In some ways, Kelly Preston’s most famous role was the one outside the movies: as John Travolta’s wife. They married in 1991 and became probably the most devotedly uxorious Hollywood couple since Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. Preston and Travolta have a great sexy-funny dance routine together in the 1989 comedy The Experts, which is how they met. Preston put her acting career on hold for some of the 90s while she and Travolta started a family: having two sons, Jett and Benjamin, and a daughter, Ella. Heart-rendingly, Jett died of a seizure at the age of 16, a memory that adds a new layer of sadness to today’s news, and a new layer of sombre reflection about the great pressures that a woman in public life is expected to undergo.
In her 20s, Preston got sexy supporting-cast Hollywood roles in movies such as the 1988 box-office smash Twins, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito as the bizarrely un-similar titular siblings. Preston played Marnie, the woman who marries Schwarzenegger’s gentle giant while Chloe Webb played her twin sister Linda, who is paired off with wisecracking DeVito. It is a measure of the sexist stereotyping of Hollywood that while the men are supposed to be hilariously different, she and Webb are the non-twins playing regular twins with 80s big hair, basically indistinguishable not just from each other but all the other “sexy” roles that Hollywood compels its female stars to fit into. Two years earlier, she had been in a quintessentially 80s teen comedy Mischief – the kind of movie which lived endlessly on in VHS rental outlets throughout the world – playing the hot blonde fantasy object of the shy adolescent boy.
In the 90s, Kelly Preston’s roles were more interesting and she found that could play darker, funnier, foxier parts. Like Rebecca DeMornay or Leslie Mann, Kelly Preston found that as she left her 20s behind, with the right script and the right director, she could do interesting character work and bring something subversively comic or dramatic to the idea of blondeness and sexiness. Actually, she had already shown she could do precisely this in her other 80s comedy, SpaceCamp, in which she played a valley-girl teen astronaut who is in fact a genius.
Although Preston didn’t ever really get the chance to show what she could really do in a comedy, she had a small part in Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth in 1996 and that same year she had the best role of her career in Jerry Maguire – a “ball-breaker” in that very male sense, perhaps, but one who could go toe-to-toe with Tom Cruise in big dialogue scenes and actually dominate the screen, taking the attention away from Cruise who seemed boyish and cowed in her presence. It was ultimately Preston’s destiny to be upstaged by the more sympathetic and relatable love-interest Renée Zellweger in that film, but she was a fierce and powerful figure as his cynical and fanatically careerist fiancee, Avery, who is furious at what appears to be Jerry’s midlife breakdown in quitting his lucrative job, thus putting their wealthy power-couple prestige in mortal danger.
Her big speech is an aria of discontent, which consciously inverts the romcom sentiments that the film will naturally wind up endorsing: “Jerry, there is a sensitivity thing that some people have. I don’t have it,” she rages. “I don’t cry at movies. I don’t gush over babies, I don’t start buying Christmas presents five months early and I don’t tell the guy who just ruined both our lives: ‘Oh poor baby.’ That’s me, for better or worse. But I love you.” In this style, Preston refuses to believe that she is being dumped and even contrives to make it look as if she is delivering the dressing-down to Maguire.
Later, Preston appeared with Travolta in some of his cherished personal projects, some of them rather uneasy, such as his stodgy sci-fi movie Battlefield Earth in 2000 where she had a small role as Travolta’s girlfriend, and the equally stodgy mob drama Gotti in 2018, in which Travolta played the notorious wiseguy John Gotti and Preston was his wife Victoria. She was also in the ropey Disney comedy Old Dogs, with Travolta and Robin Williams.
But I have happier memories of Preston in the charming and good-natured family superhero comedy Sky High in 2005, where she plays Jetstream, a crime-fighter with the power of supersonic flight, who has the secret identity of a real-estate salesperson, named Josie DeMarco-Stronghold, married to Steve Stronghold, played by Kurt Russell, who is also a superhero, named the Commander. As a couple, they have difficult adolescent kids who may have superheroic tendencies – all a little in the manner of Spy Kids or The Incredibles. Preston had a nice rapport with Russell, and it’s a shame that this side of her career didn’t get more nurturing.
Kelly Preston was a classy performer who lent grace and style to some of the biggest hits of the 80s and 90s.