In His High-Profile Return to TV, John Travolta Gets Noticed

On John Travolta's polarizing 'O.J. Simpson'
Courtesy FX

Before it debuted, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” received almost universal advance praise, but there’s one element of the gripping true-crime drama that divided critics: John Travolta’s performance.

Travolta plays Simpson defense attorney Robert Shapiro, and it’s easy to see why reviews have been mixed. Even critics who praise the actor’s take tend to note that as Shapiro, Travolta is often quite mannered, and some of his line readings are so colorful or eccentric that they end up being distracting. Whatever your position on Travolta’s work, you certainly can’t accuse the actor of failing to make bold choices.

My own opinion of Travolta’s Shapiro evolved as I watched the first six episodes of the FX series: I started in the realm of puzzled disbelief, arrived at amusement, and ultimately traveled to a place of sincere appreciation. You simply can’t take your eyes off Travolta, and that is a form of enchantment.

In a high-profile project, among cast members like Sterling K. Brown (Christopher Darden), Sarah Paulson (Marcia Clark) and Courtney B. Vance (Johnnie Cochran), all of whom do career-best work, it appears that Travolta made an understandable decision: Go big or go home. For this character, in this drama, it worked.

Travolta is not giving a big, idiosyncratic performance in a subtle chamber piece like “Rectify” or even “Mad Men.” “The People v. O.J.” is not a somber, quiet meditation on bittersweet themes or a moderately detached character drama. It’s an important, famous story full of colorful characters who did outrageous things and who often enjoyed being in the spotlight. Shapiro understood that, and so does the actor playing him.

Much of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” is a meta-commentary on the crafting of believable narratives, and Shapiro ended up as a top L.A. attorney in part because he constructed a persona of professional competence built on his connections to various elites. He wasn’t, as a reality-show contestant might say, “here to make friends.” The Shapiro of the O.J. drama is a man who wants to help his client — as long as doing so will burnish his own reputation.

In an interview with Variety, Jeffrey Toobin, who wrote “The Run of His Life,” the book the series is based on, is succinct in his assessment of Travolta as Shapiro: “Johnnie (Cochran) was so much better a human being than Robert Shapiro, and that’s captured” in the FX series, Toobin says. “Travolta has the artistic integrity to be really unlikable as Shapiro.”

And if his performance as a charismatic, canny player helps set Travolta apart in his return to television after decades spent away from the medium, well, that can’t hurt his future career prospects, can it? Half the reason it’s hard to look away from the O.J. drama — then and now — is because the jostling among the lawyers is so complicated and compelling. Though the cast works as a well-oiled machine to bring the work of writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander to life, it’s a big ensemble, and no actor ever wants to get lost in the shuffle. Travolta’s operatic tendencies not only occupy the screen unapologetically and make his character memorable, they also make his co-stars’ subtler moments stand out all the more.

The point is, attention-getting performances can be enormously winning in the right context. It’s unlikely that anyone is watching “Downton Abbey’s” final season to see creator Julian Fellowes recycle the same limited array of plots again. Fans want to see Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess dominate a drawing room every time she issues a withering put-down. It’s one of the drama’s go-to scenarios, but that one’s always fun.

On Fox’s “The Grinder,” which, like “Downton Abbey” and FX’s O.J. drama, has a lot of fun with the vanities of oblivious elites, Rob Lowe plays a man who has a lot in common with Shapiro. Lowe’s puffed-up character, Dean, is an actor who quit a starring role in a hit legal procedural in order to live among the common people. But old habits die hard, and he can’t stop playing to cameras that aren’t there. Timothy Olyphant’s guest spots have been wonderful treats: In character as vain thespians, both actors deliver knowing and hilarious parodies of bad acting, and appear to be having a ball while doing so. The unsung but sneakily brilliant recent run of “The Grinder” proves that in comedy, as in drama, it’s possible to get a great deal of mileage from a tragic lack of self-awareness.

