What makes an iconic figure in visual culture
Iconic figures play a large part in our lives without us realising it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a film star, a pop star, sports hero and so on. Television, radio, magazines, advertising and any other type of media force them upon us. We allow this because we enjoy it. We enjoy having these heroes, fictional or not around us. It gives us someone or something to look up to, someone to envy. Before iconic figures were born there were stars. They first originated from the performers in the theatre. Then in the 1920s and ’30s after films were created the Hollywood star system was born.
To become a star then you had to follow a strict set of unwritten rules. A few examples of this would be if you were male you couldn’t be bald and if you were you had to wear a wig. Also if you were Jewish or had a Jewish sounding name you had to change this an example of this is Tony Curtis. It was only recently in the 1970s that star studies began and iconic figures were properly recognised. Before then only few iconic figures such as Marilyn Monroe compared with the amount of iconic figures around today. With star studies beginning in the 1970s was one of the reasons why I have chosen John Travolta as an iconic figure to study.
All iconic figures have basic characteristics as described in many books. 1″The star is not simply the performer, but a figure with a particular associations of glamour and charisma. ” Other books have referred to the iconic figure as 2″The actors performance provides an essential pleasure in the film-viewing experience”. Other books have gone deeper into the analysis of iconic figures 3″Icons do not represent individuals, but nor do they represent universal values”. John Travolta like many other Hollywood iconic figures has all these basic characteristics.
John Travoltas story of being an iconic figure is slightly different to many other Hollywood stars. After doing a television series called “Welcome Back Kotter” in 1975 he got his first big break with “Saturday Night Fever” in 1977. “Saturday Night Fever” was a huge film at the time it was released. John Travolta became a massive iconic figure almost over night. He had all the characteristics that an iconic figure should have. He had glamour and charisma and he gave the audience great pleasure with his dancing and great music of the time. He was a pin up icon on thousands of walls.
He managed to repeat this great success again with “Grease” in 1978. He was now a massive iconic figure his singing and dancing was inspiring. “Grease” has become a timeless classic. John Travolta is now a major player in Hollywood. Like many actors this couldn’t last forever. After “Grease” he made way too many bad career moves. This may be because the thought that he could do no wrong. To begin with he turned down roles such as “Days of Heaven”, “American Gigolo” and “An Officer and a Gentleman”. Which all these roles went to Richard Gere which in turn created his career.
All the roles John Travolta turned down became major Hollywood box office hits. The films that John Travolta did commit himself to in the ’80s were “Dumb Waiter”, “Look who’s Talking” trilogy, the sequel to “Saturday Night Fever”, “Staying Alive”. With all these bad moves his career was almost gone. He wasn’t the iconic figure he once was. To go with the bad career moves in the ’80s action movies were the big thing. Actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Slyvester Stallone dominated Hollywood with their big muscles, big guns and bad story lines. There was just no room for a dancing king anymore.
Then when his career was all but dead Quentin Tarantino brought him from the B-movies back to the top of Hollywood. He managed to do this with a multi-award winning “Pulp Fiction”. ” Pulp Fiction” turned John Travolta’s career right around. He was described as the 4’come-back kid’. His performance in “Pulp Fiction” ‘Vincent Vega’ was very good. It was good enough to earn him an Oscar nomination for the role. After “Pulp Fiction” he was back on track. He was rated twenty-one in the ‘Top 100 Film Stars of All Time’ in Empire Magazine. You could argue that John Travolta’s character in “Pulp Fiction” was similar to his real life. Vincent Vega’ was a bit of a burnout; he made it up to a hitman and felt that he couldn’t go any further. This is like John Travolta’s career. ‘Vincent Vega’ was also very incompetent; this has shown when he shoots his fellow criminal in the face.
This reflects John Travolta’s bad moves in his career. There is also the contrast of the dance scene in “Pulp Fiction” with the dancing in “Saturday Night Fever”. In “Saturday Night Fever” he is the dancing king, winning competitions with lots of people looking in envy. While in “Pulp Fiction” he is reduced to dancing in a theme restaurant for a tacky trophy. “Quentin Tarantino, not unlike Hollywood’s mass audience cannot forget ’70’s Travolta persona”. This is why Quentin Tarantino cast John Travolta for the part of ‘Vincent Vega’. Quentin Tarantino himself described John Travolta as 6″the best kept secret or best forgotten secret”. John Travolta is now a major player in Hollywood. He is now an iconic figure again. He has the glamour and charisma. He is thought highly of by critics and audiences and pulls people to the cinema now better than ever. So what made him this iconic figure again after so many bad career moves?
