Travoltography: THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE (1976)
by Michael Wayne
Synopsis: Based on a true story, Tod Lubitch is born with a deficient immune system (which is unlike being born with AIDS). As such, he must spend the rest of his life in a completely sterile environment.
Well, this a change of pace.
The Boy in the Plastic Bubble was John’s first starring role. It’s a made-for-TV movie, which makes sense given that at the time, John seemed like he was destined to be a made-for-TV actor. His hit sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter was still in full force at the time, but as we’ve seen, he hadn’t made much of a splash in the world of theatrical releases. Nevertheless, John’s popularity was growing ever higher, particularly with young girls. What better way to showcase him than through a…plastic bubble?
The film opens in 1959, so it’s a fair assumption that as the Lubitchs learn they’re going to have a baby, Danny and Sandy are out there somewhere on the beach. In fact, this film was directed by Randal Kleiser, who would later direct John in Grease. Other connections include appearances by actors P.J. Soles (from Carrie) and Kelly Ward and Darryl Zwerling (both in Grease).
The tone of the movie is established pretty early on when Tod’s father shrieks at a crowd of reporters keen to get a look at the bubble boy, “My son’s not a FREAK!” This is almost immediately followed by a scene in which the young Tod begins choking on a toy, and his parents are forced to administer the Heimlich manoeuvre through the plastic bubble. “Hit him harder,” barks Dad as Mom slaps the toddler with a pair of rubber gloves. It’s all played very straight, which made me question why I was laughing.
The movie continues the Travoltography’s tradition of a long buildup before Travolta’s first appearance. Here, he doesn’t show up until 20 mins in. The filmmakers compensate for this delay by having him appear in a kind of giant woolly golf hat, replete with pompom on the top.
Now a teenager, the dude’s turned his bubble into a pretty swingin’ pad. No more choking hazards and rubber gloves for John, he’s got a fridge, a TV, even a pet mouse. It’s funny to realise that in the 1970s, this kind of living was supposed to be seen as a shocking degree of isolation and quarantine (the film goes so far as to heavy-handedly compare Tod’s living conditions to that of astronauts in Skylab). Nowadays, thanks to high density accommodation, people live their lives in less comfort and space than Tod, and pay fat coin for the privilege.
This level of comfort doesn’t stop Tod from having a hissy fit about his confinement. When his doctor tells him there may be a chance for a cure, Tod flips out, shouting about how he doesn’t care about the outside world. The doctor accuses him of using his condition as an excuse not to grow up, to which John replies “Oh, bull.” Real grown up of you, Tod.
Of course, any sympathy we might feel for him is negated when he pulls out his binoculars to spy on Gina, the girl next door, as she gets ready for bed. Who sterilised those ‘nocs for him?
When the miracle of closed circuit TV technology allows John to observe high school classwork from home, the first thing he does is zoom in on poor Gina, much to her embarrassment and the amusement of her class. Clearly he’s not immune to being a sex pest either.
Is there the token Travolta dancing scene? At one point, Gina comes over to invite him to a party, and there he is in the bubble getting his groove on while wearing that stupid hat. It’s not a quick thing, either – it’s a considerably lengthy showcase. Why did these pre-Fever films all feel the need to get him dancing?
When Gina plays a mean trick on him at the party, Travolta completely loses his shit…as far as the bubble allows him to, anyway. He rolls around, kicking and screaming to be taken to a hospital. When his parents comply, he’s shown to a room with a fellow bubble boy, Roy, as his roommate.
The scenes that follow are very funny, as Travolta immediately resents this attempt to get him a likeminded friend. There’s only one bubble boy in this town. John acts like a total dick to his rival, who puts in plenty of effort to be friendly. This assholery prompts a similar freak-out from Roy, who starts screaming into a pillow. At this point any argument that the film was to be taken seriously takes a real hit, especially when Roy becomes hysterical as he discusses his frustration at being unable to meet girls.
The scene descends into total ridiculousness as Roy essentially admits he’s a bug-chaser. He declares that as soon as he’s able to get out of his bubble, he plans to get a hooker. When John asks if he’s afraid of the germs, the rival replies that he wants the germs, and can’t wait to get “really dirty”. And just when you think it can’t get any worse, the boys share a lighthearted moment as they admit to each other they masturbate all the time.
It’s safe to say that any and all questions a viewer tuning into The Boy in the Plastic Bubble might have are answered, and then some. But I didn’t ask, John. Why did you answer?
Buzz Aldrin scores a cameo when he visits Tod in hospital for no apparent reason, other than to make some more heavy-handed allusions to Tod’s experience being akin to the isolation experienced by astronauts. Uh yeah, we get it.
It must be said that as slight as this film is, it does a better job than Carrie at making you forget about Vinnie Barbarino. It’s not genius characterisation by any stretch; in fact, it’s probably more to do with Tod having to deal with his bubble situation at every step of the way. But in its own hokey way, it works. It’s also based on a true story…but I don’t think the real bubble boy ever got a space suit to allow him out into the world. Or had someone jump over his outdoors bubble on a horse, for that matter.
It’s a pretty boring film all in all, an experience akin to…well, being stuck in a plastic bubble for an hour and a half. But John doesn’t end up melting or exploding, so that’s good for him I guess. As Lubitch, John’s likeable enough, carrying the film well enough and generating as much sympathy as the material allows. Of the cast, he’s the least “TV actorly” in his approach, but I don’t know if you’d have spotted a future megastar in the film’s midst. Story-wise, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that Tod would die at the end of the film, but you’re looking at it with today’s gritty eyes. This was the feelgood ’70s, so of course he gets a happy ending, albeit a morally grey one.
See, in some ways, the movie plays as a metaphor for the dangers of unprotected sex. When Tod falls in love with Gina, he must weigh up the risks and decide whether to stay in his protective bubble or to step out into the world with her. If this comparison seems like a stretch, consider this: the final scene has Tod stepping out of his bubble and riding away with Gina on a horse. That the horse is wearing a saddle is the only aspect standing in the way of a complete mockery of subtlety.
Travolta gets a lot of shit for displaying poor judgement in his choice of roles, but I think he was quite shrewd, especially early on. Here was a TV movie that plenty of people were going to watch, made off the back of his Kotter success, and that featured a concept that was an instant talking point. The phrase “in the bubble” entered the public lexicon as a way of describing someone overly sheltered, and if we’re to take the New York Times at its word, it’s become a particularly popular term in the world of US politics. In its own minor way, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble left a lasting impact on popular culture, even if as a film it’s largely forgotten today.
In the end, I feel like the most obvious foreshadowing apparent in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble is the most literal: John Travolta plays a character isolated from the populace. Likewise, with his fame skyrocketing throughout the late 1970s, it’s easy to imagine that John Travolta the actor would have found himself in a similar place, at the very least mentally. I mean hey, it’s not like Epstein or Horshack were movie-of-the-week superstars.
However, it was John’s next film that would propel him into that most alienating of celebrity stratospheres – the cultural icon.