Travolta, Phoenix and The Ladder

John Travolta, Joaquin Phoenix tackle some burning questions and so much more

First, the good news.

Welcome Back Kotter was a classic TV series and Grease was a classic movie and I have zero interest in doing either again as a ‘whatever.’ I just think it is unnecessary.”

This, from John Travolta during a whirlwind press day in San Francisco. Travolta and his costars in Ladder 49, a film that chronicles the personal and emotional tolls it takes in being a fireman, were in town on a promotional blitz, which found each actor being ushered into different suites at the Ritz Carlton at different intervals for myriad interviews. Now, press junkets are interesting creatures. And the creatures you find there even more interesting. There’s always one that stands out, and, quite typically, it isn’t the celebrity you are supposed to interview. Were I to be as brave as a fireman and truly venture into the building I’ve just set on fire for myself in print, one that would expound in full detail the erratic nature of a particularly headstrong writer from a major daily newspaper whose gushy banter smacked of a newborn hyena searching for her mother’s milk; the same person who could be perceived as a major distraction, this story would be a laugh riot. (Imagine the adjectives.) Instead, I’ll summon another fine quality firemen exude—decency—and let that other “building” burn to the ground. Some things can’t be saved. And, thankfully, there are other things to savor, especially when it comes to director Jay Russell’s (My Dog Skip, Tuck Everlasting) new movie.

Ladder 49 is a fine film. Its problems aside—it makes up for lack of character depth with standout performances from a solid cast—Ladder 49 is actually Joaquin Phoenix’s baby. Here, the always surprising, fully captivating Phoenix turns in another emotionally surging performance. As a rookie firefighter working his way up the ladder in the Baltimore firefighter world, Phoenix is believable, and more importantly, embraceable, in the role of Jack Morrison. Told mostly through flashback, the audience gets to see Jack’s evolution as a dedicated fireman, his commitment to his wife and kids, and the inner turmoil he and his family must face knowing that each fire Jack battles, could be his last. The film is book-ended with a tragic event that, while predictable, still manages to surprise in the telling.  The film’s most notable standout is how well it illustrates the bonds firemen share between each other. These buddy-buddyisms become a sort of comic relief but are never too over the top that you find yourself rolling your eyes. Deeper, at least emotionally, than Ron Howard’s Backdraft, Ladder 49 is a believable outing, even though its script occasionally gets hosed down with the sort of thing Hollywood loves to spoonfeed audiences—melodrama.

Behind the scenes, things always sizzled creatively. Phoenix, for one, thrust himself in a brutal round of training and actually managed to graduate from the Baltimore Fire Academy—the film was shot in Baltimore. Travolta et al experienced a similar, and intense, training regime that consisted of attending a “fire camp,” which, at one point, found all parties, suited up with firemen gear—100 pounds and then some—and forced to endure the mental challenge of maneuvering through a pitch-black maze.

“You realize you are in a crawl space and immediately that makes you panic,” Phoenix says. “There was a moment when I thought, ‘I am not going to get out of this thing.’ There were a couple of spots where you have to go down something backwards, and then you have to do all this before your air runs out. But once I was [at the camp] for a couple of weeks, and once the boys came in and did their thing, and I was able to hang out with the other instructors, I saw how enjoyable it was to inflict that type of torture on other people [in the maze]—(laughs) you see how safe it is, the walls you are bumping into [in the maze], where you feel like you’re going to die, they slide right open, so you’re really totally safe; they can come right in and get you.”

The entire pre-fireman experience apparently stressed all of Phoenix’s comfort zones: “I don’t like small, dark cramped places, and not being able to breath, or to see; heat, height—where to begin? Everything was challenging. One of first exercises I did was jumping jacks, and I vomitted. That was a great start for day one.”

Travolta, who plays a determined, loyal fire chief in the film, believed casting Phoenix was “quintessential.”

“I cannot imagine another actor in that part,” he says. “He’s almost like Monty Clift was years ago. He has that whole mobility and that very distinctive quality that makes you move into him. Joaquin pulls you in. I am very fond of him. He’s a very thoughtful, serious actor.”

Most would say the same for Travolta, whose celebrity soared in the ’70s and early ’80s with TV’s Welcome Back Kotter, and later, in the films Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Urban Cowboy. When Pulp Fiction resuscitated his career in the early ’90s, the actor’s celebrity never dimmed, even when some of his films tanked (Mad City, Battlefield Earth). In person, he’s amiable, and can look you in straight in the eyes, and he seems genuinely interested in offering his take on why he was drawn to Ladder 49.

“It wasn’t really until after Sept. 11 that I got a kinship toward [firemen] and went to all of the firehouses and then I did my airline tour to promote airline travel after 9/11,” he says.  “I probably underestimated the level of skill they had; that they have to have. And the training—there is quite a bit to know about the subject matter and I did not know the depth to that. [Firemen] have tough veneers but underneath that, there’s this tremendous humanity that seeps through—their personality and care—and I love that duality. I think it’s great. They are strong and tough but you also know they are going to be careful, and trying to get that right [on film] was very interesting.”

Just as interesting is Travolta’s patience. When pressed by the aforementioned daily reporter on whether his upcoming memoir will have any “dirt” in it, he chuckles and says, “I can make more doing a movie.”

Burn baby, burn.

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