07.22.10

John Travolta: Sex Symbol

The re-release of Grease across the country makes it clear why Grease is an all-time classic. Tricia Romano on a decades-long obsession.

John Travolta is once again a sex symbol.

From the minute he appears on screen, the women in the Los Angeles theater squeal with delight. Grease, in all its corny, campy, fabulous glory, has been re-released as a "sing-a-long" in theaters across the country.

So, here we sit, us Grease-heads—when Inception is the hottest ticket in town, when Toy Story 3 is the most cutting-edge flick—reciting lyrics to a movie released in 1978.

Grease is still the word.

Grease, in time-honored Hollywood fashion, helps us forget hardship to focus on the good times.

There on the screen is Danny Zuko. Beautiful, blue-eyed, cocky, stunningly lithe, he is in his prime. It’s as if Scientology, gay rumors, and Battlefield Earth never happened.

Several hundred people arrive the following night at the grounds of Hollywood Forever Cemetery for a screening of Saturday Night Fever, to ooh and ahh over his unbelievably hot dancing solos and, of course, the blow-drying scene, oh, that blow-drying scene.

At Grease, even if the crowd was smaller, people were wildly enthusiastic.

And this is why I think Grease could become a cult classic, a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show. After all, this was a movie that spawned multiple hit singles. "You're the One that I Want," topped the charts before the movie even came out.

Video screenshot

It made more than $200 million and later went on to become one of the longest running Broadway productions, among the most successful musicals of all time.

Culturally, it cemented Travolta's status as a romantic lead and bona fide star and catapulted Olivia Newton-John from a corner of the country music scene into the mainstream, opening the door for her biggest hit, " Physical."

In this go-round, Grease sold out during last weekend's opening in 12 cities, according to Paramount.

Its appeal hasn’t changed, and the times are, at least superficially, similar. We're living through an economically difficult period, in the shadow of war. Grease, in time-honored Hollywood fashion, helps us forget hardship to focus on the good times. Its perfectly groomed reality of teen idols, soda pop, and ice cream parlors seems as appealing then as now—even if we all know that, in reality, the teenagers of the 1950s, 1970s, and 2010s are equally human. (Dearest Rizzo, there are worse things you could do.)

And despite the bawdiness of the soundtrack and script, Grease is light and breezy enough to cross generational gaps. On Friday night, 11-year-old Edith (already a Grease fan) implored her family to take her see the movie. Her aunt, Erica Flores, was just a year old when the movie first came out and so she caught it later, as a 7-year-old for the first time, seeing it many times since. For Edith as for Erica and me, Travolta was a "first crush."

As a 5-year-old, I would dance in the bad-girl Sandra Dee outfit that my mother made for me, and perform for the neighbors. My mother had turned my closet into a shrine devoted to St. Olivia and St. John.

My passion for Grease continued well into my twenties. (Once, I dressed up again as Sandy, and I wrote about it, posing for the Seattle Weekly.) Trekkies and Lost fans have conventions and online communities; for years, I was a one-member Grease fan club.

Having seen the movie more than 100 times (including seven times at the theater during the original release), I was particularly, um, excited about the recent screening. Perhaps there I would finally find my people—those who loved Grease as much as I did.

The crowd was diverse: gaggles of fortysomething women, twittering with anticipation, an older man who, sitting alone, happily sang along to the tunes. One couple, strangely, never cracked a smile or broke into a tune. Indeed, it was a weird moviegoing experience. Instead of being hushed, we were encouraged to be as loud as we wanted—freeing, in its way.

Viewing the movie again on the big screen, I was also struck by a few things, as were my fellow moviegoers: For one thing, the costume designer seemed to forget that the movie supposedly was set in the 1950s, and so he or she dressed the cast in absurdly '70s-appropriate clothes. (See, for example, Travolta's dance-contest outfit, which would have fit in perfectly in Saturday Night Fever.)

Julie Dicaro, 43, said post-screening that she realized that Grease was pretty naughty. "There were a lot of dirty innuendos,” she said, adding that, at 10, “I didn't catch that much."

Although the studio had revised some of the lyrics— we're apparently becoming ever more prudish as the years go on—the movie still retained its basic wink-wink charm.

And so, it was easy to see that Grease has what Dreamgirls and so many other musicals lack: actual memorable, sing-able, danceable songs. There isn’t a stinker among it—as evidenced by the theater crowd getting up to dance. Seeing it, once again on the big screen, I realized, too, that Olivia Newton-John gives a flawless performance.

A hundred and one viewings later, I still think it’s the most perfect movie ever made.

As Dicaro said: "The legend lives on."

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Tricia Romano is an award-winning writer who has written about pop culture, style, and celebrity for The New York Times, the Village Voice, Spin, and Radar magazine. She won Best Feature at the Newswomen’s Club of New York Front Page Award for her Village Voice cover story, about sober DJs and promoters in the nightlife industry," The Sober Bunch."