• THERE'S NOTHING MORE DEPRESSING than finding a guy as tough as nails and as mean as dirt," Norman Mailer once remarked. We have, Mailer thought, a deep, profoundly sentimental need to believe that a hard exterior invariably hides a sweet, yearning, essentially decent nature. The alternate idea--that toughness disguises nothing but more toughness--may be the more accurate take on reality. But it's also an intolerable one, especially in the movies, the basic business of which is to redeem us, for a couple of hours now and then, from our darker suspicions about human nature.

    It has been John Travolta's peculiar fate to personify our desperate hope that a certain modern delinquent type--the grammatically challenged guy wearing tight pants and sporting a duck's-ass haircut--may not be quite as dangerous as he appears to be at first appalled-bourgeois glance. It is what made him a star almost two decades ago in Saturday Night Fever and Grease. And now that he's 41 and finally able to play grownup versions of the punk that was, it is what's making him--after a long season of neglect--a star again.

    Last year his turn as Vincent Vega, the menacing, ingratiating hit man in Pulp Fiction--linguistic philosopher, dancing man, heroin addict--earned him an Academy Award nomination. And the picture earned the gratitude of that minority among us who think most contemporary movies, far from being too violent, are suffering a terminal case of the blahs. Now he's about to return as another unlikely hoodlum, at once incisive and dreamy, in Get Shorty, also a smart, shrewdly crafted movie, but one that's less dangerous, easier for everyone to like, than Pulp Fiction. There's every chance it will renew Travolta's Oscar eligibility.

    Deservedly so. His Chili Palmer is a Miami loan shark, the kind of good fellow who can shatter his competitor's nose and with a casually aimed shot nip a sliver off his scalp, in the process neither raising his voice nor losing his shy little smile. He's a much neater operative than Pulp's Vinnie. And his drug of choice is much less threatening; it's old movies. For he's also the kind of film geek who can identify Rio Bravo from a few snippets overheard on the TV set in another room, or mouth all the dialogue from the last scene of Touch of Evil as he sits entranced before the screen in a revival house.

    Imagine tough-tender Chili's delight when the demands of business and the dictates of pleasure combine in the form of a trip to Tinseltown to collect some overdue debts. His pursuit of one deadbeat provides him with a pitchable story idea, while the pursuit of another one brings him into the presence of a producer and a star who, in his naivete, he thinks may be able to help him. Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman) may be a schlockmeister down on his luck, and Karen Flores (Rene Russo) may be famous mainly for the authentic terror with which she invests her screams, but Chili is still impressed; he knows their work.

    Actually--in his uncritical affection for all things cinematic--he loves their work. Can a co-production deal be far behind? Nope. It requires less than two hours of hilarious, intricately plotted, beautifully acted screen time for Chili to free Harry from the toils of some menacing drug dealers who own a piece of a film he has neglected to produce, fall into a rewarding relationship with Karen and, yes, get Shorty. That is to say, get a major movie star--diminutive, egomaniacal Martin Weir (Danny DeVito, whose company produced this film)--to commit to their project.

    Based quite faithfully on an Elmore Leonard best seller, Get Shorty is most significantly true to the book's basic attitude toward Hollywood. Perhaps because he deals with the movie business from a position of strength--he writes things it needs--Leonard omits the contempt with which novelists traditionally drench their Hollywood horror stories. Leonard simply drops a real killer in among the rubber sharks, then sits back watchfully, his only comment a benign (or, at worst, sardonic) chuckle as his hero quietly chews them up.

    Like all of Hollywood's self-satires, Get Shorty understands that movie people are, by nature and calling, melodramatists, with an unfortunate tendency to get self-love, self-loathing and self-pity all mixed up. Screenwriter Scott Frank and director Barry Sonnenfeld also understand that the proper response to all that confusion is not heavy-hitting moralism but wry compassion. And a good-humored respect for the gumption and cunning of people whose lives forever hinge on whether or not their phone calls get returned.

