturday Night Fever producer Robert Stigwood did not waste any time capitalizing on what he had with Travolta. Six months after Saturday Night Fever opened, Travolta was back up on screens in another Stigwood production. This time around, Travolta was still dancing, but he wasn’t doing anything depressing.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an actor better-suited for a major film role than John Travolta in Grease. Travolta knew the material in Grease; as a high-school dropout in the early ’70s, he’d landed his first acting job in a touring production of the stage musical. (He played Doody.) As in Welcome Back, Kotter, Grease features Travolta as a good-looking, mouthy high-school kid. In Grease, as in Saturday Night Fever, the world stops whenever it’s time for Travolta to dance. Travolta also had aspirations at pop stardom. In 1976, he’d made it into the Top 10 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 with a truly wretched ballad called “Let Her In.” Grease gives him plenty of chances to sing. “You’re The One That I Want,” the first single from the Grease soundtrack—the second-biggest album of 1978, behind the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack—was a No. 1 hit by the time the movie opened.

In Grease, Travolta is at the absolute height of his powers. He’s in the opening scene, doing a knowingly cheesy From Here To Eternity beach-romance montage. But he gets a proper movie-star entrance a few minutes later: a zoom-in, a turnaround, a smirk perfectly timed to a soundtrack cymbal-ting. All throughout Grease, Travolta clearly understands and delights in his own movie-star appeal. He overplays everything, and he brings the same weird intense-guy-trying-to-be-cool vibe that he still has now. But he gets away with it because he looks the way he looks, and because he moves the way he moves. He’s a force charismatic enough to reinvent the ’50s teensploitation movie and to make it feel sexy.

Grease was really Travolta’s show. The film had a cast full of stage veterans, including a couple who’d been in the musical’s original Broadway run. And it was jammed with performances from ex-teen idols (Frankie Avalon, Edd Byrnes) and ’50s-vintage TV faces (Joan Blondell, Dody Goodman, 1945 Oscar winner Eve Arden). ’50s sketch comic Sid Caesar came on board when Paramount refused to let Stigwood cast porn star Harry Reems as the Rydell High football coach. But Travolta was the one who made all the important staffing decisions. He pushed for Stigwood to hire young director Randal Kleiser, who’d never made a theatrical film but had directed Travolta in the 1976 TV movie The Boy In The Plastic Bubble. And Travolta also suggested Olivia Newton-John as his co-star.

The English-born and Australian-raised Newton-John was a huge name by 1978, but she was famous for singing drippy ballads, not uptempo show tunes. The Sandy role had to be rewritten to suit her, since she couldn’t do a convincing American accent. And she’d never done much acting besides a starring role in Toomorrow, a Don Kirshner-produced 1970 psychedelic musical that was deemed unwatchable and quickly shelved.

Travolta got what he wanted because he was clearly the main draw in Grease. Without him, it would be entirely unwatchable. The film has the vague outline of a story: a guy and a girl like each other, but bad decisions and misunderstandings keep them apart until the final climactic makeout. But those story beats really just serve to string together the songs and set pieces. The whole film has an antic vaudeville feel. The high-school students all look old as hell. (Some of the actors playing them were past 30.) They act like Three Stooges understudies and talk like Jerky Boys. Boys stare up skirts and moon cameras. Girls chew gum and sneak bottles of dessert wine. The whole thing ends with a musical number made up almost entirely of hepcat gibberish and the goofy-surreal vision of a hot rod floating off into the sky. It’s pure weightless fantasia. Travolta sells it anyway.

Storywise, Grease does not give Travolta a whole lot to do. For instance, the only evidence that his character, Danny Zuko, is willing to change for Sandy is a brief few seconds of him wearing a letterman sweater after some weak attempts at becoming a jock. But Travolta throws himself physically into everything that the movie gives him. He lurches into a full-on Elvis Presley impersonation—something that probably had an extra sentimental appeal in 1978, since Presley himself had died less than a year earlier. He does an absurd side-shuffle while combing his hair. And in the showstopping hand-jive scene, my favorite bit from the movie, he holds together a whole lot of chaotic silliness by managing to peacock effectively while doing frantic antique dance steps.

In a way, though, John Travolta was not the biggest star in Grease. The biggest star was the entire idea of the 1950s. Grease was the culmination of a whole cultural wave of ’50s nostalgia that absolutely dominated popular culture in the 1970s. The phenomenon may have started before the ’70s even did, when sock-hop revivalists Sha Na Na played in the final hours of Woodstock, just before Jimi Hendrix. And the original Grease stage music was an early part of that wave as well. The play debuted at Chicago’s Kingston Mines nightclub in 1971 (authors Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey based it on their experiences at Taft High School on the city’s northwest side). A year later, it came to New York, became a massive Broadway hit, and played for the next eight years.

