Film returns Travolta to spotlight, amid bad press
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- John Travolta will soon be back on the big screen, but weeks of negative headlines have focused on his personal life and not on the return of one of Hollywood's top stars.
Travolta plays a corrupt Drug Enforcement Administration agent in "Savages," an Oliver Stone film about a war between marijuana growers and a Mexican drug cartel. It's the charismatic bad guy role that has kept Travolta popular in his later career, although he is not considered one of the film's lead actors.
This weekend, the two-time Oscar nominee is expected to face the media for the first time since the headlines broke as he begins doing publicity for the film with selected TV outlets. A source familiar with the production of "Savages" told The Associated Press that Travolta's recent PR-difficulties have not altered his publicity schedule or marketing of the film. The source, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Travolta was doing the same amount of interviews as the film's other stars, which include Benicio del Toro and Salma Hayek.
Travolta's first film since 2010 comes less than two months after the actor was accused in a lawsuit of groping two masseurs. The case quickly unraveled after Travolta's attorney discredited one of the anonymous accusers by showing the actor was across the country on the day of one of the alleged incidents.
Yet the suit was widely reported by both mainstream and tabloid media and subsequent stories have focused on Travolta's sexuality. The actor hasn't directly addressed the claims, but his representatives have steadfastly denied them.
Whether any of this impacts "Savages" remains to be seen, but several experts said the allegations are unlikely to hurt the film or Travolta's career.
Robert Marich, author of "Marketing to Moviegoers," said the murky nature of the allegations against Travolta means he'll probably get the benefit of the doubt. "In those situations the public is very forgiving to stars," Marich said. "I don't see any negative reaction."
He said the film's publicity may be fragmented as a result of the allegations, which doesn't benefit the studio, but he noted publicity is a film's most unpredictable element. News outlets "can go off the studio script," he said, creating a difficult situation. "Savages" is being distributed by Universal Pictures, which, like most studios, seeks to closely manage media coverage of its debuting films.
The Travolta-"Savages" situation is not unique in Hollywood. Mel Gibson's last film, "The Beaver," was released while he was battling domestic violence allegations and embroiled in a bitter custody battle. In 2010, Lindsay Lohan missed the publicity period — and red carpet — for her supporting role in the film "Machete" due to problems with her probation.
Hugh Grant's arrest for lewd conduct with a prostitute a couple weeks before the release of the 1995 film "Nine Months" was especially dicey. Grant surprised many by keeping his previously scheduled appearances, apologizing and appearing humbled. It preserved his fledgling career in the United States.
Veteran Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman said studios can avoid PR-mishaps in two ways: they carefully select outlets they trust, and they prepare a star on how to handle a difficult question.
He said Travolta's supporting role provides him some cover. "You let other people do more of the heavy lifting," Bragman said.
As for Travolta's strategy if he is asked about the scandalous headlines, "I would suspect what he doesn't want to do is make any news about it."
Bragman predicted Travolta's troubles wouldn't hurt "Savages."
"I don't think it's going to affect anything," he said.
The nature of the allegations about Travolta puts him in a different — and better — position than Gibson, said Matthew Le Veque, an associate professor at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Gibson, who was caught on leaked recordings engaging in racist and sexist rants, had actually offended a lot of moviegoers by the time "The Beaver" was released, Le Veque said. The legal fight limited Gibson's ability to do press for the film, but Travolta's situation hasn't gotten to that point, he said.
"John Travolta's side is doing a very good job of casting doubt on the accusers' story," he said.
Travolta's career has seen its share of struggles, including the 2009 death of his son Jett, as well as comebacks. He has two other film projects in the works after "Savages," making it unlikely he'll disappear from the public eye or from venues where uncomfortable questions will be asked.
"Moviegoers think they have their personal relationship with the talent that's based on what's on screen," said Marich, adding they hold movie stars in a different esteem.
"They don't expect Hollywood figures to be saints," he said.
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