Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Dig Newton!

Considering how much I enjoy music in its various forms, it’s surprising how little it is ever discussed here in The Underworld. I think I just have a far greater focus on movies and television. Anyway, today’s featured performer has reached the highest highs of the recording industry while also dabbling in acting. Her success there has swung from creating unforgettable cinematic iconography to suffering abject derision and rejection from critics and audiences, though one thing remained consistent. People nearly always embraced her music. The lady is Miss Olivia Newton-John.

ONJ (Do I have to type out Newton-John each time? Ha!) was born in England, yes, England in 1948. (She was once quoted as saying something to the effect that she was always accused of being an “Australian Goody Two Shoes.” She’d correct them, saying she’s an “English Goody Two Shoes” raised in Australia!) Her father was Welsh, while her mother was Jewish-German (in fact, her maternal grandfather, German Max Born, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1954.) Her mother had been raised Lutheran, making Newton-John partly Jewish in heritage only. Her father, while in the British service, was one of the people who captured infamous Nazi Rudolph Hess.

Her father took the family (including older brother Hugh and older sister Rona) to Melbourne, Australia in 1954 where he taught German at that city’s university of the same name. With an early interest in singing, ONJ, at fourteen, joined a an all-girl band and sang at a local coffee shop owned by the husband of her now-grown sister, Rona. The band, Sol Four, was short-lived, but she soon began appearing on local television, being billed sometimes as “Lovely Livvy.” Already a pert, pretty, big-eyed girl with a crystal-clear voice, by 1965 she entered a talent competition on an Australian show called Sing, Sing, Sing and won! The prize was a trip to England.

Newton-John was reticent about traveling so far, though her mother encouraged (pressed, even, for Olivia’s own benefit) her to go. She made a musical film while still home called Funny Things Happen Down Under and met a boyfriend, Ian Turpie. Her reluctance to leave him also played into her initial hesitation about flying off to England. Eventually, though, she went, and recorded her first single with Decca Records in 1966. More than once, she attempted to come back to Australia, but her mother would cancel the tickets, knowing that her daughter was going to eventually find success in the more substantial market that England provided.

When an old pal from her TV days, Pat Carroll, came to join her and the two began performing as a duo (“Pat and Olivia”), she began to enjoy her life again and let her dreams of returning Down Under subside for a while. This venture came screeching to a halt when Pat’s visa expired, forcing her to return to Australia. Olivia, having been born English, didn’t experience this roadblock. In 1970, she was chosen by Don Kirshner to be part of his latest musical concoction. He had assembled The Monkees, to great fan acclaim, if not much critical approval, and now conceived Toomorrow, a four-person group with one female included. They filmed a movie of the same name (this clipping misspells the name of the group with the grammatically correct “Tomorrow.”)
The film was a major flop and the group disbanded not long after. An occasional song would make an impact in Great Britain and Australia, though she was still practically unknown in the U.S. Cliff Richard, a popular singer and the star of his own TV series, had ONJ on several times and the two struck up a close friendship. They also made a British TV-movie together. 1974 brought some attention to her when she sang at the Eurovision Song Contest, though she placed fourth (with ABBA winning for Waterloo) and reportedly disliked the song that had been chosen for her by the British public, an anthem called Long Live Love.

The album also titled Long Live Love was augmented for release in the U.S. and took on a vaguely country music flair. One of her songs, Let Me Be There, had made an impact on the Country charts and producers ran with this angle, making her a fresh new face and sound in that scene. Eventually, she would enjoy great success with a string of songs including If You Love Me, Let Me Know and I Honestly Love You, which was her first number one hit. She became a Grammy-winning recording artist and was also given The Country Music Association’s award for Female Vocalist of the Year (1974), beating out legendary names such as Loretta Lynn, Anne Murray, Dolly Parton and Tanya Tucker. This tipped off a swarm of controversy, with genre purists claiming that a foreign born singer had no place in the category.
This didn’t stop her from recording her next album in Nashville and releasing even more hits like Have You Never Been Mellow and Please Mister Please. She continued to add to her folk/country cred when she provided considerable backing vocals on John Denver’s song Fly Away. Her warm lower range was balanced out by a freakishly clear and pure upper range, allowing her to sing a wide variety of songs.

