Feel the force

John Travolta can feel your presence -- what's that all about?

This is the first thing you notice about John Travolta as he stands before you, extending his hand in welcome: He does not look at all like a Movie Star. At 45, he seems a bit softer and a tad shorter than he did even on television, where the small screen never could contain him. The stubby beginnings of a goatee cover his fist of a chin, and his thick hair, now shorn short in a Caesar, lies flat on his head. Dressed in a dark brown suit, he looks like a banker on holiday, spending his time off like any well-monied man trapped in Irving on a Friday afternoon -- killing time at the Four Seasons Resort and Hotel, waiting perhaps for a tee time.

It isn't until he fixes his eyes upon you -- those famous, oddly serene blue eyes -- that it even dawns on you that this is one of the most recognized men in the world. But even then, Travolta goes out of his way to make sure he's not the focus of attention in any room he's in, even when there are just two of you in a hotel suite. All that's been written about him over the years seems true and then some: The man is so sincere you might well mistake his genuineness for phoniness. This, it has long been said, is his shtick.

He grins and takes a seat on a pink couch, crosses his legs, rests his head on his left hand, and leans in close to his interrogator, who sits only a few inches away. Travolta, in town ostensibly to promote his new movie The General's Daughter, prefers instead to make affable conversation. This, despite the fact that in 15 minutes, his publicist will come in here and end this interview because of a tight, revolving-door media schedule.

Is that a gun in your hand, or are you just happy to see me, Mr. Travolta?
Is that a gun in your hand, or are you just happy to see me, Mr. Travolta?

Details

Directed by Simon West

Written by Christopher Bertolini

Based on the novel by Nelson DeMille

Starring John Travolta, Madeleine Stowe, James Cromwell, Timothy Hutton, and James Woods

Opens June 18

"You're a Texan, aren't you?" Travolta asks.

"Yes," I tell him. "I was actually born in Dallas."

"I could tell," he says, his smile broadening. I tell him I've lived on a cattle ranch for the past two years. "Then you're a cowboy," he says, his voice somewhere between a raspy murmur and a hushed whisper.

"But I've since moved back into town."

"Then that would make you an urban cowboy," he offers, clearly pleased with his reference.

And so it goes for a few more minutes, small talk with a celebrity -- about wives and children, about flying and friends -- that suddenly renders the whole experience a bit surreal; it's movie-plug interview as hey-buddy instant friendship. Only in a few minutes, it will all get a bit weird.

Before that, however, there is business to tend to -- promoting The General's Daughter, in which Travolta portrays an Army investigator, Paul Brenner, who's looking into the apparent rape and murder of Captain Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), who is, well, the general's daughter. The film, based on Nelson DeMille's 1992 novel, is a rather pedestrian whodunit masquerading as a High-Minded Political Statement about the treatment of women in the military. The only problem is, director Simon West (who crashed and burned in his debut, Con Air) seems more interested in showing Stefanson, spread-eagled and tied to the ground with rope and tent stakes, in various states of duress: She's either dead, near death, or being raped -- and always nude.

Turns out the general's little girl was something of a kinky sex addict with a preference for bondage, the reasons for which lie at the heart of the film's "mystery." And, of course, everyone's a suspect: the colonel who works as her father's faithful assistant (Clarence Williams III); the colonel who was Elisabeth's boss and possible lover (James Woods); the military cop with all the answers (Timothy Hutton); and even Elisabeth's old man himself (James Cromwell, reprising his L.A. Confidential sleaze). It's up to Brenner to find out the truth behind the slaying -- and decide if he's going to keep the whole thing under wraps like a good military boy, or make the mess public for all the civilians to see.

It should be said that Travolta delivers a wonderful performance that's lost in a mediocre -- and, at times, rather misogynistic and homophobic -- film. Brenner should have been just another bland good guy; DeMille originally wrote Brenner as "a wisecracking and slightly smart-assed Irish-American from South Boston," and the author always imagined Bruce Willis in the role. But Travolta, perhaps the most keen and meditative American actor to emerge from the 1970s, doesn't let the author or director do him in.

He begins the film as a glib, cold military cop. What's one more dead naked woman to a man who fought in combat? He flirts with his hesitant partner -- and ex-lover -- Sarah Sunhill (Madeline Stowe), and treats the investigation like one lousy joke; he even seems a bit dim. Yet the more he uncovers -- turns out a particular hero from his youth isn't so valorous after all -- the more bitter Brenner becomes, until finally his character nearly collapses beneath the weight of his own acrimony. Too bad The General's Daughter is one of those movies that doesn't make sense until its finale, and even then, you just take it on faith.

