Oscar Versus the Music

How the Wrong Film Scores Win Academy Awards

Oscar Versus the Music

This year’s Academy Award for Best Musical Score went to Ennio Morricone for The Hateful Eight, which provides a good starting point for a discussion of the checkered history of the Music Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in selecting its Oscar winners. I do not mean to pick on Morricone and his score. Morricone is a justly legendary film music composer, and The Hateful Eight is a good score that works well for the film, provided that you are sympathetic towards Morricone’s unconventional personal style. The principal Red Rock theme is one of his best tracks, and it brilliantly defines the tone of the film in classic Morricone fashion.

Nonetheless, the Academy got it mostly wrong, as they did in 1986, when Morricone should have won for The Mission. The Music Branch should not award an Oscar because a composer is 87 years old and has never won a competitive Oscar for a specific score in his illustrious career (Morricone did win a Lifetime Achievement Award and has five Oscar nominations for Days of Heaven, The Mission, The Untouchables, Bugsy, and Malèna). That is unfair to other, more worthy contenders. You could actually make the argument that some of this year’s nominees were more deserving, and two of the other composers (Thomas Newman and Carter Burwell) have also never won an Oscar despite long and distinguished careers.

It should also be noted that Morricone has composed numerous scores that are better than The Hateful Eight and could or should have won Oscars, including The Mission, Days of Heaven, Cinema Paradiso, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The Hateful Eight is not even one of Morricone’s best scores, and several cues from his previous scores (The Thing and The Exorcist II: The Heretic) are tracked into the film. That is a no-no for an Oscar winner. It is also relevant that the International Film Music Critics Association (IFMCA) correctly voted Star Wars: The Force Awakens (John Williams) as the best score of the year and “The Jedi Steps and Finale” (the end credits suite) as best film music composition of the year. Despite all of that, because Morricone is such a revered composer and The Hateful Eight is certainly not a bad score, it is a popular and palatable winner regardless of how misguided the choice may or may not have been.

The Academy has made countless far worse choices throughout its years of existence. Some of those are due to matters of taste or uninformed and unbelievably bad decisions that should not happen since the Music Branch is supposedly populated with musicians and composers who should know better. There are several other recurring reasons the Academy is so frequently wrong. They include sentiment, politics, changing and often incomprehensible rules, and the disparate influence of prestige pictures (which I call “the anointed picture of the year syndrome”).

The Music Branch’s often inscrutable rules defining eligible categories for dramatic films, comedies, musicals (original vs. adapted), and just plain best scores have been confusing (and even wrong) as the criteria have frequently changed over the years. For example, in 1940 The Sea Hawk (Erich Wolfgang Korngold) was nominated for Best Score and The Mark of Zorro (Alfred Newman) was nominated for Best Original Score. Needless to say, the difference is obscure. In 1941, the categories were changed to Scoring for a Dramatic Picture and Scoring for a Musical Picture, which made sense because pictures like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (the winner) did not have to compete with each other as they did in 1939. But there were 20 pictures nominated for Best Dramatic Score. That may sound silly now, but when you had Franz Waxman, Bernard Hermann, Max Steiner, Miklós Rózsa, Korngold, and Newman all composing multiple scores every year, it would be essentially impossible to limit the list to five nominees. That is not a problem now, given the relative lack of substantive dramatic film music. Then, in 1942 the categories again changed slightly to Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture and Scoring of a Musical Picture. That was also sensible, but there were still problems in defining the terms.

Around 1963, the classifications changed to Music Score—Substantially Original and Scoring of Music—Adaption or Treatment. This paved the way for composers like André Previn (My Fair Lady, Porgy and Bess) and Williams (Fiddler on the Roof), even though Newman (The King and I, Carousel, among others) had been brilliantly supervising and adapting numerous musicals previously. Subsequently, variations like Song Score and Adaptation Score appeared. Since 1985, perhaps because of the decreased number of musicals (original or adapted), there has been a single category: Best Original Score. This inevitably led to dramatic scores competing against pop-, jazz-, or rock-oriented scores, and when that happened, much to the dismay of serious film music aficionados, scores like Fame (Michael Gore) beat The Empire Strikes Back (Williams), Chariots of Fire (Vangelis) beat Raiders of the Lost Ark (Williams), Midnight Express (Giorgio Moroder) beat Superman (Williams), and A Little Romance (Georges Delerue) beat Star Trek—The Motion Picture (Jerry Goldsmith). That, of course, was idiocy. In 1986, ‘Round Midnight (Herbie Hancock) not only beat The Mission (Morricone), but Aliens (James Horner) and Hoosiers (Goldsmith)! And whenever a dramatic score, no matter how good, competed against an Alan Menken musical in the Best Original Score category, the musical usually won. Clearly, those decisions illustrated the Music Branch bowing to popular taste, trends, and the dominance of the Song Score. At this point, film music was a long way from the Golden Age despite the popularity and durability of scores like Jaws and Star Wars.

Speaking of Star Wars and Williams, nothing can be done in years like 1977, when Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind competed against each other. There can only be one winner when a composer (usually Williams) is nominated twice, sometimes permitting the emergence of a lesser score as winner. Still, there is no viable excuse for the fact that Williams has won only once for his seven Star Wars scores. That sort of thing can be partially attributed to a nebulous and changing rule that a score is ineligible if a significant percentage of its music appeared in a previous film. For that reason, Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was apparently deemed ineligible (it wasn’t even nominated) after The Fellowship of the Ring won for Best Original Score, but then, The Return of the King won. Consistency doesn’t seem to phase the Academy, even though all three Lord of the Rings scores have the same plodding, turgid, ever so solemn, pseudo-Wagnerian music. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy brings up another non-musical phenomenon that plays a major role in determining the Oscar winner. If the score is written for a prestige film, it is more likely to win regardless of its musical merits. How else can you explain that the first two Lord of the Rings films won only a couple Oscars, but Return of the King won 11, including Best Original Score and Best Song, plus virtually every technical award because the film was the anointed picture that year and the Academy was apparently trying to honor the whole Trilogy?