Elite group of film composers again take center stage

In the past, the hoopla surrounding the Academy Awards often translated into the usual suspects, especially when it came to actors. Names like Streep, Hanks, Hopkins, Nicholson, Sarandon and Foster seemed to pop up perennially in the Oscar race.

These days, however, new blood appears to characterize awards season more than anything else, except on the craft side, where familiar names continue to shine. This is especially true when it comes to film composers.

With the exception of Tan Dun (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), this year’s original score nominees are drawn from a pool of familiar names, nearly all are past nominees and/or winners. An overview, alphabetically:

James Horner, “The Perfect Storm”

Pedigree: Won two Oscars for “Titanic” (song and score), the album for which sold an unprecedented 26 million copies worldwide. Has five other noms for such major scores as “Apollo 13,” “Braveheart” and “Field of Dreams.” Also scored this year’s megahit “Dr. Seuss How the Grinch Stole Christmas”

Composer’s aesthetic: “My job was to show the peril of these people and the tremendous loss and sadness as they slowly disappeared from the film. It was very important for me to give the feeling that the ocean goes on forever — that this was one of those timeless stories of mariners going out to sea, and that there will be many more Andrea Gails.”

Strengths: Could benefit from major studio hype for the film in technical categories; one of few genuinely listenable scores for summer movies this year

Handicaps: Will Acad voters remember there was music behind all that howling wind and crashing waves?

James Newton Howard, “Dinosaur,” “Unbreakable”

Pedigree: Respected, in-demand composer with five noms (including “The Fugitive,” “The Prince of Tides”); no wins

Aesthetic: “(‘Dinosaur’) had plenty of action and jaw-dropping visuals. The music needed to help it succeed on an emotional level and, in the sense of a more traditional action-adventure movie, to heighten the excitement.”

On “Unbreakable”:

“The music had to define, as economically as possible, the primary currents of the movie: one, a heroic idea; another, the destiny that was drawing this man into an irresistible sort of end.”

Strengths: Disney’s animated “Dinosaur” relied heavily on Howard’s powerful score, which incorporated African rhythms and chanting; it’s already a Grammy nominee. Rich string sounds helped chart the emotional ups and downs of “Unbreakable.”

Handicaps: Does anyone remember “Dinosaur”? And will the Acad’s music branch be dissuaded by “Unbreakable’s” mixed critical reception?

Maurice Jarre, “Sunshine”

Pedigree: Veteran French composer responsible for such classics as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”; nine noms, three wins (all for David Lean films)

Aesthetic: “(Director) Istvan Szabo was very keen not to have a so-called big Hollywood score, but one that was more introspective. There are basically three themes in this film: the little piano piece that goes all around the characters in the three different generations; a very Hungarian feeling for the second theme; and finally, at the end, a choir to express the hope and the victory of the Hungarian people.”

Strengths: Memorable theme, big choral finale; big canvas (three generations in a Jewish Hungarian family during the 19th and 20th centuries); could play well on video for Acad voters who rely on screeners.

Handicaps: Film was little-noticed until Golden Globes revived it with film, actor and score noms.

Ennio Morricone, “Malena”

Pedigree: One of the world’s most respected cinema composers, from the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone to the classically inspired heights of “The Mission”; four noms, no wins. Also scored Roland Joffe’s lavish costumer “Vatel.”

Aesthetic: “The film starts with irony and humor, and little by little the music transforms into a very expressive theme. Because of her silence, Malena’s character can be interpreted in several ways, and the music had to convey this, and her many experiences throughout the film.”

Strengths: Evocative, nostalgic score reminiscent of his well-regarded “Once Upon a Time in America,” with similarly exquisite viola solos; regular collaborator with director Giuseppe Tornatore (including Oscar-winning “Cinema Paradiso”); lifetime achievement honor from National Board of Review may help.

Handicaps: Italian film may not be widely seen by Acad voters. Morricone constantly overlooked even for remarkable work.

Thomas Newman, “Erin Brockovich”

Pedigree: Popular composer of “American Beauty,” “Shawshank Redemption,” “Little Women,” others; four noms, no wins. Also scored this year’s “Pay It Forward”

Aesthetic: “It was a real story taking place, so, as much as I could avoid doing so, I didn’t want to sensationalize events (with music) that were meaningful all on their own. It was important to go alongside the energy of the movie but not comment on it — trying to be there without saying too much.”

Strengths: Big “Erin” sweep could include Newman’s quirky score, which succeeds in subtly conveying atmosphere with classic old rhythm-section sounds like the Fender Rhodes and electric bass.

