If one thing defines John Travolta’s career in front of the camera, it’s range. From singers and dancers to unhinged villains from both this planet and beyond, Travolta has filled a wide variety of roles — some of which were lauded while others were derided. The broad skill set shown within his body of work is how he has become the household name he is today. Since his first appearance on the silver screen in the 1975 horror B-movie The Devil’s Rain, Travolta has been unafraid to fill any role. He has experienced frequent ups and downs both behind the scenes and in his career at large, with an oeuvre of both great films and abject stinkers. He will go down in history as one of the many talented but perplexing stars that color the strange industry of filmmaking, and here are some of his best performances to date.
In the wake of the Kennedy assassinations and the Watergate Scandal, films about political conspiracies became a staple of the American cinema — one such film being Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller Blow Out. The film wasn’t a box office smash at the time but has found a resurgence in popularity since the film was added to the Criterion Collection in 2011. Travolta plays Jack Terry, a sound technician who finds himself the witness of a political conspiracy while routinely recording audio for his latest project. He delivers a strong performance as the prototypical man-who-knew-too-much at the center of De Palma’s brilliantly-directed story.
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John Woo has spent the better part of his long career making films in Hong Kong and China, but in the States he is perhaps best known as the man behind the 1997 action film Face/Off, in which Travolta plays FBI Agent Sean Archer, a grieving family man hell-bent on capturing Nicolas Cage’s master criminal Castor Troy, who murdered his son. Travolta does a serviceable job playing Archer — but once the eponymous face swap occurs, he really shines, slipping comfortably into Cage’s role as the campy, amoral lunatic.
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Travolta plays one of the many characters within the series of interconnected vignettes which make up Quentin Tarantino’s self-described pièce de résistance — but Travolta’s hitman Vincent Vega is integral to the story, featured prominently in five of the film’s seven non-chronological parts. After a decade or so relegated to mostly forgettable movies, Pulp Fiction was lauded by critics as Travolta’s return to respectable film — as well as proof positive of Tarantino’s talent behind the camera.
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In Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of the Stephen King novel Carrie, Travolta steals every scene he’s in. He gives a memorable — albeit relatively small — performance as Billy Nolan, a despicable, road-soda-chugging meathead and henchman to his vindictive girlfriend Chris Hargensen (played by Nancy Allen). Together they conspire to bully the titular Carrie to her breaking point, helping the film achieve its status as a timeless classic.
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Saturday Night Fever
The 1977 film Saturday Night Fever was Travolta’s first as a central character. In it, he gives a powerful, multifaceted performance as Tony Manero. He effectively portrays the stark difference between his life under the bright lights of the discotheque and the incredibly dark goings-on of his life off the dance floor. He also shows off his incredible physicality in the numerous dance sequences, making for an all-around strong performance in a strong film.
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The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Tony Scott’s 2009 remake of the 1974 film The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 allowed Travolta to really cut loose as an antagonist once again. Playing opposite Denzel Washington’s New York City Subway dispatcher Walter Garver — Travolta fills the role of Ryder, a devout Catholic extortionist with a death wish who has taken control of one of the subway trains. Scott’s unique visual style and Travolta’s ability to switch from calm and collected to seething with fury come together to make this a worthwhile film.
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Audiences clamored to the theaters to see John Travolta and his co-star Olivia Newton-John deliver two electric performances — as actors, as singers and as dancers — at the center of the 1978 film adaptation of the hit musical Grease. As prototypical cool guy Danny Zuko, Travolta is able to once again show off his abilities as a physical performer — along with a singing performance laudable enough to earn the film’s soundtrack the status of the second most popular album of the year.
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The Thin Red Line
While Terrence Malick’s 1998 film The Thin Red Line is far from Travolta’s biggest role — it is no less worth recognizing. His character Brigadier General David Quintard — commanding officer to Nick Nolte’s Colonel Gordon Tall — has fewer than two minutes of screen time, but he performs the role of a sneering superior officer flawlessly. He works as a foil to Nolte’s character and adds to the great ensemble of talented actors that Malick’s sprawling story of the Guadalcanal Campaign.
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In Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1995 crime-comedy film Get Shorty, Travolta fills the role of Chilli Palmer, a mob enforcer who decides to become a Hollywood producer, finding the two occupations to be more similar than he anticipated. He gives a very funny but muted performance — for which he won a Golden Globe — playing well off of other big stars like Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, and Danny Devito.
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Polyamorous marijuana dealers find themselves in a conflict with the Mexican drug cartel that takes their shared girlfriend hostage. This is Oliver Stone’s 2012 film Savages, a War on Drugs-era film in which Travolta plays Dennis Cain, the corrupt Drug Enforcement Agent thrust into the situation. Amongst the many great actors he shares scenes with — most notably Benicio Del Toro — Travolta deserves recognition for his believable characterization of a slimy, weaselly federal agent who will do or say anything to cover his own behind.
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