Dean’s attempts to whittle down his tremendous ego have been increasingly amusing, and Lowe’s purposely overwrought acting is undergirded by a cleverly inserted layer of real heart. Dean — like Johnnie Cochran or Robert Shapiro — may be congenitally theatrical, but that doesn’t mean he lacks a soul. These characters are not just juicy and diverting, they’re instructive as well. As played by Lowe and Travolta, they underlie the dangers of fame, and the programs they’re in sharply poke fun at the excesses of our celebrity-driven culture, where cameras warp everything — even when they’re not present.

These law-adjacent characters find ways to channel egotism into art, and faced with the craftiness the actors bring to their roles, all I can say is: I’ll allow it.

Variety’s coverage of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” is here, and a recent Talking TV podcast on the drama is here and on iTunes

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  1. Jennifer says:

    This series is generally superb, but John Travoltas acting in it is HORRENDOUS!

    • bob curmudgeon says:

      Tee hee Jenn…as best as I remember watching “24/7” 20 years ago, and as I noted previously, I think John-John captured reallife Shapiro and it was Gooding, if anyone, who was horrendous. (But then again, I couldn’t recall the jury’s “protest”…too funny!

  2. Chris Rick says:

    John Travolta is my favorite hero he always played a great role.

  3. Dakota says:

    I was captivated by Travoltas performance the minute he came on the screen. I will admit he was over the top in the beginning but he toned it down just right as the episodes went on. I even think they lightened the eyebrows a bit, just a little.

    It was David Schwimmer who didn’t fit in for me, but he brought so much heart to the role that it was also subtlety captivating as time went on.

    To me this was an allstar cast. Vance, Paulson and Brown were remarkable. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.

  4. tecton47 says:

    Oh please! Travolta is absolutely terrible and looks completely lost. His face has a look that says, “What? Nobody said I would have to actually ACT here.” If only the spirit of L. Ron Hubbard would show up and coach him.

    His only saving grace is that David Schwimmer looks even more lost. He tends to look around nervously as if he’s waiting for his Friends to show up and help him out. Whoever cast these two guys needs to update their resume.

  5. Paul Barresi says:

    Travolta is not giving a big, idiosyncratic performance in a subtle chamber piece like “Rectify” or even “Mad Men.” WHAT EXACTLY DOES THIS MEAN? –Paul Barresi

  6. Travolta plays Shapiro as a boorish,eccentric,egotistical,arrogant, stick in the mud with no people skills. He seems to be purposely mocking Shapiro as an outcast,and he certainly did not get this far in his professional life as that type of person! He seems so humble and approachable on his legal zoom commercials.

  7. Mike Aitch says:

    I only read the first couple of sentences of this and am in the process of watching the OJ Simpson telemovie.

    So I’ll read the rest of the above and also finish watching OJ and Travolta. Having just watched a snippet of the real Robert Shapiro, he certainly has a very stilted, staccato speaking style. However I’m not sure where John Travolta got the idea of him having a severely clenched jaw.

    I had the unmitigated joy of watching two Hollywood greats yesterday. The Australian Rod Taylor’s masterly control of a movie in “Hotel.” Then Burt Lancaster in a B grade western, “Vengeance Valley.”

    Watching these absolute superstars of the screen, their presence and charisma in not necessarily great movies, I wondered who are their modern equivalents. To me, Travolta IS one. He is a TRUE movie star in the old style. Charismatic, handsome, intense, gripping and with a reputation for quality and volume of work to support the assertion of STAR.

  8. Nicole Robertson says:

    “Mad Men”? Did you mean “Mad City”?

  9. Bob Curmudgeon says:

    Of all the “doppelgangers” for the show, I think Travolta does the best in terms of physicality, mannerisms, and “attitude”. My biggest disappointment is the choice of Cuba Gooding.
    Otherwise, a great ‘updo’ of the tragic event. RIP Nicole and Ron…it goes without saying, it should not have happened.

  10. A problem I’m having with Travolta’s performance is that, unlike Vance, Paulson, and Brown, he doesn’t remotely resemble, physically, the real person he’s playing. Thanks to those annoying Legal Zoom commercials, Shapiro is still fresh in the public mind.

  11. colig says:

    the only way i would watch this tripe is if that filthy animal got the death penalty at the end instead of wrongful freedom.

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