Olivia Newton-John was that rare thing: a wonderfully unselfconscious star

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: AA Film Archive/Alamy</span>
Photograph: AA Film Archive/Alamy

Olivia Newton-John was an Australian recording star who achieved serious Hollywood fame with her starring role in the 1978 musical Grease, playing opposite the white-hot leading man of the moment, John Travolta. Just a few years earlier, she had come an ignominious fourth representing the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest (she was born in England), losing out to Abba’s Waterloo. But Grease made her a serious A-lister.

Related: Olivia Newton-John, star of Grease, dies aged 73

At the ages of 29 and 24, Newton-John and Travolta were playing high-school students Sandy and Danny in a fondly imagined 1950s – but no one questioned the age disparity at the time, and Newton-John was probably Hollywood’s last example of a mature juvenile lead. In Grease she is the sweet, pure virgin in love with the leather-jacketed cool kid – until the final number, when she embraces her inner biker chick to keep his heart ensnared. Sandy famously had to be rewritten from the stage version to explain her Australian accent: nowadays, Aussie stars such as Margot Robbie and the Hemsworth brothers do American accents indistinguishable from the real thing.

Grease was as gorgeously innocent as Newton-John herself, and the beguiling niceness of everyone involved (even Travolta’s Danny and Stockard Channing’s fierce Rizzo) made it a rocket-fuelled hit. Newton-John’s wonderfully unselfconscious performance as squeaky-clean Sandy gave her a movie star status that she never entirely lost, though never entirely earned. It would be unfair to call Newton-John the cinematic equivalent of a one-hit wonder. But after Grease, she had a limited number of film and TV drama credits and her movies benefited greatly from the soundtrack album sales – that now vanished profit-centre of the industry.

There are some gems and cult classics in her career: audacious, exotic flights of fancy, including one that her hardcore fans think of as the most underrated Christmas movie of all time. Audiences – both LGBTQ and straight – have never stopped loving her.

The fantasy romance Xanadu (1980) – directed by Robert Greenwald, since known for political documentaries – was quite extraordinary, an epic mashup of disco flash, golden age Hollywood glamour and some strange VR-style inner-space scenes (four years before Disney’s computer game mind-trip Tron). Newton-John had the distinction of starring in it opposite Gene Kelly in his final film role, and she has a charming song-and-dance routine with him. She plays a beautiful and mysterious woman called Kira who turns out to be the immortal Greek muse Terpsichore, one of the nine muses of Olympus. Kira was once the muse to a former big band leader (Kelly) and becomes the same inspirational though elusive figure for a young would-be artist played by Richard Beck. Xanadu is entirely bonkers, but fun. The opening roller-disco dance scene, led by Kelly himself, is surreal and spectacular. The soundtrack album was a global smash.

Newton-John’s follow-up movie, Two of a Kind (1983), written and directed by TV veteran John Herzfeld and again co-starring Travolta, did not revive the old Grease magic – sadly, it deserved some of the sniffy reviews. Travolta plays an inventor who owes money to the mob, so robs a bank in desperation. Newton-John, miscast as a cynical bank teller, hands over the bag of cash he demands but sneakily switches the cash-bundles for deposit slips. She gets away with the money that he is blamed for stealing – so he comes after her. It’s not a bad premise for a comedy thriller by any means, but the fantasy element is leaden. Four angels are monitoring the progress of these two reprobate humans, and there is a cringeworthy turn from Oliver Reed as the devil. Again, the soundtrack album went through the roof.

After this, Newton-John’s roles are an interesting, eclectic mix: she had a supporting part in the groundbreaking Aids drama It’s My Party (1996), played a hockey mom in Score: A Hockey Musical (2010) and had a good-sport cameo in Sharknado 5: Global Swarming (2017). She also made a forthright contribution to the 2010 docudrama 1 a Minute, about breast cancer.

Related: Olivia Newton-John: a life and career in pictures

But Olivia Newton-John made what cult completists think of as Christmas-movie history with her starring role in the outrageously sentimental but shrewdly judged 1990 TV movie A Mom for Christmas. A lonely, unhappy girl, whose mother died when she was little, is moping around a department store one Christmastide and wishes that a pretty mannequin would come to life and be her mother. This, of course, is Newton-John, who goes home with her – but, oh dear, it can only be for Christmas. I can well imagine this film getting a remake.

Newton-John’s best later work, which showed that she did have the acting chops to go with the music, was her hilarious turn as gay country singer Bitsy Mae Harling in Del Shores’s black comedy Sordid Lives (2000) and the subsequent TV series spinoff, belting out bittersweet numbers in a scuzzy bar. (“Who’s to say who’s a sinner and who’s a saint? / Who’s to say who you can love and who you cain’t?”) Olivia Newton-John kept her claim on her audience’s hearts to the end.