John Travolta’s Performance On ‘American Crime Story’: An Appreciation

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story has been a fascinating experiment so far. There are a number of reasons for this. Part of it is a handful of truly remarkable performances, most notably Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark and Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran. Part of it is the subject matter itself, giving the audience additional layers to a story that already captivated the country without them once before. And part of it is the little camp touches that let you know Ryan Murphy is involved, from “Don’t kill yourself in Kimmy’s bedroom!” to F. Lee Bailey chugging from a Solo cup in court before questioning Mark Fuhrman. But nothing, not a single thing, has been more fascinating than whatever exactly it is that John Travolta is doing as Robert Shapiro.

Let’s back up. Our first glimpse of Travolta’s take on Shapiro came from the official cast photos released before the series started. That’s his up there at the top of the screen. It was and is magnificent, Travolta deep in pretentious lawyerly thought, staring off at something or nothing with searing intensity. It looks like the photographer said, “Okay, John. So you’re a lawyer and y-” and then he interrupted them and said, “Yup. I got it.” Snap.

What I didn’t know at the time — what I couldn’t have known, really — was that this picture would actually be his entire performance summed up in one still image. He’s gone so, so big with the role, and big in a way that, at first, suggests he’s either lost his mind or is inhabiting a plane of acting the rest of us can’t even begin to understand. If this were a movie, he could be the first person ever to win both an Oscar and a Razzie for the same performance. I’m barely joking about this.

But here’s the thing: When you look more closely at his performance, you see that this is more than just John Travolta being insane or a genius. You see that he made some bold decisions about this character very early in the process — who he is, what he wants, etc. — and he is just committing to them incredibly hard.

Here’s what I mean. Look at my man walk into court.

In that one short GIF, he somehow manages to make me giggle uncontrollably and tell me everything I need to know about this show’s version of Robert Shapiro. Like, who walks like that? I’ll tell you who: A pompous Los Angeles attorney who feels he has been betrayed by his co-counsel and thinks he can prevent citywide riots by putting a pin on his jacket and puffing his chest out so far that it enters the room a few seconds before the rest of him. Message conveyed.

(This brings up an important point: The real Robert Shapiro is very much alive. And while most of the other surviving players in the trial — your Marcia Clarks, your Chris Dardens, your Kato Kaelins — have chimed in on their on-screen depictions, Shapiro has been relatively silent. This is disappointing. I’m hoping he eventually gives in and holds a press conference to debunk aspects of Travolta’s performance one by one.)

Travolta spoke about making these kinds of bold character choices a few weeks ago, in Parade:

So you have to be brave to let an actor do that, especially how he looks and how he behaves. It’s humorous and entertaining, but also do you really want John Travolta to do that? And you have to be brave to let him do that. Just like with Pulp Fiction, Quentin had to be brave to let me wear the hair long, walk around slumped and do all that, because it might be counterintuitive to others. But to a real artist, that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to let them create their vision of that character.

And do you know what? Somehow, for reasons I still haven’t fully nailed down, it kind of works. My theory is that his purposefully over-the-top performance is making the more subtle, nuanced performances on the show stand out more, just by contrast. Almost like if you went to the opera and a guy ran out on stage every now and then and started juggling chainsaws. At first you’d be like, “What in the holy hell?,” but I imagine at some point it would make you really appreciate the other non-chainsaw things going on up there. Plus, hey, who doesn’t love a little chainsaw juggling, right? Win-win.

Whatever it is that’s happening, I do know one thing: I love it. Oh my, do I love it. John Travolta as Robert Shapiro has got to be the most mesmerizing performance on television right now. The way he walks, the way he pronounces words, the way he takes absurdly long dramatic pauses at almost random spots in his sentences. All of it. I can’t get enough.

Or, to sum up my feelings more succinctly…

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