by Heath Holland
Just as the seventies were the heyday of flawed heroes and films that tackle complicated subjects without any clear answers, it was also the era of the made-for-TV movie. First, imagine the most melodramatic and over-wrought premise you can think of: maybe it’s about a love affair gone wrong, or the seductive danger of drugs. Now hire some TV actors who are either fading stars or ascending talents, but aren’t quite A-list celebrities. Finally, shoot the movie with soft filters and drench the soundtrack in weepy strings that sound like they belong in a soap opera. Voila! If your movie airs in the evening during prime time, it’s the movie of the week. If it airs in the afternoon and features young people, it’s an after school special. The broadcast network NBC invented the movie of the week, but ABC turned it into an art form. Many of the syrupy entries in the format are best forgotten, but occasionally featured talent—both in front of and behind the camera—that would one day go on to do great things. Steven Spielberg’s debut, Duel, was a movie of the week. So was Summer of Fear, which starred Linda Blair and was directed by Wes Craven.
And then we have The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.
See? Melodrama, milked for all it’s worth. Here’s the thing, though: I really like The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. It seems like internet movie community suicide to admit such a thing, but it’s true. I recognize that the plot is saccharine and tedious, but there’s so much charm running through this thing that I can’t help but consider myself a fan. John Travolta, especially when he was younger, was a charming dude, and he keeps this from being a parody of what it could have been. Though this isn’t quite a one man show, there is nevertheless a lot of heavy lifting placed on Travolta’s shoulders, and he carries the film with a confidence and a charisma of someone much more experienced than he actually was.
Small TV movies like this have no budget for spectacle, so they put a lot of the pressure on the actors themselves to carry the story, hoping that the performers have what it takes to hold our attention. Whatever that quality is that makes people riveting to watch, Travolta had it. In fact, he had it so much that it makes me wonder how in the world he could ever have lost it. With his blue eyes, dark hair, and dimpled chin, he looks like he’s from a completely different planet. What planet is that? I don’t know, the planet of the pretty dimpled people, maybe? He’s playing younger than he actually was at the time (in his early twenties playing sixteen), but it works. He seems naïve enough to be sympathetic, but he’s also got a darkness that fans of his work will recognize from some of his later action movie work (I won’t mention Swordfish…whoops).
John Carpenter’s Halloween. However, both John Travolta and P.J. Soles can also be seen together in Brian De Palma’s big-screen adaptation of Carrie, which opened in theaters on November 3, 1976. Just days later, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble aired on television on Sunday, November 12, 1976. If you caught the brand new episode of Welcome Back, Kotter that was shown on Saturday, the 11th, you saw more of Travolta in one stretch of time than is safely recommended by four out of five doctors. Within a year of appearing in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, Travolta would star in Saturday Night Fever, earn an Oscar nomination, and become a major player in Hollywood. The fact that this schmaltzy movie of the week credit will forever be wedged between Carrie and Saturday Night Fever on Travolta’s resume will never be anything short of fascinating to me.
The Goonies and Throw Momma from the Train, whose appearance in this movie is more impressive to me than the guy who literally walked on the moon. There’s even a Paul Williams ballad that closes the movie because the filmmakers seemed to recognize that the movie just wasn’t quite seventies enough.
The screenplay for this movie was written by Douglas Day Stewart, who also wrote An Officer and A Gentleman and The Blue Lagoon and 1995’s The Scarlet Letter. This is what I mean when I say that this movie was a stepping stone in the careers of a lot of talented people. This even applies to the director, Randal Kleiser. At the time of this film, Kleiser had only done shorts, TV movies, and episodic television. When Travolta was cast as the lead in 1978’s Grease, he remembered the good times he’d had working on this movie and ASKED the producers to hire Randal Kleiser, making Grease; the director’s first feature film. The rest is movie history. Kleiser would go on to direct Grandview, U.S.A., Big Top Pee-wee, and an under-seen Disney movie that I really love, Flight of the Navigator. The Boy in the Plastic Bubble somehow sits in the middle of all of this, a common thread for all these actors, the screenwriter, and the director.
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!