As a culture, we can’t quit John Travolta. It doesn’t matter how many terrible films he makes, or how many times he humiliates himself in public: We can’t seem to shake our fascination with him and his ridiculous choices, even if his films now come and go with little notice. Recent Travolta vehicles like From Paris With Love (one of those Eurotrash thrillers Liam Neeson didn’t star in, but might as well have) and Killing Season have made far less of an impression on audiences than the cavalcade of humiliations that constitute Travolta’s personal and professional life. He keeps finding new reasons for people to make fun of him: There’s his hair, which now appears to have come from inside a can of jet-black spraypaint. And there’s a 2012 Christmas album he recorded with Olivia Newton-John that spawned a music video as embarrassing in its own right as Battlefield Earth.
But before last year, no one was mocking him for his ability to say names. That changed when, in the most magical Oscar fuck-up since the streaker onstage in 1974, Travolta inexplicably pronounced “Idina Menzel” as “Adele Dazeem.” Society rejoiced. While bordering on the fourth decade of its passionate love affair with Travolta—a love affair now largely rooted in ironic appreciation—it had found a new reason to find him ridiculous. The jokes, parodies, and homages were abundant. Consequently, Travolta was invited back to the Oscars this year to redeem himself. And Travolta being Travolta, he kept finding new ways to embarrass himself. This time, his pronunciation was just fine, but he couldn’t stop grabbing women (most notably Menzel and his former Love Song For Bobby Long co-star Scarlett Johansson) and grinning madly.
These days, Travolta’s personal and professional career, not to mention his religious and sexual lives, emit an enduring trainwreck fascination. But in the aftermath of his career-resurrecting performance in 1994’s Pulp Fiction, and the success of 1995’s Get Shorty, Travolta was so popular, he starred in no fewer than three of the 20 top-grossing films of 1996: Michael, Phenomenon, and Broken Arrow. Yes, there was a time when Travolta’s name in the credits actually encouraged audiences to see a film, when they assumed any film with him in a starring role must be worth seeing. It’s a testament to how popular he was in the mid-1990s that audiences paid good money to see, in Phenomenon and Michael, variations on the same sub-mediocre movie.
In both, Travolta plays a figure blessed with supernatural gifts. In Michael, he’s the titular angel who invades the lives of a trio of tabloid snoops and teaches them inevitable life lessons. In the Flowers For Algernon rip-off Phenomenon, he plays a humble mechanic who sees a flash in the sky one night and becomes the world’s smartest man. In both films, the outward appearance of Travolta’s characters belies their inner lives and ultimate importance. In Michael, he plays a beer-bellied, hard-drinking, skirt-chasing kook who is actually an honest-to-God angel straight out of heaven, complete with a pair of real wings. In Phenomenon, Travolta looks like a grease monkey who don’t have much book-learning or stuff-knowing until he becomes a super-genius with crazy telekinetic powers.
Michael is most compelling as an allegory about fame. Michael is the quintessential celebrity. He has an impish twinkle in his eyes and a spring in his step. He’s irresistible to women. He’s a giant baby who eats scoops of sugar and devotes his time to mindless distractions like visiting many of the world’s most banal tourist traps. But he’s separated from the rest of humanity by an inner light, a special magnetism, and in this case at least, an actual pair of wings. Like a movie star, all Michael has to do is flash his million-dollar smile to get out of whatever trouble he finds himself in.
Directed and co-written by Nora Ephron, Michael lopes into action when disgraced former Chicago Tribune journalist Frank Quinlan (William Hurt) and his photographer sidekick Huey (Robert Pastorelli), who work for a National Enquirer-like tabloid, get a letter from Pansy (Jean Stapleton), a small-town woman who claims to be harboring an angel. The tabloid’s mercurial editor, Vartan Malt (a perpetually apoplectic Bob Hoskins), dispatches Frank and Huey to track down the angel, along with Dorothy Winters (Andie MacDowell), who is presented to Frank and Huey as an expert in angels, and consequently the perfect companion for an angel-hunting expedition. Early on, the film reveals that Dorothy isn’t actually an angel expert, yet the story makes viewers wait 76 minutes for the climactic reveal as to why someone would pretend to be such a thing.
But I’m not cruel enough to pointlessly withhold banal information in an attempt to generate suspense. Huey, you see, is of value to the paper almost exclusively because he is the owner and caretaker of Sparky The Wonder Dog, the paper’s mascot, and apparently one of the most famous dogs in the world. While Vartan does not think much of Huey, he harbors a love for the dog that borders on creepy. So he bets Frank and Huey that if they don’t come back with conclusive proof that angels are real, he gets to keep the dog. Dorothy isn’t actually an angel expert, but she is a dog expert who has been promised Huey’s job once the hapless trio returns from their trip with no real proof that angels are real beings, who hang out in the Midwest consuming mass quantities of sugar.
But Dorothy is so much more and less than a dog trainer nefariously pretending to be an angel expert for furtive reasons. She’s also a comically hapless country singer-songwriter with three ex-husbands she references constantly, both in her country songs and outside them. Dorothy isn’t a human being so much as a series of quirks Ephron finds adorable, but she’s hardly alone in that respect. Travolta is also essentially playing a series of quirks. He smells like cookies. He’s a lust object for the entire female population. (Why not men as well? The film doesn’t say.) As previously mentioned, he’s a tourist-trap-loving sugar junkie. Like Mel Brooks’ 2,000 Year Old Man, Michael played a big role at many crucial junctures of human history.
