Olivia Newton-John was that rare thing: a wonderfully carefree star | Olivia Newton-John

Olivia Newton-John was an Australian recording star who rose to fame in Hollywood with her starring role in the 1978 musical Grease, opposite the sizzling leading man of the day, John Travolta. Just a few years earlier, she had come to an ignominious fourth place 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 the ages of 29 and 24, Newton-John and Travolta were playing high schoolers Sandy and Danny in a fondly imagined 1950s, but no one questioned the age disparity at the time, and Newton-John was probably the Hollywood’s latest example of a mature juvenile lead. In Grease, she’s the sweet, pure virgin in love with the cool guy in the leather jacket, until the final issue, when she embraces her inner biker girl to keep her heart trapped. Sandy had to be rewritten from the stage version to explain her Australian accent: today Australian stars like Margot Robbie and the Hemsworth brothers have American accents indistinguishable from the real thing.

Grease was as wonderfully innocent as Newton-John herself, and the seductive kindness of everyone involved (even Travolta’s Danny and Stockard Channing’s fiery Rizzo) made it an explosive success. Newton-John’s wonderfully nonchalant performance as the spotlessly clean Sandy gave her a movie star status that he never fully lost, though she never fully gained. It would be unfair to call Newton-John the cinematic equivalent of a one-hit wonder. But after Grease, he had a limited number of credits in movies and TV dramas, and his films benefited greatly from soundtrack album sales, which have now faded as the industry’s profit center.

There are some gems and cult classics in his career: bold and exotic flights of fantasy, including one that his die-hard fans consider to be the most underrated Christmas movie of all time. Audiences, both LGBTQ and straight, have never stopped loving her.

The fantasy romance Xanadu (1980), directed by Robert Greenwald, known ever since for his political documentaries, was quite extraordinary, an epic mix of flash disk, golden-age Hollywood glamor and some bizarre scenes from inner space to virtual reality style (four years before Disney’s computer game Tron mental journey). Newton-John had the distinction of starring opposite Gene Kelly in her latest film role, and she has a lovely song-and-dance routine with him. She plays a beautiful and mysterious woman named 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 gang leader (Kelly) and becomes the same inspiring if elusive figure for a young aspiring artist played by Richard Beck. Xanadu is completely crazy, but fun. The opening roller-disco dance scene, directed by Kelly himself, is surreal and spectacular. The soundtrack album was a worldwide success.

Surreal and spectacular... with Michael Beck in Xanadu.
Surreal and spectacular… skating with Michael Beck at Xanadu. Photograph: Universal/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

Newton-John’s follow-up film Two of a Kind (1983), written and directed by television veteran John Herzfeld and again co-starring Travolta, did not revive the old Grease magic; sadly, it deserved some of the dismissive reviews. Travolta plays an inventor who owes the mob money, so he robs a bank in desperation. Newton-John, mistakenly portrayed as a cynical bank teller, hands over the bag of cash he demands, but sneakily exchanges the bundles of cash for deposit slips. She gets away with the money he is accused of stealing, so he goes after her. It’s by no means a bad premise for a comedy thriller, but the fantasy element is heavy. Four angels are monitoring the progress of these two reprobate humans, and there’s an embarrassing turn of Oliver Reed as the devil. Once again, the soundtrack album went through the roof.

After this, Newton-John’s roles 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 sport. cameo in Sharknado 5: Global Swarming (2017). He also made a direct contribution to the 2010 docudrama 1 a Minute, about breast cancer.

But Olivia Newton-John made what cult completists consider Christmas movie history with her starring role in the outrageously sentimental but shrewdly judged 1990 TV movie A Mom for Christmas. A lonely and unhappy girl, whose mother died when she was little, is depressed in a department store one Christmas and wishes that a beautiful mannequin would come to life and be her mother. This, of course, is Newton-John, who is going home with her, but, my God, it can only be for Christmas. I fully imagine that this movie will get a remake.

Newton-John’s best later work, which proved she had the acting skills to accompany the music, was her hilarious portrayal of gay country singer Bitsy Mae Harling in Del Shores’ black comedy Sordid Lives (2000) and the subsequent spin-off television series, singing bittersweet numbers in a seedy bar. (“Who’s to say who’s a sinner and who’s a saint? / Who’s to say who you can and can’t love?”) Olivia Newton-John kept her claim in the hearts of her audience until the very end.

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