Oscar Versus the Music

How the Wrong Film Scores Win Academy Awards

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Oscar Versus the Music

Closely related to the prestige film issue is the Gustavo Santaolalla debacle. Santaolalla was a virtually unknown (to film music fans) composer in 2006, when he won an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain. His score contained little more than ten minutes of original music, but it won over Williams’ epic and authentically atmospheric score for Memoirs of a Geisha. Brokeback Mountain won the Best Picture Oscar, and was the prestige film of the year. The next year Santaolalla, largely based on the notoriety he received by winning for Brokeback Mountain, won for Babel, a score that is memorable only for its mediocrity, beating Thomas Newman’s Golden Age-modeled score for The Good German and Javier Navarette’s dazzling music for Pan’s Labyrinth, which should have won. The Academy thus created the ludicrous situation where Santaolalla has won more Oscars in two years (two) than Goldsmith won in his entire 50-year career (one). Another recent example of the anointed picture is The Artist (2012). Ludovic Bource’s score was a virtuosic Golden Age stylistic pastiche, but how can a picture win Best Original Score when the lengthy climactic scene was underscored by Herrmann’s Vertigo?

There have been numerous other, sometimes mind-boggling nominees, winners, losers, and omissions over the years of the Academy’s existence. Korngold’s Kings Row (1942) was not nominated in a year when there were 17 nominations for Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, including such stalwarts as I Married a Witch (Roy Webb), Klondike Fury (Edward Kay), and The Shanghai Gesture (Richard Hageman). In 1953, Alfred Newman’s legendary score for The Robe was not nominated in a field including Above and Beyond (Hugo Friedhofer), From Here to Eternity (Morris Stoloff, George Duning—this was a very good and controversial film with virtually no substantive music), Julius Caesar (Rózsa), Lili (Bronislau Kaper—an excellent film with a charming score that won), and This is Cinerama (Louis Forbes). Waxman temporarily resigned from the Music Branch of the Academy to protest the fact that The Robe wasn’t even nominated.

In 1958, in perhaps the greatest atrocity of all, Herrmann’s Vertigo was also not nominated in a group containing a blockbuster (The Big Country by Jerome Moross), plus The Young Lions (Hugo Friedhofer—his best score), The Old Man and the Sea (Dimitri Tiomkin), Separate Tables (David Raksin), and White Wilderness (Oliver Wallace). There are a couple good and sophisticated scores there, but really, White Wilderness over Vertigo? How is it possible to justify that? The Old Man and the Sea, which is a mediocre score for a film that did not suit Tiomkin’s restless, noisy style, won. So the Music Branch blew it twice in one year by failing to nominate Vertigo and giving the award to the popular Tiomkin over Moross’s stunning score for The Big Country. Other film music masterpieces that were not nominated include George Antheil’s Not as a Stranger and The Pride and the Passion, Herrmann’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Journey to the Center of the Earth, Korngold’s Between Two Worlds and Juarez, and Waxman’s The Bride of Frankenstein and The Spirit of St. Louis.

In 1954, Tiomkin’s The High and the Mighty beat Leonard Bernstein’s On the Waterfront and Waxman’s The Silver Chalice. By then, Tiomkin had developed a considerable reputation as a songwriter. This is perhaps the classic case of a hit song or melody (especially with John Wayne whistling it at the end) virtually guaranteeing an award over scores that were far more complex and substantive musically. On the Waterfront is an unequivocal masterpiece of film scoring that is still frequently played in the concert hall. The Silver Chalice has a memorable main title sequence with a powerful and sumptuous presentation of Waxman’s variation on the Dresden Amen that Wagner used in Parsifal. The rest of the music is remarkably restrained and nuanced. The Silver Chalice would get my vote as the greatest score ever written for a truly bad film. The following year, Newman’s Love is a Many Splendored Thing was another very good score for a big film that also had a hit song, but it should never have won over Elmer Bernstein’s groundbreaking jazz-oriented music for The Man with the Golden Arm.

Malcolm Arnold is an excellent composer for the concert hall and films, but The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) should probably not have won an Oscar for Best Original Score when its most popular and signature element was the Colonel Bogey March by Kenneth Alford, even if Arnold skillfully blended it with his own music. Johnny Green’s epic masterpiece Raintree County was that year’s best score. In 1960, Ernest Gold’s Exodus beat Alex North’s Spartacus. Exodus had a striking main theme that became a popular hit, but Spartacus is a blockbuster score like no other, except perhaps, North’s Cleopatra, which, almost unbelievably, also lost to John Addison’s Tom Jones in 1963! Clearly, the members of the Academy did not understand North’s strange modernistic dissonances in blockbuster period spectacles. Of course, Elmer Bernstein’s The Ten Commandments was not even nominated in 1957. Then there is the 1970 fiasco when Francis Lai’s Love Story beat Goldsmith’s Patton. I could go on, but you get the picture.

Clearly, some of these questionable and controversial nominees and winners were dictated by popular songs, themes, single tracks (as with The Hateful Eight), and other influences that reflected popular as opposed to classical tastes at the time. Others were conceivably related to the concept that the score worked better for the film than it did as a pure listening experience (in other words, the sometimes conflicting role of great music versus a great film score). But most of these illustrative examples still have to make you wonder, especially when the award is for Best Dramatic Score rather than Best Song or Theme. The best film music certainly, by definition, must work well for the film, but the acknowledged masters of the craft have always found a way to make their music also function as a good listening experience without the visual images. In fact, the voting members receive soundtrack recordings to aid them in making their selections. Herrmann’s score for Vertigo is perfect for the film and is also a riveting pure listening experience. It is therefore difficult to understand why the musicians and composers who are members of the Music Branch of the Academy so frequently select ill-advised nominees and winners for the wrong reasons as opposed to the best original score of the year based solely on its musical value.