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"Bland? Who, me?": Olivia Newton-John on the road to Xanadu

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)

If, according to prevailing critical sentiment of the time, Grease was the ‘double fudge sundae’ of 1978’s cinematic offerings (Carroll, 1978, p. 3), then Olivia Newton-John was its glacé cherry – pretty, syrupy and very, very sweet. Popular and academic writing has offered little in the way of detailed commentary on Newton-John’s performance, or, indeed, her star persona in the run up to, and during, the film’s theatrical release. Described in contemporaneous reviews as ‘bland’, ‘a goody goody in a ponytail’ and ‘all sweetness and light’ (Ansen, 1978, p. 92; Haskell, 1978, p. 58), her contributions to Grease were generally dismissed as simplistic and/or twee. While recent scholarship on Grease has examined co-star John Travolta’s phenomenal popularity in the wake of Saturday Night Fever (1977), and Stockard Channing’s turn as the tough-minded, abrasive and witty Rizzo (Brickman, 2017; Tropiano, 2011), Newton-John’s status within the film and surrounding discourses merits further attention. A hugely successful recording artist, with fan bases spanning a range of age, class, taste and national demographics, she offers an alternative lens through which to reconsider the Grease phenomenon.

This essay begins with a close analysis of Newton-John’s star persona through the late 1960s and early 1970s. Discussing her early career in the UK, musical and film roles as part of the failed pop ‘supergroup’ Toomorrow, success on the country circuit and global popularity, I chart the evolution of this persona, and the ways in which it impacted Grease’s marketing and reception. In many ways, Newton-John’s public image encapsulated a wider softening and ‘mainstreaming’ of the 1960s – its popular culture and, to a degree, the era’s political transformations – then taking place in 1970s America. I also explore her importance for an international market where she was as well known, if not more so, than Travolta. Finally, I turn to a close analysis of her evolving star persona during Grease’s theatrical run and the years immediately following. From Sandra Dee to ‘Let’s Get Physical’, film, music and media identities collide, creating a range of narratives around this well-known, but all too often dismissed, 1970s superstar.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationGrease is the Word: Exploring a Cultural Phenomenon
EditorsOliver Gruner, Peter Kramer
PublisherAnthem Press
Chapter3
ISBN (Electronic)9781785271113, 9781785271120
ISBN (Print)9781785271106
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2019

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