Now a name brand artist in America, she was granted a television special in 1976 (at a time when such things were plentiful, but also quite memorable and significant as there were basically only three TV networks available for viewing.) Up until then, ONJ had projected a very clean-scrubbed, fresh, pretty, but rather safe and homespun image. She continued to do so, but the special allowed her to branch out and feature various facets to her persona. One way she allowed herself some differentiation was with a montage of popular songs and looks throughout the eras, from the early 1900s up through the 70s. She was shown as a Gibson girl, a flapper, a Harlow-like vamp, a U.S. Naval WAV, a flower child and a tube-top-wearing disco babe. This way, she was only playing the parts of more worldly types rather than seeming to be one. Another of the looks she took on in the montage may as well have been a dress rehearsal for her next foray into the movies, though she surely had no idea at the time. She was a gum-chewing, pink angora-clad bobbysoxer (complete with a few of her own “pink ladies” – shown here! LOL)
Already a friend of Helen Reddy, who had convinced her to make a permanent move to the States, she was dining at Reddy’s home one night when producer Allan Carr offered her the lead female role in the film adaptation of a smash nostalgic Broadway musical, Grease. Not entirely grasping the fact that the film (about 1950s high school students) was going to be featuring adults in roles written younger than themselves, she, then twenty-nine, balked at the notion and requested a screen test against John Travolta, already signed to play the lead male. She was also still licking her wounds from the unsuccessful Toomorrow. Nevertheless, the test was successful and she was soon on her way to creating movie musical history!

The director, Randall Kleiser, had worked with Travolta previous on the TV-movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, though he only got the role after Henry Winkler (a deadeningly obvious choice what with his then-fame as Happy Days’ Fonzie) turned it down. Likewise, Newton-John can thank Marie Osmond for saying no to the part since she disapproved of the character’s decision to turn bad in order to win over her man. She even – gasp! – was to have a cigarette dangling from her mouth in the finale! She promoted her upcoming role with a TV special that aired about a month before the movie’s premiere and included some of the Grease songs.

ONJ played Sandy, a good girl who has a chaste summer romance with a Brylcreamed boy (Travolta), thinking it temporary, but finding out later that she’s been transferred to his school when her family moves to the States. (Her character was rewritten as Australian to accommodate her accent.) She tries to fit in with the resident bad girls, the Pink Ladies, but most of them can’t abide her. He, meanwhile, a member of the T-Birds, can’t give up his macho posturing and reputation as a lady killer and consistently finds ways to upset her. By the end, after much singing and dancing, they decide to give each other’s lifestyles a try and end up meeting in the middle.

The shot of the two of them in their final clinch is one of the most recognizable images in the history of soundtrack albums for not only was the film the biggest hit of 1978, but the music from it was played all over the radio and in every other home in America. It was an unqualified smash all around. Even twenty years later, during a re-release and after having been on video for ages, the movie was second only to Titanic at the box office. Travolta, an actor who despite having a fair number of screen successes in his life never seemed to establish significant romantic chemistry with his leading ladies, was perfectly complimented by Newton-John. The unlikely pairing paid off in spades and the two became good friends.

Casting Olivia in the film meant more than merely making her character an Aussie. She also enlisted her producer and frequent songwriting collaborator John Farrar to fill out the score with two new songs: You’re the One That I Want and Hopelessly Devoted to You. Both became monster hits. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance and got to sing Hopelessly Devoted to You at the following year’s Oscar ceremony. (The song lost to Donna Summer’s Last Dance, in case anyone was wondering.) Incidentally, her sister Rona Newton-John met Jeff Conaway, who played the second lead in Grease, while watching Olivia work and they were married for about five years afterward.

Now ready to move past the daisy and granola aspects of her successful, but somewhat banal, music career, Olivia took a page from Grease’s Sandy and decided to spice up her image. The next album she released saw her wearing more makeup and sexier clothing (all-black, like "new" Sandy) along with singing more up-tempo songs. A Little More Love was the primary hit from this album.

