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Why Olivia Newton-John’s death feels personal for ‘Grease’ fans

Oh, Sandy.

The image of an angelic, ponytailed Sandra Dee arriving at the Rydell High carnival, Spandex-clad and with a brand-new bad-girl image — ready to claim her man — in 1978’s “Grease” is forever seared onto the mind of moviegoers everywhere.

Olivia Newton-John shoots John Travolta’s Danny Zuko a piercing glance and knocks him over with a sultry command: “Tell me about it, stud.”

It’s an iconic scene on par with “Here’s looking at you, kid” in “Casablanca” or Darth Vader telling Luke, “I am your father” in “The Empire Strikes Back.”  

From that moment on, we were hopelessly devoted to her.

That unforgettable turn in the hit movie-musical from Newton-John, the wondrous actress who died Monday at age 73 after a long battle with breast cancer, endeared the Australian performer to the entire world.

The film “Grease,” which also skyrocketed the careers of Travolta and Stockard Channing, is so beloved to this day by countless fans that Newton-John’s death, for many, feels incredibly personal. 

She had it all: A glorious pop voice, acting chops, incomparable beauty, likability, a down under sense of humor. She was a beacon of raw star power.

Olivia Newton-John transformed in "Grease."
Olivia Newton-John transformed in “Grease.”
CBS via Getty Images
Olivia Newton-John's Sandy was charmed by John Travolta's Danny.
Olivia Newton-John’s Sandy was charmed by John Travolta’s Danny.
CBS via Getty Images

“Grease,” in no small part thanks to her, is the rare movie that’s cherished by multiple generations — as fractious as they might otherwise be. Grandma, mom and her daughter all have mile-wide smile when they sing “You’re The One That I Want” and “Summer Nights.”

Olivia Newton-John brought people together, and she will continue to do just that. 

Born in Britain but better known as an Aussie, what’s so impressive about Newton-John is she made an indelible stamp on cinema with just one major role. Yes, she did other small TV shows and films — her second biggest part was as a goddess sent to earth in the cult favorite “Xanadu” — but “Grease” was the word. 

Newton-John went rollerskating in "Xanadu," which had songs by the Electric Light Orchestra.
Newton-John went rollerskating in “Xanadu,” which had songs by the Electric Light Orchestra.
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Col

She was on the radio more than at the movie theater. Most of her career was spent as a musician and she had a slew of No. 1 hits. Her fabulous song “Physical” is still a phenomenal dance tune and a hallmark of ’80s music. Even in the critically derided “Xanadu,” the Electric Light Orchestra jams she sang like “I’m Alive” and “Suddenly” are still a fizzy listen.

Yet there’s something about Sandy. We all see ourselves in the part of a sweet new student from abroad, who’s at first mistreated and then takes charge of her situation. Add in Newton-John’s perfectly played vulnerability and sensuality and what you get is a performance for the ages. How many other movies from the ’70s can you show your kids and know they’ll pay attention and enjoy it?

Give Newton-John’s sterling rendition of “Hopelessly Devoted To You” a listen today. You’ll hear it anew. Your eyes will not be the first to cry.

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