When John Travolta’s 707 touched down in Cannes, France, last month, the 64-year-old superstar was at the controls, as always, whether piloting one of his 11 planes or steering his illustrious career.
“Reinvention is what I love,” he said at the Cannes Film Festival, where he flew to premiere his eight years-in-the-making gangster biopic Gotti (opening this week in the U.S.) and attend a 40th-anniversary screening of Grease on the beach. “I get bored with myself, but not another character. I take risks, and if I’m not taking risks I’m not comfortable.”
In 1992, his Gulfstream II turbojet lost all power at 41,000 feet and narrowly avoided a midair collision, but Travolta managed to land at Washington’s National Airport with nothing but a flashlight and a tiny magnetic compass. “I was in the back of the plane nursing Jett," their son who died in 2009, his wife of 27 years, actress Kelly Preston, recalled at Cannes. “It was a very, very dangerous situation, but John never lost his cool for a moment. He stayed calm the whole time.”
In 2018, he was the calmest, coolest guy at the world’s most revered film festival, which made his name — twice. He first visited Cannes in 1978 for the premiere of Grease, which grossed $395 million on a $6 million budget. “I love it when French people of all ages stop me in the street and mimic some of the moves from Grease,” he said this year. When he speaks French to fans, his accent is pretty good. In 1994, Pulp Fiction won the top Palme d’or prize at Cannes and revived his comatose career. “Quentin Tarantino was a fan of Grease, and that’s why he wanted me to dance the twist with Uma Thurman,” he said. “The Pulp Fiction explosion gave me 24 years of choices. Four years ago, when we were celebrating the 20th anniversary of Pulp Fiction on the beach here at Cannes, I was in tears. I saw my whole life as an actor unfold before my eyes.”
Now Travolta has earned godfather status at Cannes, with the power to wangle a prestige premiere for Gotti, a film that might have gone straight to video without his clout. The movie got mixed to poor reviews at Cannes, but Travolta is immensely watchable as Gotti, the mob boss who died in prison in 1992 while serving a life sentence. Gotti lived movie-star large, famous for his $2,000 Brioni suits, July 4 parties with free pony rides for kids and habit of handing $500 at wakes to widows whose husbands he’d whacked. The film’s tabloid documentary vibe makes it a satisfying guilty pleasure, and the gangster's life has a few parallels with Travolta's — Gotti, too, lost a child.
Preston and their two children Ella, 18, and Ben, 7, were with Travolta at Cannes, along with members of his extended family, his manager and the guy who wrote the book upon which the movie is partly based, John Gotti Jr., whose mother invited Travolta and Preston — who plays her in Gotti — to her house for pasta. Gotti gave Travolta some of his dad’s shirts, cuff links and pocket squares to help him channel the “Teflon Don.”
Travolta seemed devoted to the don, despite criticism that the film glamorizes a killer. “Gotti was really glamorous and a dichotomy,” Travolta said. “He loved style, but was down to earth and could adjust to anybody he was talking to. He was thoughtful, considerate, but tough as nails.”
That’s what Travolta was like during a two-hour master class for aspiring actors and filmmakers after the Gotti premiere. Smiling, jovial, eager to please, he stressed the importance of “preparation.” But when asked about flops like the Scientology-inspired film Battlefield Earth, a grittier Travolta emerged. “I don’t believe in regret,” he said. “Every artist has an audience for different things they do, so there’s no fixed idea what success is.”
Now a Hollywood elder statesman as cocky as he was as a teenage Sweathog on Welcome Back, Kotter, Travolta gets to define success his way. “You make your own rules, like Edna in Hairspray,” he told a Cannes audience. The worst reviews he got at the festival weren’t for Gotti, but for his onstage dance with 50 Cent at the screening after-party, which went viral online and was globally mocked as “dad dancing.” For the great cinematic terpsichorean artist of his generation, that had to hurt, right? Wrong. Travolta is having a blast dancing to his own tune, no longer worried about a young man’s concern with status. “To me the important thing is to have confidence,” he said. “I don’t compete with anyone. You find a way to communicate your art. At the end of the day it’s you. I compete with myself. I don’t pay attention to the other guy.”