BOOTLEG FILES 210: “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” (1976 TV movie starring John Travolta).
LAST SEEN: Available on several Net sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only in bootlegged versions.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Some people must assume this is a public domain title, but this film is copyright protected.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Maybe someday.
During the 1970s, the three major American television networks produced their own films that were broadcast in primetime. For some time, there was a popular trend for using this genre to highlight peculiar and unusual health stories – what became known as “disease of the week” productions.
Perhaps the most famous of these films was the 1976 production “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.” The film itself is unremarkable, except for its good fortune of presenting John Travolta in his first starring role. At that time, Travolta was enjoying his initial taste of stardom as a cast member of the sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter.” But that series found him as part of an ensemble that supported starring comedian Gabe Kaplan. Travolta was eager to be at the center of his own vehicle, hence his appearance in this movie.
“The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” was inspired by the true story of David Vetter, a child born in 1971 with an improperly function immune system. Young David was raised since his birth in sterile, germ-free incubator-type environments. The freakish nature of his life story and his isolated existence gave birth to the expression “the boy in the bubble.”
For “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” however, the central character was a teenager. Advancing the age of the bubble-bound youth introduced new complications to a scenario that would not have been possible had the story concentrated on a trapped child.
Travolta plays the title role. His character’s name is Tod Lubitch, and the surname was clearly a tribute to filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch via Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal film critic who co-wrote the screenplay. Tod is 17 (Travolta was actually 22) and his life within the sterile bubble environment doesn’t appear to have so rough on him: he sports a stylish haircut, he can dance to the latest tunes playing on his stereo, and his lean muscular body is constantly displayed thanks to his tight shorts and t-shirts (he explains that his bubble’s room temperature is warm, hence the lack of modest clothing). At one point, he acknowledges (in 1970s coded language) that he is a chronic masturbator. Tod also has a considerable New Jersey accent, which is disconcerting for someone raised in California hospitals.
In any event, Tod’s isolation from the outside world is slowly reversed when a closed-circuit TV system is installed in his room. This enables him to sit in on a local high school class, albeit through distance video learning. It also provides him with the ability to be the class clown, entertaining his fellow students by wearing a Groucho mask and flashing answers on the TV screen to aid test cheaters.
Eventually, Tod ventures into the world: first by being carried in a large plastic bubble, then by wearing an orange spacesuit-type garment. Speaking of spacesuits, Buzz Aldrin inexplicably stops by at one point to meet Tod (don’t ask why).
But Tod’s greatest crisis comes via his next-door neighbor, Gina. She is not your typical girl-next-door. As played by Glynnis O’Connor, she would be more at home in a Russ Meyer movie than a made-for-TV film. One could argue she has the biggest and best knockers of any movie teen in history – I’m sorry we forgot to include her in Film Threat’s recent 50 Best Breasts article. Seriously, it is impossible to pay attention to the plot when O’Connor is bouncing around the screen.
The drama is then set: how can the Boy in the Plastic Bubble get himself erotically entangled with the Girl with the Biggest Tits? If he steps out of his sterile enclosures, he will surely die from the nasty germs around him. Or will he? A kindly old doctor keeps popping up to talk about alleged research in Tokyo and Moscow that is supposed to save young men with immune disorders, and Tod mentions a few times that his immunity system is slowly building itself up. Do you suppose that he will be able to join the real world and play with Gina’s sweater puppets?
“The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” is vintage 70s TV cheese. From the tacky décor and clothing to the grueling Paul Williams love song over the closing credits, the film will draw nostalgic chuckles from those who survived that decade.
The only value from the film comes from Travolta, who clearly shows the star potential that would go into overdrive in “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease.” In those films, as with “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” Travolta’s charisma and good looks more than compensate for the weakness of the production. If another actor had been cast, the film would never have resonated.
In this little movie, however, Travolta’s persona of the hunky, cocky rebel with the heart of gold seems strangely out of place. In real life, poor little David Vetter experienced severe emotional problems relating to the isolating nature of his existence. Travolta’s Tod, however, is almost too much the life of the party. At one point, he orders his parents to park his bubble on the front lawn of their house so he can strip off his shirt and get a sun tan. Huh?
Robert Reed and Diana Hyland play Travolta’s parents. While everyone knew Reed from “The Brady Bunch,” Hyland was a veteran actress who never quite found her niche in the business. Despite being 20 years older than Travolta, she fell in love with the young star during the production and embarked on a romantic relationship. Sadly, Hyland died from breast cancer a year after making this film (reportedly in Travolta’s arms). Her performance was posthumously honored with an Emmy Award.
“The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” was broadcast on ABC on November 12, 1976. It turned up on TV in reruns over the years, and a generation later it inspired some mean-spirited parody in the movie “Bubble Boy” (2001) and in episodes of “”Mystery Science Theater 3000,” “Seinfeld” and “Family Guy.”
The film was produced by the TV arm of 20th Century Fox, and it is copyright protected. But for no clear reason, the film has been repeatedly bootlegged and openly sold on video and DVD by companies specializing in public domain titles; an unauthorized Net version for real-time viewing is also online. I recently picked up a bootleg DVD at a local supermarket for $3.00, and that copy featured a picture of a middle-aged Travolta on its cover!
Travolta completists and fans of 70s excess may find some amusement from “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.” And, of course, mammary maniacs need to see Glynnis O’Connor in this movie. But for everyone else, this bubble has no bounce.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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