Travolta once said he never reveals everything about a character in a single scene, that his performances tend to build with every frame. It's unfortunate that Simon West, who handles actors the way a 3-year-old boy handles Matchbox cars, cares little about nuance, especially when there's a fiery explosion waiting as the payoff. And to hear Travolta tell it -- or at least hint it -- making a film with the Con Air director wasn't particularly easy. Indeed, the actor spent 12 hours a day during the five days preceding initial filming by "going though every nook and cranny of the script" with all the actors, trying to make sure every character was "viable." Travolta even had it written into his contract that he could tinker with the script, which was partially doctored by All the President's Men scribe William Goldman.

"You have to trust the director and trust that at appropriate times, the collective scenes will equal the values that one has to express to the camera," Travolta says. "It's not always easy, but you risk it because you want to do it right. But the time [Paul] gets to reveal how smart he actually is, that's worth waiting for. It's a treat. You think, 'This guy has substance.' And I had to discuss a lot of it [with Simon], because there may have been moments of interpretation that were different, and I'm the one who has to carry it through. He wanted to make sure my choices didn't interfere with the visual style, and there were moments of negotiation."

In the end, Brenner is by far the least interesting character Travolta has played since Pulp Fiction rescued him in 1994 from a career spent talking to babies. He's two-dimensional at best, a cardboard hero no matter how hard the actor tries. The role's a far cry from the morally ambiguous protagonists he portrayed in White Man's Burden, Get Shorty, Mad City, Primary Colors, A Civil Action, even Face/Off -- all of them gray heroes in a black-and-white world. Those are the characters he seems best suited to play these days: the guys whose best intentions are never good enough, men whose Midas touch turns everything around them to copper. When he's too baleful (Broken Arrow) or too perfect (Phenomenon), he seems too much like Movie Star John Travolta having a good time, grinning all the way to the bank. His best work lies in the shadows.

"It might be that's what I observe to be true in life," he says of those roles. "People are a mixed bag. You don't know what part of them is acting-the decency, the indecency, the good urges, the bad urges. I do believe man is basically good; however, does it mean he doesn't have evil or false instincts? It's more realistic and more reminiscent of what I'm observing to be true and ultimately more interesting to play. I like playing colors within a character. It's more entertaining to find a character with varying degrees of intentions. It's quite something to watch."

So here's where it kind of gets weird.

The local Paramount Pictures rep comes in to break up the interview. Travolta waves her off, as is his custom, and tells the interviewer to ask some more questions. But before that can be done, he interjects with his own...observation.

"You have a very interesting presence," he offers, almost chuckling. He's animated for the first time in 15 minutes. "I gotta tell you. It's very strong. It's really...really...I don't know what it is, or what...I know it's a very interesting presence. Something about your persona. It's very..." He then trails off, apologizes for the sudden outburst, and gives the go-ahead to ask more questions.

Suddenly, it becomes apparent that Travolta is more than a good interview; the man's the quintessential flirt, like the politician whose goal is to seduce an audience of one or a thousand. How can you not like someone who compliments your persona, especially when it's Tony Manero and Chili Palmer and Vinnie Barberino and Vincent Vega and Jack Stanton doling out the kind words? It's like stepping into the last scene of Primary Colors, especially when, at the end of the interview, Travolta shakes your hand and grabs your arm while doing it -- a move often mocked in that film as something only the phony kind of man does.

He's the damndest celebrity -- a man who seems genuinely in love with the idea of being famous, yet who's almost embarrassed by his renown. Granted, no one knows what goes on inside the head of a $20-million-per-movie Scientologist who flies himself in his own jet from city to city to promote a mediocre movie, but take this example: After the interview, Travolta and his entourage walk to the elevators. Two housekeepers walk by and stare at him, clearly not prepared to see John Travolta standing in their hallways. They're not five feet away when both of them break out in a giggling fit, nearly yelling, "That is John Travolta! It's him!"

And he just stands there and smiles, offering them a small wave. When they walk away, he puts his head in his hand and keeps smiling until he's on the elevator. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the one man in the world who knows how to make being famous look like a very good thing after all.

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