What is it like to be John Travolta?
Few male celebrities present such a mystery, or one so melancholy. Travolta’s story, and its tragic dimensions, are out of an older Hollywood, where the glamour of fame was mythically intertwined with the cruelties of fate. On Sunday, actress Kelly Preston, his wife of 28 years, passed away after a private battle with breast cancer — the same disease to which actress Diana Hyland succumbed in 1977, when she and Travolta were a couple. They had appeared together in the TV medical drama The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, about a young man who has to live in a sterilized room due to his non-functioning immune system. Preston’s final role, meanwhile, was opposite Travolta in Gotti, as Victoria Gotti, wife of the notorious crime boss.
While the outpouring of sympathy from media and famous friends has been immense, Preston’s death was also met by harsh scrutiny from critics of the Church of Scientology. She was, and Travolta is, a prominent member of the controversial organization, subject of countless exposés and conspiracy theories. Some wondered if, as Scientologists — and given the confidentiality on Preston’s diagnosis — the pair had elected to forego conventional treatments for Preston’s cancer, despite Travolta’s statement of gratitude for Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, one of several medical facilities where he said she received care. Random accusations of the Church’s interference in Peston’s personal health contained grim echoes of the rumors that followed the 2009 death of her son, Jett Travolta, at age 16, in the Bahamas, from a seizure.
Afterward, mother and father were compelled to testify to Jett’s previously unconfirmed autism, history of seizures and Kawasaki disease, a rare inflammatory condition — this because of an alleged $25 million extortion plot by individuals who purportedly threatened to sell the stories that implicated Travolta was at fault in Jett’s death. Following a mistrial, the family declined to pursue charges further, but the damage was essentially done: a handful of former Scientologists speculated that out of devotion to the Church, known for its skepticism of autism and chronic disease, Preston and Travolta had lived in denial of their son’s needs and perhaps even failed to pursue available medical options. (This was just four years after fellow Scientologist Tom Cruise had gone on a virally bizarre press tour that included attacks on prescription drugs like anti-depressants as well as psychiatry, a villainous force wreaking havoc on humankind, according to the works of Church founder L. Ron Hubbard.)
It seems likely that a similar dark cloud will hang over Preston’s death, especially with the popularity of actress Leah Remini’s Scientology and the Aftermath documentary, in which the ex-member has said that the Church “will prevent people from getting the real medical help that they need.” Her co-host, Mike Rinder — once a highly placed Scientologist — has also unearthed Hubbard’s patently unscientific views on the origins of cancer, namely, “a second-dynamic or sexual upset, such as the loss of children.”
How perverse it is that Travolta still belongs to a religion whose gospel would imply that Preston’s cancer traces back to Jett’s complicated, terrible death. But although Scientology’s “apostates” predicted his abandonment of the Church after his son passed away, Travolta and Preston repeatedly credited the system with helping them through this agony. That, in turn, has fueled the idea that he’s trapped within the organization, reportedly due to a file of damaging information they’ve collected from “auditing” confessions and could release if he ever left.
The most common tabloid assumption is that Travolta is actually gay, or at least bisexual; in 2012, two male massage therapists attempted a lawsuit against him for assault and sexual battery in separate incidents, adding to a pattern of lurid gossip. A police report from 2000 details a strikingly familiar case. Travolta was supposedly banned from a New York hotel’s spa for “inappropriate behavior,” and a male California pilot once claimed to have had a six-year affair with the star. Throughout these tribulations, Travolta (and his lawyers) have denied everything. Scientology, according to one-time insiders, promotes homophobia and “gay-bashing.”
The personal struggles sit alongside Travolta’s extremely uneven career, marred by mega-flops like Gotti and the Hubbard-inspired passion project Battlefield Earth, which made Travolta a punchline in any era despite iconic turns in Saturday Night Fever, Pulp Fiction and The People vs. O.J. Simpson. He’d been mocked for his questionable hairstyles before finally outing himself as bald. His best-known hobby is aviation (he owns and pilots several aircraft), and even that registers as a kind of woeful escape. Perhaps he is happiest up in the air, far from the world that has attached great sorrow, scandal and secrecy to his wealth and social status.
One of the bleakest notes in the masseurs’ lawsuit was the contention that Travolta had said, “Hollywood is controlled by homosexual Jewish men who expect favors in return for sexual activity,” adding that he’d spurred his own career this way during the late-1970s run of the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, where he had his breakout role. He converted to Scientology in 1975, the year the show debuted, suggesting a confluence of many factors that has steered his life ever since. Whatever joys and comforts he’s known, there remains the question of a true identity suppressed.
As a father who lost a child and now embarks on a second life as widower and single parent, he will continue to be dogged by the suspicion that both deaths were preventable, regardless of evidence that he and Preston did what they thought best to combat her cancer and treat Jett’s seizures. (Officially, the Church of Scientology declares that a member “with a physical condition is advised to seek and obtain the needed examination and treatment of a qualified medical professional.”)
It’s impossible, from the outside, to state the truth of either matter, but it is surely hell to mourn the loss of a son and wife when a segment of the public has judged you responsible, and a closeted, predatory hack besides. No doubt much of Travolta’s bad reputation is down to his mistakes and questionable loyalties, but it’s difficult to see how he’ll ever get out of the hole he dug — without dire consequences, anyway. More and more, it looks as if he struck a Faustian bargain as a very young man and has carried a curse from then. Always, in Hollywood, a myth makes its own momentum. That doesn’t excuse anything he’s done wrong, but it may allow some empathy for a man who knows the deepest heartbreak.
And, of course, it’s never too late to fight for a true self. However buried it may be.