This year’s race for the original score Oscar is, like last year’s, multicultural, with a Frenchman, a Spaniard and an Argentinian competing against two Americans. Two are first-time nominees and one is a past winner.
Don’t count out either the foreign-born composers (nine of the past 12 winners were born outside the U.S.) or the first-timers (six of the past 10 winners won on their first nomination). Also, an ethnic-music component never hurts: Seven of the past 12 score winners contained exotic instrumentation.
The front-runners would appear to be the two first-time nominees: Paris-based Alexandre Desplat, for his light and often whimsical music for “The Queen,” and Barcelona-based Javier Navarrete, whose alternately tender and dramatic, orchestral and choral score for “Pan’s Labyrinth” heightened the emotional stakes of the dark fantasy.
Desplat’s nomination carries additional weight because of his well-liked music for “The Painted Veil” (a recent Golden Globe winner) and the much-talked-about but unnominated scores for “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and “Birth” over the past three years.
Americans Thomas Newman and Philip Glass are the veterans in this crowd: Newman, the popular local whose seven prior noms have not yet won him the prize; and Glass, the New York concert and opera composer who previously had two noms without a win.
Newman’s 90-piece orchestral score for “The Good German,” the film’s only nom, had to seem like a Warner Bros. postwar film score, something that Max Steiner might have written, but also had to supply the requisite dramatic beats for a contemporary audience. He could benefit from the same crowd sentiment that won his cousin Randy Newman a first Oscar after 16 tries: It was simply time to give him one.
Glass’ ominous music for “Notes on a Scandal” strikes the right mood and helps illuminate the characters played by Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench. But it’s also signature Glass with minimalist figures — still a divisive approach among many in the Hollywood music establishment.
Argentinian Gustavo Santaolalla wrote much of his “Babel” score before shooting, playing such exotic instruments as the oud, gembri and ronrico. He may be the longest shot because he won last year for his guitar score for “Brokeback Mountain.”
AND THE NOMINEES ARE…
GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA ‘BABEL’
Oscar pedigree: One win (“Brokeback Mountain”)
Awards to date: Golden Globe nom, BAFTA nom, Satellite Award win
Challenge: “Because the movie took place in such different, colorful places, we didn’t want it to sound like a National Geographic documentary. The challenge was to find a sound that would be common to everywhere without becoming too regional.”
Resonance: “The oud (a Middle Eastern lute) is usually played with a (pick). I didn’t play it in the conventional way; I played with my fingers. For me, it had a resonance that connected to all the places — but played in that way, it became an instrument to project my vision of it, and not particularly in a folk idiom.”
Why he’ll win: Santaolalla’s music helps to link the various locales and storylines in a unique, acoustic way.
Why he won’t: Santaolalla won last year, and only twice in Oscar history has a score composer enjoyed back-to-back wins.
THOMAS NEWMAN ‘THE GOOD GERMAN’
Oscar pedigree: Seven previous noms, no wins
Awards to date: Broadcast Film Critics nom
Challenge: “To stay consistent in style and period without sacrificing a dramatic sensibility.”
Resonance: “I looked at old movies like ‘Casablanca’ and ‘Mildred Pierce.’ The question became: Is the style itself melodramatic or can I approximate that and still provide interest and dramatic ambiguity in a way that would make it more compelling?”
Why he’ll win: By far the most-nominated composer in the category, Newman could tally votes simply due to his consistently excellent scores.
Why he won’t: “Good German” is a B.O. dud, and got mixed-to-negative reviews.
PHILIP GLASS ‘NOTES ON A SCANDAL’
Oscar pedigree: Two previous noms
Awards to date: Satellite Award nom
Challenge: “Barbara (Judi Dench) is introduced at the beginning; the trajectory of the film is about the revelation of who she is. By the end of the film, you realize that she’s really the spinster from hell. The exercise was to pace the revelation in such a way as to not give it away.”
Resonance: “I spent at least a week on the first cue. The trick was to describe Barbara but to hint that there’s more to her than we’re seeing. When you listen carefully to the theme, you’ll hear that there are all kinds of funny ornamentations to the melody, and implied harmonies that don’t quite belong there. I tried to make it both ingratiating and disturbing at the same time.”
Why he’ll win: Glass is an increasing presence on the Hollywood scene, and this is one of his best film efforts to date.
Why he won’t: The music is more insistent than melodic.
JAVIER NAVARRETE ‘PAN’S LABYRINTH’
Oscar pedigree: None
Awards to date: Goya nom
Challenge: “It was like two films in length, three in work, four in emotion, five in feedback and six in everything else!”
Resonance: “In the film, a lullaby is sung to Ofelia, the main character. I composed that before the film started (shooting). There are secondary themes, but this was the heart of the score. The fantastic side (of the film) is impressionistic. The war side — real life — is dramatic and romantic.”
Why he’ll win: Memorable lullaby, the basis of much of the score; a grand romantic orchestra and choir (frequent Oscar bait); if major awards elude it, music is often the consolation prize for a popular film.
Why he won’t: Voters’ focus may be more on visual crafts.
ALEXANDRE DESPLAT ‘THE QUEEN’
Oscar pedigree: none
Awards to date: BAFTA nom, L.A. Film Critics Assn. win
Challenge: “To be able to navigate between comedy and drama and tragedy at the same time.”
Resonance: “The last scene shows the queen and (Tony) Blair trying to connect again. They’re dancing one around the other. I had this idea of a waltz, like Ravel’s ‘La Valse.’ The waltz has this quality of being very light, not pompous or sad or solemn. It’s just an in-between mood. The dance is the main thing — they’re dancing together again.”
Why he’ll win: Movie is well liked; the music’s innate charm and wit offers a refreshing change from the usual film-music fare.
Why he won’t: Voters may focus on Helen Mirren’s performance at the expense of the film’s other accomplishments.