From ’70s stud to a fall from grace in the ’80s to a ’90s resurgence to a post-2000s run littered with direct-to-video efforts with the occasional gem tossed in, few actors have a resume quite like that of John Travolta. Tuesdays with Travolta takes TNC readers on a fabulous plane ride through the career of the interesting actor/singer/dancer/pilot.
I was excited to start a John Travolta column because he’s made a number of movies I love and any chance to re-visit those films and discuss them is exciting. The real perk though is that Travolta has made even more movies I haven’t seen, so much of this journey will take me to new places. The first of those new places is The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.
Now I’m no noob, so clearly, I was very much aware of the film and had a basic idea of what it was about, but my expectations where that it would be a pretty bad movie. A ’70s made-for-TV movie about a kid that has to live in a bubble to survive? Sounds like a weird after school special, and it does have that after school special vibe, but it’s actually quite good.
The film opens with John (Robert Reed) and Mickey Lubitch (Diana Hyland) learning that Mickey is pregnant. Normally this would be viewed as a happy occasion, but in this case, it is bittersweet. John and Mickey have suffered multiple miscarriages in the past and the one child that was successfully birthed died immediately due to an immune deficiency. So naturally, the couple is worried that this next pregnancy won’t be without complications.
Fast forward nine months later and their new child, Tod, is born. Tod has the same immune system issue as their previous child, however, he survives the birth and is placed in an incubator. Doctors informed them that the child may survive, but will likely have to spend most, if not all, his life living in some form of an incubator. It’s a disappointment, to be sure, but they have a living, breathing child that they love very much.
Jump forward another four years and Tod is a happy little boy, he just so happens to live his life inside a bubble in a hospital. After seeing the little neighbor girl outside playing, Mickey decides she wants to bring Tod home. It’s not supposed to be funny, but this scene did make me chuckle a bit. When Mickey sees the neighbor girl outside she angrily says to her husband, “I hate that little girl!”
And you’d have to have a funnybone made of stone to not laugh at that.
Anyway, the anger towards this girl ends up being vindicated because it does lead to Tod coming home for the first time and that’s a big win for the Lubitch family. Tod’s homecoming is a bit of a media sensation with reporters camped outside to witness this historic moment.
The film then jumps forward once again and this is when we get our hero, John Travolta, playing teenage Tod. At this point, Tod is a smart, aware kid. He understands the situation and knows why he can’t leave his protective bubble. And the bubble has now grown to what basically amounts to a tent that is the size of your average teenager’s bedroom. Tod has everything he needs in there, including a bed, TV, books, toys, and even a window to see the outside world.
This is where the bulk of our film takes place. As Tod gets older and spends much of his time peering out his window, he wants more than anything join that world. And it’s during this time that he becomes a bit infatuated with Gina (Glynnis O’Connor) – the girl next door that his mother once declared her hatred for.
Through medical advances that have occurred over the years since Tod was born, it becomes easier for him to get out and about. First, it starts with a portable rectangular box that Tod is able to sit in. He is able to take this out to the pool and eventually the beach. He even starts attending school via closed-circuit television.
Tod wants more, however. He wants to live as normal a life as possible. He wants to get out and actually walk around. He gets his wish in the form of a spaceman-like suit. He looks a little awkward and only has a limited time that he can be away from an electrical outlet, but he’s able to attend class like any other high school kid. It’s a big win as far as Tod is concerned.
The Boy in the Plastic Bubble is a coming-of-age film that follows the same standard beats we’re used to, with the added layer that our young lead is dealing with a life-and-death medical condition. We get a lot of the same awkward teen moments and two young people fall in love for the first time.
The relationship between Tod and Gina feels authentic. It starts with Gina feeling bad for Tod and then even making fun of him with her other friends. There’s a great scene at the beach on 4th of July where Gina’s friends bet her to hold Tod’s hand. They can’t actually hold hands, of course, but her and Tod are able to touch through the plastic. Tod is ecstatic about this, but once he learns it’s a joke he freaks out.
What Travolta is able to do in the film is a bit restricted given the nature of the premise. With that said, we do see some examples of the start Travolta would eventually come. He has a natural charm that shines through, even from within the confines of his bubble. We even get some signature Travolta moves when he throws himself a dance party and gets down.
The biggest pro-Travolta highlight comes in the way of Travolta’s hair. For a good chunk of his career, he has had the best hair and it may be at his peak here. It’s got the volume and the bounce, and when he tosses it you can’t help but get swept away. I challenge anyone to watch this film and not daydream about running your fingers through Travolta’s gorgeous locks. It’s impossible to prevent that thought from consuming your mind.
In an interesting turn of events, Travolta was falling in love both on and off screen with The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. Hyland, who was 18 years Travolta’s senior, became his first love. The two had a six-month-long romantic relationship, that sadly ended when Hyland passed away, in Travolta’s arm, after a battle with breast cancer. Travolta eventually accepted Hyland’s Emmy for her role in the film.
Beyond serving as a launching pad for Travolta’s career, the film has had a large cultural impact in a variety of ways. It’s been referenced in numerous television shows and movies, served as the inspiration for a Paul Simon song and even became a musical. Perhaps, most famously it was loosely remade as the cult comedy, Bubble Boy.
The Boy in the Plastic Bubble is a good movie. Yeah, it’s a bit dated and most certainly cheesy, but it’s funny, engaging and has so much damn heart, and one masturbation joke. Plus, it features a young, energetic and charismatic Travolta and that should be enough to satisfy anyone.