By 1980, she was going before the cameras again, this time in an original musical that tried to pull out all the stops in an effort to win over the public. Xanadu had her cast as one of nine muses who pops out of a wall mural to help an aspiring artist realize his dream of owning the ultimate nightclub, a hot spot with live music, ornate décor and, of course, roller-skating… ONJ had just done a duet with Andy Gibb and, though perhaps he was too young for her (at ten years her junior), he might have made a more apt choice for the male lead considering his stunning popularity. Instead, the makers went with the non-musical Michael Beck, who had many similar physical characteristics to Gibb, such as coloring, hair and build.

They also brought on Gene Kelly, who had not had the opportunity to sing and dance in a movie for many years. He and Olivia shared a duet and a dance sequence in which she may not have erased memories of Cyd Charisse or Leslie Caron, but she certainly held her own, looking attractive in a WAC uniform and 1940s style hair.

Unfortunately, the garish, idiotic and endlessly trendy film (which tossed in everything from neon visual effects to a cartoon sequence!) sent viewers into the streets screaming in agony. (This must be why I happen to love the movie!) In trying to hard to be hip, fun and visually arresting, it wound up being, for most people, annoying and uninvolving. One thing was certain, though. The music was still very much beloved and the soundtrack album became a gigantic best seller. Her pal John Farrar was back again to supply her with several songs (one of which, Suddenly, was a duet with her friend Cliff Richard) that quickly became big hits. Half of the film’s songs belonged to ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) and those were also very popular. In fact, I’d count both I’m Alive and All Over the World as two of my favorite songs from the world of movie musicals, even if I have to admit while cowering behind the sofa. I even love The Tubes' number, Dancin'. (Oh hell, I like it all!)

Critics were more unkind with regards to her acting skills this time out, though she managed to retain her appeal no matter how dire the material. The worst parts of the movie had to do with Beck’s artist coworkers and their exasperated boss. At least the musical numbers have some energy and eye-popping costumes and imagery to them. The art studio scenes seem like cheap sitcom-level garbage at best. Then there was her bizarre costume, a simultaneously prim and sleazy get up that looked like an upscale "Little Whore on the Prairie," with flouncy sleeves and an apron, but with a slit up to her waist!
At least, as with her TV specials, she was afforded the chance to try out many looks and guises in the elaborate finale that took place at the finished roller skating hall. The title number was expanded into a lengthy medley of themes and styles, letting her show off her voice and talent. This was an era, though, in which a major league disco backlash was taking place and hardly any musical films, especially ones that tried to be current, could succeed. Movies that incorporated any sort of disco or new wave dance aspect to them found themselves dead on arrival.

During the filming of Xanadu, however, she met one of the dancers hired to fill out the lavish production numbers, Matt Lattanzi. A striking young man (eleven years her junior) with dark hair and pretty blue eyes, he began spending time together with her outside of work and they embarked on a very serious romance. Eventually, he would win roles in George Cukor’s final film, Rich and Famous (as a young man Jacqueline Bisset picks up and fellates – yes!), and appear in Grease 2 before getting his own starring vehicle, My Tutor, about a wealthy student who gets to bed down his older, sexy tutor (Caren Kaye.)
In time, like many things, Xanadu began to look better and it eventually won over a cult following. It even inspired a spoofy Broadway musical version that earned four Tony nominations and enjoyed a healthy national tour.

Following the box office crash of Xanadu, Newton-John was ready for a major shift in her image. She cut off most of her long blonde locks and adopted a radical new style in her musical material. Physical was the name of her next album and single (and was not written by her close associate Farrar.) Hard to believe as it may seem, the song with very racy lyrics created a tempest with conservative radio listeners. It was even banned from a couple of Utah stations. (Some of my more puerile friends and I used to change the word "animal" to "enema" and sing "Let's get into enema!") In order to offset the blatantly sexual nature of the song and try to soften some of the outrage, she filmed a music video for it that attempted to change the focus of the song to exercise rather than intercourse.