    By this time John Travolta knows all this in his bones, and it shows in his acting as a kind of acceptant curiosity about the world's nuttiness, which includes, of course, his own. There's something uncalculated about what he does, as if he's always wondering how the next sentence is going to come out, how he's going to surprise both himself and everyone watching him. "When I said, 'Action,'" says Sonnenfeld, "I never knew if he would do the next take in English, Japanese, Spanish or French. It's really hard not to play with John. He's got this big bag of toys, and you become a kid around him and want to play with his games."

    It's probably because he's been up--once by common teeny-bopper consent the sexiest dude on the planet--and he's been down--recently by common show-biz consent a marginal player, working in hopeless enterprises like Moment to Moment and Perfect, not to mention projects headed straight to video (The Tender)--and really doesn't see much difference between the two. Even when he had a hit like Look Who's Talking, it was an object of contempt in all the better circles. And along the way, he managed to turn down eventual winners like Arthur, Splash and An Officer and a Gentleman and get aced out of things like The Player at the last minute, all without apparent regret.

    "I was probably less preoccupied with my career than others were," he now says. "I always had some job offers," even if they "weren't particularly great ones." He cheerfully admits he was no one's first choice for Get Shorty and that when the script was submitted to him, "it didn't push me over the edge." He changed his mind after talking with Pulp Fiction's writer-director, Quentin Tarantino, who has become his unofficial adviser. "He said, 'Look man, what's going on here? This is the one you say yes to.'" This he finally did after insisting that much of Leonard's dialogue from the novel be restored. "In the original script it said something like, 'Where's my coat? You better find it. It cost $400.' But in the book it was, 'You see a black leather jacket, fingertip length, has lapels like a suitcoat? You don't, you owe me three seventy-nine ... You get the coat back or you give me the three seventy-nine my wife paid for it at Alexander's.' It was the detail. I said I'd do the movie, but they had to put back everything they paraphrased." This took three weeks, but "they put every goodie back."

    His next career choice was more dubious. White Man's Burden, due out later this year, is a flat fantasy about a future in which American blacks and whites exchange social status--the former becoming the ruling class, the latter doing the menial work. But Travolta delivers a heartbreaking portrayal of a desperate working stiff, unfairly fired from his job and turning to crime in order to support his family. Next will come Broken Arrow, a John Woo action film, and a mess of high-concept, high-profile pictures that signify his return to Hollywood's A list.

    Yet Travolta is unimpressed by his "comeback." "It was last year's story, and prior to that it was a story in '89, and prior to that it was a story in '83, and prior to that it was a story in '80," he says, no trace of bitterness in his tone. "I've never quite figured out why I'm the comeback kid when another actor might just have a normal career of movies that work and don't work."

    Acknowledging this mystery, he refuses to plumb it. As he correctly observes, he always has had enough work to keep him busy and support his habit of "doing what I want in life." This includes a sort of guilt-free materialism--"a millionaire who lives like a billionaire," someone once called him--as he takes a casual, almost childlike, pleasure in his Rolls Royces, the Gulfstream II jet he pilots himself, his mansion in Maine. It also includes marriage to actress Kelly Preston (they have a three-year-old son, Jett) and his embrace of Scientology, which he credits for much of his equanimity. "A belief system, if it works like Scientology does, is just a way of helping you," he says simply. "You grow from it."

    It may be Travolta's apparent indifference to the upward and downward lurches of his career that draws him the nervous attention he has trouble comprehending. People in the movie business like to pretend they inhabit a rational universe, one where you can determine a star's course through a series of well-plotted career moves. Strolling equably through a universe he implicitly defines as chaotic, playing what amounts to a real-life Chili Palmer--mannerly, sweet-spirited, yet utterly confident of his own strength--Travolta calls all their operating assumptions into question. And deepens his own mystery.

    A partial key to that enigma may come from James Cagney, that master of lovable hardness (and the occasion for Mailer's musings on tough guys). Cagney too was a self-invented, utterly self-reliant actor-hoofer, and when Travolta was a kid starting out, he sought out the older actor for advice. Cagney later recalled telling him, "Start with one thing: they need you. Without you, they have an empty screen. So when you get on there, just do what you think is right and stay with it. If you listen to all the clowns around, you're just dead." Obviously, Cagney spoke directly, indelibly to the young actor's heart. Travolta is, against the odds, against the conventional wisdom, triumphantly alive.