“travelin’ thru'” – dolly parton (2005)

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The 90th annual Academy Awards were held this past weekend.  Organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to celebrate “excellence in cinematic achievements,” the Academy Awards (affectionately and commonly referred to as the Oscars) is a star-studded spectacle.  It is where you can see Hollywood’s hottest stars shine bright, see montages and tributes that remind us why we love the movies, and be thoroughly entertained by the host and the character they bring to the ceremony.

This year’s Oscars ceremony had a message for the world.  2017 went down as a year where toxic men in Hollywood were exposed and town down from power after decades of abusing a system that preyed upon young actresses.  Brave women came forward and shared their personal stories of harassment and sexual assault.  Almost daily, it seemed that a recognized male figure faced allegations.  While men like Aziz Ansari were put on blast and added nuance to the dialogue on sexual assault (in this case, consent must be enthusiastic), the real victories were won against monstrous and vile men like Harvey Weinstein whose career rightfully ended and is currently facing possible arrest for his decades of abuse and crimes.

Women rising up and taking their rightful place in the seats of power also extended by Hollywood.  The #metoo movement spread like wildfire all over our social media feeds.  Everyday people, unaware of or blind to systemic sexual and gender issues, were finally seeing that the victims of sexual assault extend beyond those walking the red carpet.  These victims are also our mothers, sisters, neighbors, daughters, and friends.

Movies are a cultural institution that provide us a window into the lives of people we may not know.  We look to them for answers or understanding as they are often a lens into a life beyond our own.  They can elevate the voices of marginalized people.  There is power to movies.  Hollywood knows this and this theme was inherent in this year’s Oscars ceremony.  However, there was a good chance you were disappointed.

The Oscars have become increasingly contentious over the years.  And it depends on how you watch them.  For some, the Oscars, like other Hollywood awards shows, are just meant for pure entertainment.  These kinds of people understand that countless timeless classics and key cinematic figures were never awarded an Oscar and that the whole industry of award shows is superficial at best.  They know that the Academy tends to lean conservative and, with few exceptions, can be fairly predictable.

For others, winning an Oscar is a form of validation and that being awarded the iconic golden statuette is important in that it raises awareness and visibility for the winner.  And it makes it even more important that the Academy recognizes marginalized groups.  In recent years, the Oscars have been accused of ignoring cinematic contributions from people of color with #OscarsSoWhite trending across all the social media platforms. Since the rise of #OscarsSoWhite campaigns, the Academy, as well as other award governing bodies, have made comments that they will strive to be more inclusive.

While #OscarsSoWhite has driven the dialogue over the last few years, this year it was the #metoo movement that was the focus of the ceremony.  Regarding the presenters, the Oscars included more women and those women spoke passionately about the struggle of women in the movie industry and women all over the world.  Notably, Jodie Foster and Jennifer Lawrence presented the award for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role” after Casey Affleck dropped out following allegations of sexual misconduct (note that it is tradition for previous year’s winner from the opposite gender category to present).  Salma Hayek Pinault, Ashley Judd, and Annabella Sciorra presented a short presentation highlighting the #metoo and Time’s Up movement while celebrating the need for diversity in film.  Even Hollywood legends Helen Mirren and Jane Fonda, who both have witness many changes and controversies over the decades-long careers, stood up against toxic men in Hollywood during their presentations.  The message was clear and we were all behind them.

Like every previous Oscars ceremony, social media blows up with criticisms about the ceremony and how they failed to recognize enough women or people of color.  And expectations were for the Academy to deliver.  When Emma Stone presented the award for “Best Director,” she introduced the nominees as “these four men and Great Gerwig.”  Quite a powerful statement and aligned with the overall theme of the night.  However, I remember thinking, If Gerwig doesn’t win then Stone’s comment will really be awkward (Spoiler: Gerwig didn’t win).  It was moments like that that fueled the disappointment and criticisms many people had.  And rightfully so, but the Oscars have historically been disappointing on the front.

