Travolta Was Robbed

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Each generation has a few iconic film stars to call their very own. Someone our age, with whom we identify. 

That’s the inherent value of art. An emotional connection. Sometimes a deep one. Sometimes based on one performance. Connected to a specific point in time.

The Oscars are this Sunday. They always take me back.

When I was 20, John Travolta was nominated for Best Actor for his compelling, era-defining portrayal of Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever. Arguably the best dancer on the big screen since Fred Astaire.

The ’78 Oscars marked the beginning of his career. The competition was stiff that night: Richard Burton, Marcello Mastroianni, Richard Drefyuss and Woody Allen.

Travolta was robbed by Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl. Meh. Oscar-worthy Dreyfuss came two years earlier in Jaws, a couple of cocktails deep, pointing to a scar on his chest:

“Mary Ellen Moffat. [Dramatic pause.] She broke my heart.”

Travolta was just a few months past Vinnie Barbarino and a good 16 years before Vincent Vega, when, nominated again for Best Actor, he would be robbed once more. This time by Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump.

“It happens.”

When Travolta’s dance moves hit the suburban cineplex, it justified the lives of a generation. The movie took place in Brooklyn, but we were also stayin' alive in Wichita, Kansas, Fort Wayne, Indiana and West Overshoe, Wisconsin. It wasn’t about place. It was about time. It was about that very special time.

What James Dean and Rebel Without a Cause was to my parents’ generation, Travolta and Saturday Night Fever was to mine. A pop culture snapshot of the late 1970s. It would happen for today’s 40-somethings a decade later with John Hughes movies.

I remember asking my high school journalism teacher if he’d seen American Graffiti, the 1973 coming-of-age classic set in the early ‘60s.

“Seen it? I lived it.”

Same with many middle age precipice approachers and Saturday Night Fever. Our lives right up there on the big screen. A movie with a soundtrack as important as the script. Travolta’s dancing as important as his acting.

Saturday Night Fever was just good enough to make you wish it was better.

Because of Tony Manero and “Well, you know I could dance wit you but you’re not my dream girl or nuttin like dat” and You Should Be Dancing and Stephanie Mangano and “I work on my hair a long time and you hit it.

He hits my hair.” 

...because of girls in waist-length rabbit fur jackets and the Bus Stop and Pogo’s in Wichita and The Hustle and feathered hair and polyester and disco music reverberating to your marrow at 127 beats per minute...

...because of my life then and my memories today, John Travolta is my guy.

John Travolta may never win an Oscar, but I will pay good money to watch any movie in which he appears.