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The Has Been and The Never Was

This is the story of two very different individuals who, up until a certain point, could have been called The Has Been and The Never Was. They are both successful actors who pursued slightly different paths to fame. When the two were cast together in the same movie, their performances were nothing short of spectacular. They proved to all of Hollywood that they were A-list, bankable Talent, and deserved the professional respect accorded to people of this caliber. The movie that they appeared in was Pulp Fiction and the actors are John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson.

First, a few brief sentences about the film that many people call one of the greatest ever made (a simple search on the Internet brings up over 50,000 websites devoted to the movie). Directed by a then unproven Quentin Tarantino, who Roger Ebert calls ‘ The Jerry Lee Lewis of cinema, a pounding performer who doesn’t care if he tears up the piano, as long as everybody is rocking’; (Chicago Sun-Times 10-94) the movie is a combination of several short-stories into a larger story. Tarantino ignores the concept of time, going forwards and backwards in such a way that the ending and the beginning of the movie are almost the same scene.

This nonlinear way of shooting, combined with the brilliant acting of Travolta, and Jackson make the film one that can be watched a dozen times, and every time the viewer will take something different away from it. The Has-been John Travolta is an actor whose career has seen as many downs as it has seen ups. An awe-inspiring Hollywood star of the late 70’s and early 80’s, Travolta was the youngest of six children born to tire salesman and former semi-pro football player Salvatore Travolta and high school drama teacher Helen Travolta on February 18, 1954 in Englewood, NJ.

Being the baby of the family, Travolta grew up pampered. The Travolta children were encouraged to be creative, and would stage shows in the basement of their home. By age twelve, John knew he wanted to be an actor, having already joined an acting workshop in his hometown. He soon began appearing in local theater and began taking tap lessons from Gene Kelly’s brother Fred. Travolta admits he picked up a lot of moves from TV’s Soul Train, and he ascribes his love for dance to the fact that his high school was fifty percent black. Travolta dropped out of high school at age sixteen to pursue acting full-time.

He first gained famed as Vinny Barbarino on the ABC show Welcome Back, Kotter. Travolta’s character was a boorish, mean tempered bully who eventually evolved into sweet and sexy teen idol. Travolta became the teeny-bopper idol of the hour, getting mobbed at mall appearances and recording (and actually selling) three bubble gum records, Can’t Let Go, John Travolta, and Travolta Fever, and even won a Best Male Vocalist award from Billboard. Travolta’s first appearance on the big screen was a bit part in the horror flick The Devil’s Rain, which combined with his performance in a couple of off-Broadway productions led to his casting for Kotter.

His first credited big screen role was the role of Billy Nolan in the Brian De Palma thriller Carrie, in 1976. The following year Travolta got the main role as Tony Manero in the film Saturday Night Fever, which is considered to be his breakthrough role. He was nominated for an Academy Award and his character started a disco craze that had entirely too many people dressing in polyester, gold chains and fashioning their hair into duck-ass haircuts.

The original white costume that Travolta wears in the movie fetched $145,500 at a Christie’s auction, to give an idea of the impact of the character on the culture of America at that time. After the success of Saturday Night Fever, Travolta’s career path started to take a turn for the worse. Although he made a few commercial successes (Grease, Urban Cowboy and Staying Alive, the Sylvester Stallone-directed sequel to Saturday Night Fever) he also made a few movies that were quickly forgotten (Blow Out, Two of a Kind and Perfect).

Travolta’s career went all the way down the crapper after Staying Alive; he did not make a commercially successful movie until the release of Look Who’s Talking in 1989, over a decade after he burst on to the Hollywood scene. Even then he was in the background, along with Kirstie Alley, both of them playing the bumbling adults to the baby with an adult wit (whose voice, ironically, is supplied by Pulp Fiction co-star Bruce Willis). The film was a box office smash and led to two more sequels, Look Who’s Talking Too and Look Who’s Talking Now, which were both successful but did nothing to enhance Travolta’s career.

In fact, it took five more years before he would get the jumpstart that he needed. Writer-director Quentin Tarantino spent twelve hours trying to convince Travolta to play the role of Vincent Vega, the heroine addicted hitman with a strangely innocent view of the world, Travolta finally relented and signed on to the project for the paltry sum of $140,000. Chunkier looking, with long hair and earrings, Travolta played the part to the hilt, matched perfectly with Samuel L.

Jackson to provide just the right amount of comedy in an otherwise violent movie. His performance earned him his second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and proved once again that he is bankable talent. Since PF, he has landed roles in several hit movies (Get Shorty, Phenomenon and Face Off) and has also been able to increase the fees he commands for each film. Travolta can finally cast off the title of Has-been, and some may argue that he is one of the great-ones, the actors and actresses who will be talked about for years after their death.