Handicaps: As with “Pay It Forward,” the “Erin” score is stylistically similar to “American Beauty” despite different musical colors.

Rachel Portman, “Chocolat”

Pedigree: First female composer to win a scoring Oscar (“Emma” (1996)); nominated last year for “The Cider House Rules.” Also scored this year’s “Legend of Bagger Vance”

Aesthetic: “I had to get exactly the right balance that the film captures: something which is at once light, but has a depth as well; is at times funny but has a lot of serious moments, too. I wanted it to have a very European feel: Sometimes it’s full orchestra, but (there are also) very simple little pieces of music with a guitar, accordion and clarinet, and others with jazz violin, three guitars and pan pipes.”

Strengths: Strong word of mouth for Lasse Hallstrom’s French fable; combines Portman’s typically sensitive musical handling of romantic subjects with a nice French ambiance

Handicaps: Gypsy-style guitar strumming by co-star Johnny Depp may dilute Portman’s contribution in the minds of some voters.

Alan Silvestri, “Cast Away,” “What Lies Beneath”

Pedigree: Composer for all of Robert Zemeckis’ films including “Forrest Gump” (Silvestri’s only nomination to date), “Back to the Future” and others.

Aesthetic:

On “Cast Away”: “The music encompasses a level of hope as much as loss. They co-exist just as they have to co-exist in Chuck (Tom Hanks’ character) all through the rest of the film. And I think when you have tremendous loss residing next to tremendous hope, you have this very vital expression of reality.”

On “What Lies Beneath”: “There was a lot more music and there were more examples, historically, for the role of music. It was a Hitchcockian thriller with a modern twist.”

Strengths: No music for most of “Cast Away,” so when it arrives, it packs some emotional punch; Bernard Herrmann-inspired music for “What Lies Beneath” crucial in sustaining the suspense.

Handicaps: The spareness of the “Cast Away” score — only 20 minutes, mostly variations on a single theme — can also work against it. The music of “What Lies Beneath” is more pronounced, but the film’s genre trappings will likely cause it to be ignored in virtually every category.

Stephen Warbeck, “Quills”

Pedigree: Oscar winner for “Shakespeare in Love”; music director for Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Co.; composer for TV’s gritty “Prime Suspect” dramas; Also scored audience fave “Billy Elliot.”

Aesthetic: “(Director) Phil Kaufman was very keen that we have a specific identity for a lot of the music, that would merge seamlessly with the effects and the atmosphere of the lunatic asylum. So half the score was played and written for a small ensemble of improvised, adapted and specially commissioned instruments.”

Strengths: Distinctive choral work throughout, weird musical sounds (incorporating everything from drain pipes to Australian didjeridu) for asylum scenes; Acad members may appreciate how difficult it was to score.

Handicaps: The treatment of Marquis de Sade’s antics has widely divided critics.

John Williams, “The Patriot”

Pedigree: Oscar’s most-honored living composer (38 noms, five wins) including such megahits as “Jaws,” “Star Wars” and “Schindler’s List”

Aesthetic: “I never had really done a historical piece exactly like that: an old-fashioned action-melodrama where the orchestra can rage and storm and make theatrical gestures that other types of films wouldn’t quite accommodate. … At the end of the film, we had 16 piccolos doing some flairs and flourishes in the spirit of the time. And Mark O’Connor played his violin in a way that is so quintessentially American, in the Appalachian tradition, this pure sound that is inescapably attached to that particular geography and that period.”

Strengths: Written in the classic Americana style that he excels at (“The Reivers,” “The Cowboys”), giving the picture bigger size and scope; often nominated even for iffy films (“Angela’s Ashes,” “Amistad”)

Handicaps: Devlin-Emmerich film was not well-liked by many critics. Will voters slight the music as a result?

Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, “Gladiator”

Pedigree: Zimmer has six noms, one win ( “The Lion King”); past hits include “Rain Man,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and “As Good as It Gets.” Gerrard (co-scored last year’s “The Insider”) provides the exotic vocals

Aesthetic: “This was such a boys’ movie, I wanted to contextualize all the violence within some emotional strategy. I didn’t want any woman to run out of the theater either out of boredom or because it’s too violent. … So much of culture and beauty is really born out of savagery, and I thought, what’s the most beautiful, benign, bubbly musical form that at the same time has the sort of architecture that Rome has? Viennese waltzes. So I (scored the battle sequences) with waltzes.”

Strengths: Massive orchestral score for big, loud movie; impressive choral forces singing Latin lyrics (drawn from writings of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius); practically only score from the first half of the year that anyone talked about

Handicaps: Some critics were bothered by occasional borrowings from the masters, notably Holst and Wagner.

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