Well, the answer is he almost changed himself completely. When he was a major icon in the seventies, he was a clean-cut dancing king. Adored by all ages because of “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease”. He was also slim and athletic. The changes that have occurred have been his physical appearance. His hair and his face have changed. He is not the slim, athletic dancer he once was. You can see this in “Pulp Fiction” when he is getting changed. It is not just his physical appearance that has changed; his acting style and ability have changed too. His style of roles that he plays has changed.
He now decides to go for serious roles. He has done gritty thrillers such as, “Generals Daughter”, which in some ways is quite a dark and disturbing film. He has become a gangster in such films as “Pulp Fiction” and “Get Shorty”. Action thrillers have been added to his genres as well such as “Face/Off”. His career has been pushed further forward by working with John Woo, the big time action director on two separate occasions. The first was “Broken Arrow” in 1996 and the second time was in “Face/Off” in 1997. Both of these films were massive box office hits. Especially “Face/Off”.
Since his comeback it’s not all perfect. He has made the odd bad move such as the science fiction movie he did called “Battlefield Earth” in 2000. John Travolta knew this was a bad movie because he said to his agent he didn’t want it releasing. He has managed to redeem himself quickly after though with the smash hit movie “Swordfish”. “Swordfish” was huge and it gave John Travolta another angle to play as the bad guy. Though out his career the type of characters and film genres have varied a great deal, but now he seems to found his calling in the action/thriller genre.
In a way you could say that John Travolta has matured as an actor. The films he does as more mature, the roles he takes on are maturer. From reading many books, articles and magazines on the subject, many have said the same thing about him coming back the Hollywood spotlight. Quentin Tarantino described his career, 7″I’ve been very sad about how he has been used – though he has to take some blame for himself”. Also 8″Following this box office critical success (“Saturday Night Fever”) he failed to capitalise on the fame, and did little other than lightweight dramas and minor TV movies through out the 1980s”.
All these writers know about how John Travolta messed up his career but don’t want to push too hard on it. This is unusual as the media usually want to dig up dirt and anything they can get their hands on to push their career further down the toilet. Books and articles have all been kind about his downfall and gone more in depth about his rise back to top status. All the books and articles I have read have all agreed that he is a great actor, 9″One of the most bankable male leads in Hollywood after his Oscar nomination for his “Pulp Fiction” role as ‘Vincent Vega'”. 10″John Travolta – Tony – is my hero” was another comment made.
We know that John Travolta has always been well loved and respected, but when was his big comeback. Many people and critics said that “Pulp Fiction” was his big comeback but it also has been said that his comeback was with the film “Looks Who’s Talking”. 11″He eventually made his comeback with the film “Look Who’s Talking” (1989)”. The problem with this quote the book is about “Pulp Fiction” so they might not say that “Pulp Fiction” was his comeback because it might seem that the book was blowing its own trumpet, so to say. From the many book and articles I have read most of them, I feel have been very good and accurate.
Some books, I feel may have been slightly biased. The “Pulp Fiction” notes book was very accurate, except for the one sentence about John Travoltas comeback movie being “Look Who’s Talking” as I pointed out earlier. I also did a lot of research on the Internet but many of the sites were by avid fans that are subjective towards John Travolta and all his films. I didn’t use any of this information as its completely biased. The books that were very helpful to me were the ones just about stars instead of film study books that only contain one or so chapters about the subject.
These books included “Stars” by Richard Dyer and “Stardom” by Christine Gledhill. “Stars” was especially helpful because it was written in the mid-seventies and one of the first books to be written about actors as film icons. It went into great depth about iconic figures, more than what was relevant, in which I found very interesting information. To understand what makes an iconic figure in visual culture you need to understand what an iconic figure actually is. I have learnt a great deal about iconic figures such as where they originated, how they became iconic figures and what it takes to stay at the top.
John Travolta was a very interesting actor and iconic figure to research. He was interesting to research because of his rise, fall and rise again. This is very uncommon in actors because usually if they fall they don’t make it back to the top again, and if they do it is only for a short period of time and not to the extent that John Travolta made it. John Travolta is an ultimate iconic figure. The films that he made in the seventies such as “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease” are both timeless classics and love even now by all ages and the films that he makes now make him an iconic figure also but in a different light.