Olivia Newton-John was an Australian recording star who rose to serious Hollywood fame with her starring role in the 1978 musical Grease, playing alongside hot man of the moment John Travolta. A few years earlier, she had come ignominious fourth representing the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest (she was born in England), losing to Abba’s Waterloo. But Grease made her a serious A-lister.
At ages 29 and 24, Newton-John and Travolta played high school students Sandy and Danny in the fondly imagined 1950s — but no one questioned the age disparity at the time, and Newton – John was probably the last example of Hollywood. mature juvenile lead. In Grease, she’s the sweet, pure virgin in love with the cool kid in the leather jacket – until the last issue, when she embraces her inner biker chick to keep her heart trapped. Sandy had to be rewritten from the stage version to explain her Australian accent: nowadays, Australian stars such as Margot Robbie and the Hemsworth brothers have American accents indistinguishable from the real thing.
Grease was as beautifully innocent as Newton-John herself, and the seductive kindness of everyone involved (even Travolta’s Danny and Stockard Channing’s fierce Rizzo) made it a rocket-propelled hit. Newton-John’s wonderfully oblivious performance as the flawless Sandy gave her a movie star status she never entirely lost, but never entirely earned. It would be unfair to call Newton-John the cinematic equivalent of a one-hit wonder. But after Grease, she had a limited number of film and TV series credits and her films benefited greatly from soundtrack album sales – which have now disappeared from the industry’s profit center.
There are gems and cult classics in his career: daring and exotic flights, including one that his die-hard fans consider the most underrated Christmas movie of all time. Audiences — both LGBTQ and straight — never stopped loving him.
The fantasy romance Xanadu (1980) – directed by Robert Greenwald, known since for his political documentaries – was quite extraordinary, an epic mix of flash disco, golden age Hollywood glamor and eerie inner space scenes. VR-style (four years before Disney’s computer mind-traveling game Tron). Newton-John had the distinction of starring there alongside Gene Kelly in his final film role, and she has a lovely song-and-dance routine with him. She plays a beautiful and mysterious woman called Kira who turns out to be the immortal Greek muse Terpsichore, one of the nine muses of Olympus. Kira was once the muse of a former big band leader (Kelly) and becomes the same inspiring but elusive figure for a budding young artist played by Richard Beck. Xanadu is crazy, but fun. The opening roller-disco dance scene, led by Kelly himself, is surreal and spectacular. The soundtrack album was a worldwide hit.
Newton-John’s follow-up film Two of a Kind (1983), written and directed by TV veteran John Herzfeld and again starring Travolta, didn’t rekindle Grease’s old magic – sadly, it deserved some rave reviews. Travolta plays an inventor who owes the mob money, so robs a bank in desperation. Newton-John, mistakenly seen as a cynical bank teller, hands over the bag of money he asks for but slyly swaps the wads of cash for deposit slips. She gets away with the money he is accused of stealing – so he chases her. It’s by no means a bad premise for a comedic thriller, but the fantasy element is in the lead. Four angels watch the progress of these two reprobate humans, and there’s a turn worthy of Oliver Reed as the devil. Again, the soundtrack album blew up.
Newton-John’s roles after that are an interesting and eclectic mix: she had a supporting role in the groundbreaking AIDS drama It’s My Party (1996), played a hockey mom in Score: A Hockey Musical ( 2010) and had a good athletic performance. cameo in Sharknado 5: Global Swarming (2017). She also made a candid contribution to the 2010 docudrama 1 a Minute, about breast cancer.
But Olivia Newton-John made what cult finalists consider Christmas movie history with her starring role in the outrageously sentimental but aptly judged 1990 TV movie A Mom for Christmas. A lonely, unhappy girl, whose mother died when she was little, mopes in a department store on Christmas Day and wishes for a pretty model to come to life and be her mother. This, of course, is Newton-John, coming home with her – but, oh dear, it can only be for Christmas. I can very well imagine this film being the subject of a remake.
Newton-John’s best subsequent work, which showed she had the acting skills to accompany the music, was her hilarious turn as gay country singer Bitsy Mae Harling in the Del Shores dark comedy Sordid Lives ( 2000) and the TV series spinoff that followed, singing bittersweet numbers in a scuzzy bar. (“Who’s to Tell Who’s a Sinner and Who’s a Saint? / Who’s to Tell Who You Can Love and Who You Can’t?”) Olivia Newton-John kept her claim on her audience’s hearts until the end. end.