THE VEHICLE: Pulp Fiction (1994)
THE PITCH: Though Saturday Night Fever made him a cultural icon and an Oscar nominee, the 1980s had been a rough era for Travolta; he started the decade with perhaps his finest performance (in De Palma’s Blow Out), but ended it with the talking baby comedy Look Who’s Talking. By 1993, that series had devolved into talking dog comedies, so Quentin Tarantino was taking a big risk by casting Travolta in the leading role of his comic crime triptych. (He reportedly made Travolta’s casting a condition of his deal with Miramax.) Travolta was paid SAG minimum for his work on the film: $100,000, with the actor later figuring that, between his travel and expenses at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, he actually lost money on the picture.
THE CRITICS SAY: “Travolta is doughier than in his Saturday Night Fever days, but even playing a junkie reptile he exhibits amazing grace. His slow dance with Mia to a Chuck Berry oldie exudes down ‘n’ dirty eroticism and unexpected romantic longing. Travolta makes a spectacular comeback with this brilliant, intuitive performance.” –Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
AWARDS: Nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars and the Golden Globes.
AFTERMATH: The Travolta story is pretty much the gold standard for modern comeback wishful thinking. His first post-Pulp project, Get Shorty, netted him a cool $6 million (nearly the entire budget for Fiction); by the time he made Face/Off three years later, he was commanding $20 million a picture. His recent projects haven’t exactly set the world on fire, be he remains a bankable and well-paid movie star, and a far cry from the unemployable relic he’d become, pre-1994.