Thirty-five years before John Travolta became the stuff that memes are made of — thanks to two successive Oscar ceremonies — he was one of the hottest stars of film and television, having leapt from Welcome Back, Kotter to Saturday Night Fever and Grease. He could sing and dance, and was adept at both comedy and drama — he was a blue-eyed, white ethnic heartthrob with a New Jersey twang.
He was also a Scientologist who had joined the church early in his career. Though we now think of Travolta as one of Scientology's most famous zealots, he was a halfhearted adherent at first, according to Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, the new Alex Gibney documentary that is now playing in select theaters and will premiere on HBO on March 29. In the film, Travolta's Scientology handler from that period, Spanky Taylor, who became close with him, says: "When Johnny first got into Scientology, he didn't even believe in it himself that much. But he got injected with a lot of confidence. And then you get this phobia inducement: If I leave, it's all going to go down the tubes. When you're in the organization, all the good that happens to you is because of Scientology. And everything that isn't good is your fault."
Though Travolta has been married to Kelly Preston, also a Scientologist, since 1991, rumors about his sexuality have surrounded him for most of his 40-year career. And though outing celebrities is still rare in mainstream storytelling, in Going Clear, a narrative about a religious organization intrusively controlling its members and aggressively spreading its message, the example of Travolta becomes both a fulcrum and an exclamation point: He has served as Scientology's ambassador because they know every personal detail he's ever revealed to them. The church, according to the movie, blackmails him into serving its needs.
Going Clear is based on Lawrence Wright's 2013 book of the same name, and in the book, Wright wrote explicitly about Travolta's predicament: "The church hierarchy was desperately concerned that their most valuable member would be revealed as gay; at the same time, the hierarchy was prepared to use that against him." The book also alleges that in 1980, while David Miscavige — now the leader of the church of Scientology, who then was climbing its ladder — "was wining and dining" Travolta, he was simultaneously saying behind his back, "The guy is a faggot. We're going to out him."
In the film, the word "gay" isn't spoken in reference to Travolta, but rather the particulars of his situation are used to describe how auditing — Scientology's form of talk therapy — is used to amass secrets about someone that can later be used against them. "An auditor learns to keep notes contemporaneously as he is doing a session," Marty Rathbun, an ex-Scientologist who was Miscavige's right hand, says in Going Clear. "It's the most intimate detail. You're always encouraged, you're always threatened to disclose more and more and more. And all of it's recorded."
Wright, who is a producer of the film and also a talking head in it, says: "There were rumors that he was threatening to leave. And another Scientologist told me that he was delegated to create a black PR package — all the damaging material they could use against Travolta. Which came from his auditing sessions."
Rathbun adds, "As far as Travolta's concerned, people say, 'Well, there's all these things that we know about that have been rumored in the tabloids.'" At that point, an image of a National Enquirer cover from June 2012 with the headline "Travolta's Gay Boyfriend Revealed! 6 Year Affair He Hid From Kelly" is shown on the screen.
What Rathbun describes is a quid pro quo for someone like Travolta, who benefits from "the muscle of the church." He continues: "On many occasions, we were sent out to get with his publicist, to get with his lawyer to help squash or intimidate these people who were making accusations against him." Then, Wright says: "Once that happened, I think he was really the church's captive."
Rathbun told BuzzFeed News over email that the lawyers he was referring to were Martin Singer and John Lavely. Singer expressly denied to BuzzFeed News that he or Lavely had ever met with Rathbun (or with Mike Rinder, Scientology's former head of PR, who is also featured in Going Clear) to intimidate the sources of allegations against Travolta. The film does not specify what people were "making accusations," but the actor has fended off numerous lawsuits related to his sex life over the years.
A spokesperson for the Church of Scientology also responded to Going Clear's assertions about Travolta's relationship with the organization, telling BuzzFeed News that the film's allegations of blackmail are "false and defamatory," and that the accusation that auditing sessions are used for leverage is "false and deeply offensive." She continued, "The church treats any clergy-parishioner information as sacrosanct. This is an obligation that ministers of all faiths share and likewise is the unalterable policy of the church."
Earlier this week at a Film Independent at LACMA screening of Going Clear, Gibney talked briefly with BuzzFeed News about using Travolta as an example in his movie. "It's not my business," Gibney said about his decision to refer to Travolta's sexuality in the film. "We just know that the church made it its business to collect private details and threaten to reveal them. That's really the relevant detail."
In recent years, having come off the highs of his career (for now, at least), Travolta has been an odd and even poignant public figure. Going Clear shows him at an earlier stage, but perhaps no less of a poignant one, as we watch a video from 1987 featuring Travolta awkwardly singing "Happy Birthday" at a celebration for L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology's founder, the year after he died. Lest we feel sorry for Travolta, though, Wright says after that footage rolls, "When they were facing lawsuits and stuff like that, he'd be brought forward and make his testimony about how great Scientology is. He had the opportunity to affect the behavior of the church. And he chose not to."