A quote that is originally credited to Bruce Willis is best applied to John Travolta, ‘ There’s basically four stories they can write about you. One: You hit the scene. Two: You peak. Three: You bomb. Four: You come back. (Online, mrshowbiz. go. com). The Never-Was Samuel L. Jackson followed a slightly different path to fame than John Travolta. Jackson’s career languished on the second-tier of Hollywood for the longest time. He was repeatedly relegated to the roles of sidekick, criminal and bit player, but never a leading role.

This all changed after his role as Jules in Pulp Fiction. Born Samuel Leroy Jackson on December 21, 1948 in Washington, D. C. , he was raised by his mother and grandparents in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A very serious student, Jackson was admitted to Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA as an architecture student. Having struggled with a stutter since childhood, Jackson took the advice of a speech therapist and auditioned for a musical. He got a part and he began to enjoy acting quite a bit.

After performing in a few more productions, Jackson switched his major to drama and pursued it with gusto. His family remained skeptical about his new choice of profession until a Southern fast food chain, Krystal Hamburgers, cast him in a commercial where he smacked his lips while he chowed down on an onion burger. (Twenty years later, one of his famous scenes in Pulp Fiction involves him eating a Big Kahuna burger, an omen, perhaps? ).

In 1969, Jackson was briefly suspended from school for taking several members of the college’s board of trustees, including Martin Luther King Sr. ostage during a sit-in to protest the absence of black trustees and a black studies curriculum. Graduating in 1972 with a degree in theater arts, Jackson stayed in Atlanta, finding work in commercials and regional theatrical productions. He also landed a small role in his first feature film, Together for Days (1972). In 1976, after a short appearance on the television series Movin’ On, Jackson moved to New York City, where he became involved in the Negro Ensemble Company and at the New York Shakespeare Festival, performing in several noteworthy productions.

Jackson also worked subbing for Bill Cosby during rehearsal of the comedian’s sitcom and appeared in several small film and television roles. After a stage performance of A Soldier’s Story, Jackson was introduced to a young Spike Lee (a fellow Morehouse alumnus), who had been intrigued by Jackson’s performance. The introduction led to a mutually rewarding professional relationship; Lee would go on to cast Jackson in four films; School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo’Better Blues (1990) and Jungle Fever (1991). Jackson’s rise to the top was also slowed by his vices.

He lost the lead in a Broadway production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, a role he had originated off- Broadway, because as Jackson puts it he was ‘showing up to too many auditions with red eyes and smelling of beer. ‘;(Online, aol. com) Realizing he had let a huge career opportunity slip through his fingers, Jackson vowed to kick his crack and booze addictions, and managed to do exactly that. Jackson’s first role after sobering up, ironically enough, was as Wesley Snipe’s crackhead brother in the Spike Lee joint Jungle Fever.

This role marked a turning point in Samuel Jackson’s career. His performance in the film was so well received that at the Cannes Film Festival jury gave him a Supporting Actor award, a category of acting it had never honored before. He was also given the New York Film Critic Award for Best Supporting Actor. Jackson went on to perform in half a dozen more movies (including hits Patriot Games and Jurassic Park) before the role that changed the direction of his career.

He appeared as Jules, the Jheri-curled, bible quoting, burger munching hitman in Quentin Tarantino’s box office smash Pulp Fiction in 1994. Jackson’s brilliant performance netted him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor and showed the world he was star material. He went on to co-star with Bruce Willis the following year in another mega-hit, Die Hard with a Vengeance but Jackson’s break-out role as a leading actor was the 1996 film A Time to Kill, the story of a man who is put on trial for killing the murderer of his daughter Jack Ruby style- in broad daylight in front of the cops.

Jackson is now on the A-list of Hollywood, starring with the likes of Robert DeNiro (in Jackie Brown) and Dustin Hoffman and Sharon Stone (in Sphere). Last year he banked a reported five million dollars for his role opposite Kevin Spacey in The Negotiator. Current projects include a small role in The Phantom Menace, the first in the series of Star Wars prequels. Supposedly, Jackson is the first person in the movie to utter the famous line ‘May the Force be with you’;. The Force has definitely been with Jackson in his rise from the land of Never Was to the Kingdom of Stardom.

Both John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson suffered through the trials and tribulations of a Hollywood career. Travolta who went from star-status to has been and back again, and Jackson who came from total obscurity to finally achieve success. Paired together they are awesome in Pulp Fiction, they are definitely my favorite pairing in the movie. Time will only tell if their stars will continue to rise or if they’ll bomb. For now, though, they can cast off the titles of the Has Been and the Never Was and call themselves the Stars.

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