But Grease was only part of it. The first oldies radio station launched in Phoenix in 1971, and the format spread quickly. Happy Days, a sitcom about Midwestern malt-shop kids, came to TV in 1974; it stayed on the air for a decade and launched a whole series of spinoffs. In the mid-’70s, pop charts were dominated by covers of oldies from the early ’60s: The Carpenters doing “Please Mr. Postman,” Linda Ronstadt doing “You’re No Good,” Ringo Starr doing “You’re Sixteen.” Pre-Beatles hitmakers like Neil Sedaka, Johnny Mathis, and the Four Seasons staged comebacks. Rock ’n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry scored the only No. 1 hit of his career with a terrible 1972 novelty song about his dick.

And then there was American Graffiti, George Lucas’s warm-hearted comedy about teenagers cruising around and blasting the radio on a single night in 1963 Modesto. Lucas had a feel for the material; he’d been one of those kids. The film, made for less than a million dollars, was a surprise smash, one of the highest grossers of its year. (Its star, Richard Dreyfuss, went on to become the guy who beat Travolta for that Best Actor Oscar.) American Graffiti gave Lucas the cultural capital to make Star Wars, and it supercharged the nostalgia that was already in the air. In a way, then, Grease was the first post-George Lucas blockbuster. It was just surfing on the waves of American Graffiti, not Star Wars.

Looking back, that long stretch of ’50s nostalgia is a rich historical text. America spent much of the ’70s trying to make sense of the various convulsions of the late ’60s—the protests, the riots, the assassinations—as well as the great American boondoggles of Vietnam and Watergate. At the same time, Americans also rushed to consume any cultural artifact that reminded them of the era before the JFK shooting, of the time that was supposed to be so much more innocent.

Grease takes full advantage of that innocence. For the most part, the kids in the movie are horny in a safe, friendly, slapsticky sort of way, except for some dialogue and song lyrics that have really aged poorly (“sloppy seconds,” “pussy wagon,” “Did she put up a fight?”). But they’re not much concerned about the state of the world. Like the other ’50s-revival movies and TV shows of the ’70s, Grease doesn’t attempt to reckon with the bad things about the ’50s—Jim Crow laws, McCarthy hearings, widespread repression. (The most serious thing about Grease is a quickly-dismissed pregnancy-scare subplot.) Instead, Grease works in all the obvious ’50s cliches: the drive-in movie, the drag race, the diner. It’s a comforting vision that never aims to be anything else.

That’s how Grease has remained a perennial for those who don’t remember the ’50s or the ’70s. It’s a big, silly, willfully naive set of gestures, set to songs that absolutely refuse to leave your head. That’s its legacy, and how it’s retained its power as a pop-cultural touchstone over decades.

If Grease was the first post-American Graffiti blockbuster, then the world didn’t have to wait long before the second. A month later came the release of National Lampoon’s Animal House, a frat-party comedy set in 1962 that became 1978’s No. 2 highest grosser. Animal House was a little more frank than Grease in its horniness, and it was a little more willing to confront both the hypocrisies of that age and the cultural ruptures on the horizon. But it’s just as loving a depiction of its era. Maybe those two movies represent the last gasps of a cultural fixation. Or maybe they’re just the beginning. After all, two years later, America elected a ’50s movie star president after he promised to make the country great again.

The contender: John Carpenter’s Halloween, a micro-budget indie horror, spawned decades of sequels and imitators. The film almost singlehandedly invented the ’80s slasher flick, putting all the genre tropes into place: the doomed teenage hornballs, the masked killer, the suburban setting, the final girl, the fakeout happy ending. But long after all those things hardened into cliché, Halloween remains a gripping spectacle.

Carpenter has a Hitchcockian sense of tension, and he uses every trick in his limited budget—the long shadows, the cheap masks, the eerily pulsing synth score that he had to do himself—to ratchet up that foreboding. It’s why the early place-setting scenes are more powerful than the carnage that follows. In Jamie Lee Curtis, the daughter of Hitchcock’s Psycho heroine Janet Leigh, Carpenter found a young actor with the gravity to hold all the shocks together. And in the unkillable evil force Michael Myers, Carpenter and producer/co-writer Debra Hill invented an evil blank enough to capture imaginations.

Next time: ’70s social realism gets one last big moment with the Dustin Hoffman/Meryl Streep divorce drama Kramer Vs. Kramer.