Donning a headband and workout gear, she was shown at first amongst some various limbs and torsos of musclemen, but then comedically cavorting with a gaggle of sweaty, overweight guys in a gym, the guys desperately trying to master the machines and get themselves into shape. Then, while ONJ showers and changes, the tubbies have turned into shiny, bulky bodybuilders. To add to the lightheartedness of the video, they are shown exiting the workout area, arm in arm, headed to the locker room and showers to do God knows what, while Liv is left with one of the still-chunky big ‘uns for herself.
This song catapulted Olivia to the very top of the pop charts and gave her an anthem that would see itself used in many other film & TV products. She followed it up with another bouncy hit, Make a Move on Me. Possessing an acumen for business and marketing, she took advantage of the still-new video market and produced a video album for Physical that contained one for each of the record’s songs along with some to go with three previous hits. The video album won her a Grammy, was formed into another TV special and kept the train going, leading to an international tour, a filmed version of that and another Grammy nomination. She was about as hot as a pop singer could get at that moment.

Considering the mammoth success that had been Grease, it was decided to re-team Newton-John and Travolta once more, this time in a non-musical comedy called Two of a Kind, about an inventor (Travolta) who feels pressured to rob a bank. Trouble is, when he robs the bank, it turns out that the teller (ONJ) has given him nothing but deposit slips and kept the money for herself! Patently lightweight, it was given a mildly sci-fi slant in having God (voiced by Gene Hackman) sending several of his minions to Earth in order to find one human worthy and capable of redemption. They pick Travolta, of course, and his actions dictate the future of the planet. The reunion of the two stars was much-heralded in the press as fans anticipated the release of the movie.
Unfortunately, this motion picture was an even bigger debacle than Xanadu. Travolta, already witnessing a career slide from the Staying Alive, the atrocious follow up to Saturday Night Fever, was off the screen for two years until Perfect came along and put the (seemingly) final nail into his cinematic coffin. It wasn’t until the surprise success of 1989’s Look Who’s Talking and the later triumph of Pulp Fiction in 1994 that he had any sort of place in the film stratus. For Olivia, it signaled the end of her days as a film leading-lady. She would make further appearances in movies and TV, but would never headline another feature.

Ironically, both stars seemed to be at practically their peak of physical attractiveness. She had found a comfortable middle ground between being plainly pretty and vampy and he was in exquisite condition from all the dancing he did in his prior film. They still made an attractive and appealing couple. The material was just hopeless.

As with Xanadu, at least the music from the soundtrack had some impact. Journey had a hit with Ask the Lonely and Olivia released what is quite possibly my favorite song of hers, Twist of Fate. For the video, she donned a black dress with gloves and gave herself the Donna Mills eye treatment (not to mention ratty, frizzy hair!) and stood on a small platform mostly surrounded by water as a faceless jury sat in a neon-lit box. Two of a Kind may have been tripe, but Twist of Fate was an exciting and thoroughly enjoyable song.
By this time, she had placed Matt Lattanzi in several of her music videos and watched as he attempted to gain an acting foothold in the fickle world of moviemaking. In 1984, after a few years of courtship, the couple married. Two years later, a daughter Chloe was born. Lattanzi began to suffer one of the greatest of all male dreads, especially in the big-haired '80s – follicle loss. His pretty looks were not able to sustain him as he began to lose out on his dreams of an acting career. He worked in the Steve Martin comedy Roxanne, but did precious little else of note. The couple divorced in 1995 and within a decade he had dropped out of public life, allegedly going so far as to forsake bureaucracy, identity cards, social security, etc… (i.e. – “off the grid.”)

Incidentally, over the years, many rumors have abounded about Newton-John’s sexuality and the possibility that this was a marriage of convenience merely to produce a child. Whatever the case, they sure did pose for a lot of really awkward photos during their time together! As for ONJ, she has occasionally taken part, especially in more recent years, in projects that were designed to draw awareness to AIDS and encourage tolerance. She has also played a lesbian, though one with a comedic slant. And despite nearly always having some sort of boyfriend, her first big hit, I Honestly Love You, can very, VERY easily be read as the story of a homosexual trying to break the fact of his/her attraction to someone who may not entertain the idea too easily. However, that is most likely due to the fact that the song was co-composed by Peter Allen, who knew a thing or two about the torment of being gay in a straight world. See the lyrics by clicking on this box.

