WHAT A DRAG!
John Travolta in drag? As bizarre as it sounds, Travolta is the front-runner to play the overweight laundress Edna Turnblad in the new film adaptation of “Hairspray,” knocking out Harvey Fierstein, who originated the role on Broadway.
And many involved with the show aren’t pleased.
“All the creators of ‘Hairspray’ very strongly wanted Harvey for the movie,” says Tom Meehan, co-writer of the Broadway production. “This is a decision New Line made; they can do what they want.”
Travolta’s publicist had no comment.
What New Line wants, says Meehan, is for “Hairspray” to be a blockbuster Christmas release for 2006. New Line refused comment on the casting negotiations, first reported in yesterday’s Variety.
But Meehan said it was widely known among the show’s creators that the studio had also been considering Tom Hanks and Jack Nicholson. “They were thinking big,” he says, laughing. “It got pretty wild.”
Edna was first played in the 1988 John Waters film by the late drag queen Divine, who famously ate real dog excrement in Waters’ trash-terpiece, “Pink Flamingos.”
Michael McKean, Bruce Vilanch and Fierstein have all interpreted Edna on Broadway, but Fierstein was considered the true soul of the hit musical, based on the demented yet sweet movie about kids in racially segregated ’60s Baltimore.
Fierstein wouldn’t comment on Travolta’s possible casting, other than to say, through a spokesperson, that since he gets royalties, “the bigger a hit ‘Hairspray’ is, the happier I am.”
Travolta “is certainly a good marketing hook,” says Hollywood Reporter columnist Martin Grove, even if he “may not be the first name to come to mind.” Travolta’s career has gone through truly steep low points (“Perfect,” “Battlefield Earth,” “Look Who’s Talking!”), but he’s built a decades-long career on playing characters that are cool in an off-kilter way: the dim rebel Vinnie Barbarino on “Welcome Back, Kotter,” Danny Zuko in “Grease,” Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever” and the smack-addled hit man Vincent Vega in “Pulp Fiction,” his 1994 comeback.
“Edna Turnblad is not a character you associate with him,” says David Poland, editor of Movie City News. “He’s never played high camp. But now he’s aging. It’s time for him to start playing senior adults, instead of clinging to the macho stuff.”
And there are few things less macho than donning a polyester housecoat and technicolor make-up – which was traumatic even for Divine, who spent almost his whole life in drag.
As Edna, Divine was stuck “in my flip-flops and hideous housedress, with varicose veins drawn on my nubbly shaved legs and everything wrong with me accentuated, schlepping along in these pin curls.”
Even Travolta’s champions, Grove and Poland, say cross-dressing could prove too much for the actor.
“I just saw him at the premiere for his new movie, ‘Be Cool,’ and he is a big, macho guy,” says Grove. “He does not look like he would enjoy being in drag.”
“He’s never played in this realm before. He plays characters at a lower note,” says Poland. “In many ways, it’s why he’s still a star.”
Yet for all the complaining about Travolta’s likely casting, even co-writer Meehan understands the bottom line.
“Harvey is not the world’s greatest singer or dancer; he’s just a great, great performer,” says Meehan.
“We all agree that we’d love to have a successful movie, so we’re not going to walk away.”
WHAT A DRAG!