However, the Oscars weren’t completely dominated by white men.  This year, despite the lack of women and people of color winning overall, was a fairly diverse year compared to previous Oscar ceremonies.  Jordan Peele became the first African-American to win the award for “Best Original Screenplay,” Guillermo del Toro became the third Mexican to win “Best Director” (while nabbing his first Oscar), Daniela Vega became the first transgender actor to present that Oscars (her film A Fantastic Woman won for “Best Foreign Language Film”  which was also Chile’s first win and the film was incredibly fantastic), and Robert Lopez became the first person to earn an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) twice.

While the Oscars this year were predictable as they always have been, those are significant achievements.  Sure, it doesn’t completely fix the lack of diversity inherent in the Academy overall.  While diversity and inclusion are absolutely important things, I don’t think it should come to any surprise that the Oscars failed to deliver on people’s expectations in a year where women and people of color were declaring that “Time’s Up.”

For this blog, I went through all winners of “Best Original Song” from previous Oscar years.  There are a lot of great songs that have over the years.  Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from ‘Shaft’” comes to mind.  And how can you forget “Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland?  So many great songs rightfully awarded for their merit.  However, there are a lot of deserving songs that should’ve won but were overlooked.

When I was going through nominees that didn’t win, I saw a lot of great tunes.  However, I specifically wanted to find one that not only I enjoyed thoroughly and thought deserved to win, but something that was timely.  I couldn’t find a song that better fit that criteria than “Travelin’ Thru” by Dolly Parton.

“Travelin’ Thru” was recorded by Parton for the 2005 film Transamerica starring Felicity Huffman and Kevin Zegers.  Directed by Duncan Tucker (his only feature-length film to date), Transamerica is the story of a preoperative transgender woman (Huffman) who learns that she fathered a son (Zegers) who is a teenage runaway living on the streets of New York City.  The film earned Huffman a nomination for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role” and Parton a nomination for “Best Original Song.”

Transamerica¸ while a decent but not movie, was certainly ahead of its time.  While Oscar was buzzing about homosexuality in film that year (Brokeback Mountain and Capote being big contenders that year), Transamerica was an overlooked film.  While 2005 doesn’t seem like a long time ago, it was still a time where having men kiss on film was controversial.  So, it is no wonder why a film about a transgender person wouldn’t garner more attention.  In 2018, a film like Transamerica would get the support it deserves for the purpose of increasing visibility of transgender issues and elevating them in Hollywood.  When viewed through the lens of 2018, Transamerica isn’t a perfect example of mainstream transgender cinema though.  Huffman herself isn’t transgender.  However, in 2005, that movie was bold on its own merit in that time.  And despite that, it is a footnote of aughts cinema.

Though the movie itself has been relatively forgotten, Parton’s soundtrack contribution is legendary.  Not only did “Travelin’ Thru” deserve the Oscar that year and stands out as one of the best songs to be nominated but not win, but it is one of the best songs in Oscar history.  Even Parton’s performance for the ceremony is legendary.

“Travelin’ Thru” is a song about embracing the journey despite not knowing where it will take you.  In the song, Parton sings about being a puzzle and figuring out how all the pieces fit.  She isn’t sure of where she’s going or where’s she been, but she knows she has a purpose in life and she’ll do anything to answer the questions burning inside of her.  It is a remarkably powerful song with an optimistic message.

I fully support the advocates behind the #metoo and Time’s Up movements.  The Oscars have 90 years of history and tradition that has solidified into an institution that can, for the most part, lack inclusivity and ignore social issues around us.  The Academy’s mission is to recognize excellence in cinematic achievements.  The issue is that marginalized people need the opportunity to create excellence in the first place.  And piece by piece, they’ll get there and completely change the face of the Oscars.  Their work is not in vain and they’ll get there as they are stumblin’, tumblin’, wonderin’, as they’re travelin’ thru.

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