The same year that Two of a Kind was released to groans, Olivia and her long-term friend Pat Carroll (of “Pat & Olivia” and who had occasionally sung back up on ONJ’s songs) created a store of Australian imports called Koala Blue. Successful for a while and even becoming a small chain, it only lasted until 1992. She and her friend John Farrar parlayed the name into use on various products, however, such as linens, wine and so forth.

When Soul Kiss, an album she made while pregnant with Chloe, only met with middling success, she took time out to experience motherhood. Her return album in 1988, The Rumor, though critically more appreciated than a lot of her previous recent works, was met with precious little fanfare by the record-buying public. She was being eclipsed by a new crop of younger acts. Repeated attempts to recapture her musical success failed to catch on and in 1992 she was stricken with breast cancer. It was made doubly crushing because she found out about it the very weekend her father had died.

Always one with an eye towards the socially conscious (she had threatened once to cancel a Japanese tour unless something was done to prevent the slaughter of dolphins caught in the tuna fishing nets), she kicked her humanitarian efforts into high gear after her recovery from cancer. Her work took on the characteristics of promoting wellness and awareness and many of her projects were to benefit those in need of both.
Still, many various traumas continued to occur in her personal life. The year after her divorce from Lattanzi, she began dating a cameraman named Patrick McDermott (shown above.) Their relationship lasted nine years until he suddenly disappeared while on a fishing trip off the California coast, never to be seen or heard from again! Then, her daughter Chloe was discovered to be anorexic, meaning that mother and child had a long, tough row to hoe in order to get her back into proper health.
She continued, as I said above, to act occasionally. She made a couple of Christmas-themed TV-movies, one of which, A Christmas Romance, featured Chloe (and hunky Gregory Harrison) in it. (That's them together above.) Nothing if not loyal, the other one, A Mom for Christmas with Doug Sheehan, featured music written by John Farrar. She was also amongst the sizeable cast who took part in It’s My Party, a film about a man (Eric Roberts) who is in the final stages of dying from AIDS and wants to go out on a high note, inviting everyone he can think of to the title event. Her reviews were generally quite strong considering her background being mostly in musicals and/or comedy. Then, in a wild bit of casting, she did the film Sordid Lives, playing trouble-making lesbian Bitsy Mae Harling. Eight years after the film’s release, she revisited the character for eleven episodes of a Logo Channel original series of the same name, sharing most of her scenes with Miss Rue McClanahan in one of her last projects.
Since that, she’s worked in a documentary about breast cancer called One a Minute and played the mother of a young hockey player in Score: A Hockey Musical, a Canadian film. She also appeared on American Idol as a guest judge, showing a few signs of cosmetic work. God knows it must be hard to go from being one of the most naturally pretty women imaginable to a sixty-something senior! Recent photos tend to reveal some wrinkles, though she’s still lovely. Whatever procedures she had done seem to have settled in some. Please Mister Please do not let Olivia Newton-John fall prey to the Beverly Hills butchers who can’t wait to hack up and plump up every other face over thirty! One thing that may help avoid this is the fact that she no longer resides in California. In 2008, she married a second time, to a man named John Easterling (nicknamed “Amazon John!”) who founded and runs an herb company. They had met a decade and a half prior (perhaps when she was exploring the benefits of herbal therapy), but didn’t become a couple until later. They reside in Jupiter, Florida.

These days, when it’s not about some well-deserved time for herself and her husband, it’s about either reaching out to help others or concentrating on her lifelong love, music. A beautiful person from the inside out, Olivia Newton-John has brought a lot of pleasure to a lot of people and almost completely avoided major scandal along the way, quite a feat in the dog-eat-dog world of the music industry. We wish her all the happiness in the world and thank her for sharing her extraordinary gift with us!


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