This year’s honorary Oscar for composer Ennio Morricone is viewed by many in the Hollywood music community as just compensation for being denied the Oscar for his 1986 masterwork on orchestra and choir, “The Mission.”
It’s only the second time that a composer has received an honorary award from the Academy. Alex North was recognized with a 1985 award after being nominated 15 times without a win for such scores as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Spartacus.”
The Oscars for musical score have exhibited their share of headscratchers, anomalies and outright screwups since the first ones were given in 1934. Here are a few:
- None of Bernard Herrmann’s innovative and memorable scores for any of Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers won, let alone got nominated. They include “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest” and “Psycho,” the latter possibly the most imitated score in horror-movie history. In fact, Herrmann was overlooked for 30 years until he received two posthumous noms (in 1976) for “Obsession” and “Taxi Driver.”
- Max Steiner, the most prolific composer in Hollywood history, lost for his magnum opus, “Gone With the Wind,” in 1939. The winner was Herbert Stothart, musical director of “The Wizard of Oz.” Those were the days when nominees weren’t limited to five contenders; 29 nominees vied for awards in the three music categories.
- The year 1939 was confusing for everybody. Aaron Copland’s music for “Of Mice and Men” was nominated both for “score” and “original score” for reasons no one understands. In the “score” category, Copland lost to four arrangers who adapted folk tunes for “Stagecoach.”
- Leo Forbstein took home the 1936 Oscar for the music of “Anthony Adverse.” Unfortunately, he didn’t write any of it. Austrian composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold did, but in the early years the Oscar went, amazingly, not to the composer but to the studio music department. Forbstein ran the Warner Bros. music unit.
- Despite writing such classic scores as “Goldfinger,” “Thunderball” and music for nine other James Bond films, John Barry — widely credited with creating the Bond musical style — was never nominated for either a Bond song or score.
- David Raksin’s “Laura” score, which generated one of the most famous songs in movie history, wasn’t even nominated in 1944. (In that era, the studios decided which scores should be entered, and Fox’s epic “Wilson” was merited the Oscar campaign.)
- Elmer Bernstein, the composer of such landmark scores as “The Magnificent Seven,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Man With the Golden Arm,” didn’t win for any of his classics. His sole Oscar was for “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” a frothy 1967 musical for which he wrote only the period music, not the songs.
- Many classic Jerry Goldsmith scores lost over the years: “The Sand Pebbles” (to “Born Free,” 1966), “Planet of the Apes” (to “The Lion in Winter,” 1968), “Chinatown” (to “The Godfather Part II,” 1974). His only win was for the summer popcorn thriller “The Omen” in 1976.
- Scores that spawned popular songs or themes often won over more sophisticated music: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969, beat “The Wild Bunch”), “Love Story” (1970, beat “Patton”), “The Way We Were” (1973, beat “Papillon”), “Fame” (1980, beat “Altered States”), “Chariots of Fire” (1981, beat “On Golden Pond”).
- Scores that won despite being largely adapted from earlier works: “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” whose most memorable tune was the 43-year-old “Colonel Bogey March,” beat “Raintree County” in 1957; “A Little Romance,” which contained plenty of Vivaldi, beat “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” in 1979; and “Round Midnight,” which consisted largely of arrangements of classic jazz tunes, beat “The Mission” in 1986.
- Charles Chaplin won an Oscar for co-composing the score for his 1952 film “Limelight” — 20 years later. “Limelight” wasn’t nominated until 1972, when the film received its first L.A. release (and thus competed against “The Poseidon Adventure” and “Sleuth”).
- Also in 1972, Nino Rota’s initial nomination for “The Godfather” score was withdrawn when the Acad learned that his love theme originally had been written for the Italian film “Fortunella” 14 years earlier.
- The Acad more or less apologized to Rota by giving him the Oscar two years later for “The Godfather Part II,” despite the fact that the vast majority of the score was based on the “Godfather” material from two years earlier (and “Fortunella”).
- Alfred Newman’s “The Robe,” a large-scale work for orchestra and choir that accompanied Fox’s first Cinemascope film in 1953, failed to receive a score nomination. Hollywood lore has fellow composer Franz Waxman resigning from the Acad in protest, although Acad records are unclear about the specifics.
- Quincy Jones had so much help composing “The Color Purple” in 1983 that the nomination listed 12 names. Rules have since been changed to disallow multiple composers on a single entry.
- Repeated score wins by Disney songwriter Alan Menken (“The Little Mermaid” in 1989, “Beauty and the Beast” in 1991, “Aladdin” in 1992) led Acad execs to modify the rules so that “dramatic scores” — as opposed to musicals where the underscore is mostly based on the songs — rule the category.
- One of the Acad’s solutions — breaking up the category into “original dramatic score” and “original musical or comedy score” — only worked 1995-98. There is now an optional category for “original musical” but it has never been activated because of the dearth of candidates.