Travoltography: CARRIE (1976)
by Michael Wayne
Synopsis: Carrie may be ostracised, but the shy teen has the ability to move objects with her mind. So when the high school “in crowd” torments her with a sick joke at the prom, she lashes out with devastating – and deadly – power.
I thought it would be a long time before I saw a movie as unburdened by subtlety as The Devil’s Rain.
With the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter hitting its stride in 1976, John Travolta, now a household name thanks to his portrayal of the loveably underachieving Sweathog Vinnie Barbarino, once again branched out into the world of cinema, this time with a budget.
In Carrie, based on the Stephen King novel, John plays a kind of evil Barbarino. It’s a wimpish display of playing against type. If by chance you’re waiting to see Travolta in another adaptation of a book, you’ll have to sit tight until Get Shorty (1995), as unbelievable as that sounds. Oh, unless Staying Alive was based on Tolstoy’s version.
To date, this is John’s final horror movie (insert joke about ‘Bad Travolta Movie X being in actual fact A TRUE HORROR MOVIE HEH HEH’ here). It may have given him his start, but he was quick to abandon the genre. Movie stars, right? No top billing for Travolta here either, he’s still a few down the list. Amazing to think that in a year’s time he would be the biggest movie star on the planet.
Once again, it’s a bit of a wait for Travolta’s first appearance – 30 minutes in. When we’re introduced to his character, Billy Nolan, he’s rocking out behind the wheel of his car to the very 60s “Heat Wave” while on a date with the high school bitch.
Of interest is the strong association of Travolta’s image with pop music and dancing even this early on in his filmography (and even earlier, if you count his pseudo-waltz with Tom Skerritt in The Devil’s Rain). Nolan is the self-satisfied bad boy all the girls at school want to take to the prom. His boorish nature and cruelty have allowed him to rise to the top of the school’s social ladder, quite unlike his doppelganger Vinnie Barbarino. He’s as dumb as Barbarino, but that character’s inherent sweet nature is nowhere to be found. This creature resents being called out on his stupidity, so at least he’s self aware, but he still expects life to give him a free pass with just a flash of his boyish smile.
His introductory scene seems to exist purely to tear down the viewer’s expectation of a cinematic Barbarino, which it does quite well – in just a few minutes it manages to cram in pretty much every situation required to highlight the difference in nature between Billy and Vinnie. But as hard-edged as Nolan is (or as one of writer Stephen King’s stock ‘bully’ characters is able to be) – he drinks while driving, he says the F-word, he’s a bit too forceful with his girlfriend during foreplay, and hits her when she calls him stupid – Travolta’s natural comedic affinity never ebbs. Try as he might, director Brian de Palma fails to position him far enough from Barbarino to make him a credible, threatening presence on-screen.
In a way, this is to Travolta’s benefit: by simply repackaging his familiar Kotter persona in this minor role, he’s able to really shock audiences of future star vehicles with his substantial range. Well, you know, for a while.
Also of note is the hick accent with which John has chosen to imbue Nolan – it’s one Stetson away from Bud Davis.
After a bit of cartoonish villainy, Billy (spoiler) dies a fiery, telekinetic death. John, I’m telling you, just get yourself a plastic bubble and these things would stop happening!
The Pulp Fiction foreshadowing this time comes via actress Piper Laurie, who gives a brisk performance as Carrie’s fire-and-brimstone mother. Laurie had made her mark on Hollywood during the 1950s in a series of popular films, her career culminating in a Best Actress Oscar nomination for 1961’s The Hustler. Uninteresting roles in TV films followed, and so, promise unfulfilled, Laurie eschewed Hollywood and didn’t make another film for the next 15 years until her role in Carrie resulted in another Academy Award nomination and a career revival. Gee…sounds familiar.
On a more visceral note, this movie gives us the striking visual of John Travolta beating a pig to death with a sledgehammer, so there’s that.