And because this is a John Travolta vehicle, Michael loves to sing and dance. Travolta plays him as perpetually on the verge of breaking into an elaborate dance routine. In the film’s most shameless and effective sequence, he acts as an angelic pied piper at a road stop when he hypnotizes the entire female contingent into dancing with him to “Chain Of Fools.” The film offers only the flimsiest narrative pretext for the boogieing, but John Travolta dancing is anywhere between two to four minutes of quality entertainment, regardless of the context.
Where MacDowell doesn’t have the magnetism to make her simultaneously flimsily conceived and overwritten character seem like anything but a screenwriter’s fumbling contrivance, Travolta has the movie-star magnetism to sell Michael as a figure who is irresistible not despite his decadent eccentricities, but because of them. There’s a lightness to his performance the rest of the film would have been wise to emulate, a sense of weightlessness befitting a character with wings. Travolta is a lot of fun in Michael; he’s also the only reason this ramshackle trifle of a road comedy exists, even though there’s something appealingly old-fashioned about the film’s premise. It’d be a lot easier to embrace as half of a double bill in 1941, with Cary Grant as the angel, Dana Andrews as the cynical newsman, and Barbara Stanwyck as the wacky dog trainer.
Without Travolta, there is no movie. With him, Michael is such a slight wisp of a movie that it barely exists. Yet the public had such a strong emotional attachment to Travolta that it flocked to see the film anyway, even though there’d already been a Travolta crowd-pleaser with a suspiciously similar premise released earlier that year.
Where Michael benefits from the lightness of Travolta’s twinkling, charming star turn, Phenomenon is lumbering and endless, a dumb person’s fantasy of what super-intelligence might be like. A late-period Bonnie Raitt song of a movie directed by Jon Turteltaub, Phenomenon casts Travolta as George Malley, a mechanic whose greatest joys in life are palling around with Diana Ross-obsessed best friend Nate Pope (Forest Whitaker) and grabbing a brewski down at the local bar.
Then one day, George sees a burst of light in the night sky, and suddenly discovers that his pokey old average brain has switched into overdrive, and that he can read books and learn languages in the time it takes others to boil an egg. Unlike that asshole Michael, however, George uses his powers to try to help his community. As a mechanic, George fixed cars. As the world’s greatest super-genius, he sets about fixing the world’s agricultural problems.
But it isn’t just his brain that has made an incredible leap from zero to hero: He finds that by collaborating with the energy in seemingly inanimate objects, he can also control them with willpower. He’s like a cross between Uri Geller, Albert Einstein, the world’s most advanced Scientologist, and Jesus. Finally, there’s someone ready, willing, and able to do something about all the problems plaguing mankind. But George’s powers do not go unnoticed.
Like a human version of the protagonist of Mac & Me, only less prone to elaborate production numbers at fast-food restaurants and being brought back to life by Coca-Cola, George attracts unwanted attention from the FBI and busybody scientists who’d love to either slice up his super-brain to see what makes it tick, or use it to make Russia spontaneously explode. The FBI nabs George and tries to understand his staggering transformation, but it’s a testament to the film’s poor plotting that after scooping him up and interrogating him, the FBI just lets George go (albeit with the caveat that they will be watching him like a hawk) so that the film can devote itself more fully to its primary focus: George’s romance with Lace Pennamin (Kyra Sedgwick), a single mother scarred by her experiences with men, and gun-shy about new relationships.
All Michael has to do is be in the same zip code as a women to attract her, but George could literally levitate Lace’s house a thousand feet up in the air, then read her a love poem in every language, and she’d still equivocate about dating him. There are infinite directions the filmmakers could have taken the premise of a simple man who becomes superhuman, and Phenomenon decides to go the route of using this man to teach a bland middle-aged divorcée to open her heart and learn to love again, despite having been hurt in the past.
Just as Michael is of interest primarily as an allegory for the perennial “Get Out Of Jail Free” card given to celebrities at Travolta’s level, Phenomenon is most compelling as a metaphorical take on Scientology. Because if you were to believe the honeyed promises of L. Ron Hubbard and the central tenets of Scientology, then reaching the highest apexes of the religion gives the devout not just the sense of peace or perspective associated with conventional religious faith, but something approximating genuine superpowers. When George is telling the scientific establishment that he thinks he was blessed with incredible powers to serve as an inspiration for man’s potential, it’s hard not to think of Hubbard and his ideas about the bottomless nature of human potential, and Scientology’s unique ability to realize that potential.
Travolta and Whitaker reunited just four years later for another science-fiction film revolving around a simple man who becomes a super-genius: Battlefield Earth, a notable debacle that conclusively ended Travolta’s remarkable comeback, though he did go on to have occasional hits, some merited (Hairspray), some less so (Wild Hogs). It was the success of sappy little nothings like Michael and Phenomenon that gave Travolta the leverage over the puny man-animals who run film studios and let him finally make Battlefield Earth. And it seems strangely appropriate that the success of Phenomenon and Michael helped give Travolta the opportunity to realize his dreams—and in the process, to humiliate himself more spectacularly than ever before.