Sweet sounds of success

Rookies out to be heard by Academy

In the annual post-Oscar whining and dining game, players gleefully complain about who won and lost, but some have more to gripe about than others. Rookie thesps, for example, are regularly honored for their work, but the music categories rarely see fresh faces gracing the nomination lists, and it’s even rarer to see one walk away with the trophy.

Is there an Academy bias against pop-oriented or complex, difficult scores come Oscar time? History seems to prove there is. Yet even as the Academy’s rules continue to evolve in search of fairness, voters still are pondering the question, “How do I judge art?”

Oscar rules have changed many times since the music categories were introduced in 1934, and they will change again next year. Currently, about 260 members of the music branch choose nominees in the long-standing original song and original score (now original dramatic score) categories plus the recently added original musical/comedy score category.

Nearly every year, complaints are voiced. Over time, some “outrages” have taken on legendary status in the music community, among them the failure to include Alfred Newman’s “The Robe” score among the nominees in 1953; Burt Bacharach’s win for what many considered a wildly anachronistic score for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in 1969; and Ennio Morricone’s universally admired “The Mission” score’s loss in 1986.

“It’s as fair as these things get. How do you nominate art?” asks Hans Zimmer, who won a 1994 Oscar for his music for “The Lion King.”

“I think I got nominated for ‘Rain Man,’ which was my first score here, because my name made everybody assume that I was a 65-year-old, classically trained German composer,” Zimmer quips, adding he failed to receive a nomination for “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989’s best picture winner) even though “it’s a better score. By that time they had found out I was 30 years old and a rock ‘n’ roller.”

Zimmer is joking, but his response is echoed with deadly seriousness by many younger composers who believe there is an Academy bias against those who have come out of rock or who lack traditional conservatory training.

Others — especially older, more traditionally minded members — firmly believe classical training is a necessity to address the complex dramatic needs of film; they think the simple chord structures and rudimentary rhythms of most pop and rock simply don’t work as emotional underscore.

Danny Elfman, the former Oingo Boingo bandleader who won a Grammy for “Batman” but was ignored by the Oscars for more than a decade, won his first nominations last year for scoring “Good Will Hunting” and “Men in Black.” “It was a total surprise,” Elfman says.

He admits he was disappointed when he wasn’t nominated for his charming choral score for 1990’s “Edward Scissorhands,” but says that for him, the Oscars “had long since ceased to be a goal. I guess people think of me differently than they used to, or some people do. The real excitement of the whole thing was through the eyes of my children. It was really fun for them.”

Although three music awards have been given for most of Oscar’s 70-year history (for song, dramatic score and musical), the past 15 years have been a roller coaster. The song-score category disappeared in 1985, and four subsequent wins by Disney musicals — competing in what some observers viewed as an apples-and-oranges situation against serious dramatic scores by people like Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams — led the Academy to reinstate the musical category in 1995, this time adding “original comedy score” to the musicals.

This year, 75 “dramatic” scores and 40 “musical or comedy” scores were declared eligible, along with 41 original songs. Composers themselves submit their scores but, some confess, choose their category — if their film contains elements of both comedy and drama — based on the competition.

Earlier this month, AMPAS’ board of governors altered the rules for 1999 films, returning to the simpler “best score” and “best song” categories but with the proviso that the “best song score” category could be reinstated, although that seems unlikely to happen.

That means next year, dramatic scores and comedy scores again will compete against each other for one Oscar. The division was a problem for members in other branches. Says Academy exec director Bruce Davis: “We have very carefully avoided separating films by genre in all of our other categories, and it makes sense to hold to that practice in the musical area.”

Another problem — albeit one that’s true of all the technical categories — is that music branch members, the composers and songwriters themselves, choose the nominees, but all Academy members gets to vote for the winners.

James Horner, last year’s dual winner (score and song) for “Titanic,” voices the feelings of many composers when he says it’s an honor to be nominated by one’s peers but that the final balloting is a different story.

“Some of the people don’t have a clue as to what a score is as opposed to what a song score is,” he says. “They say, ‘That’s a great score’ when there were only four pre-existing songs in it. So you’re completely at the whim of fate and, at that point, the success of the movie. It’s certainly not musical achievement.”

Nine-time nominee Randy Newman, whose uncle Alfred Newman won nine music Oscars, is both philosophical and practical. “The show is so important to the world,” he points out. “I’ve performed on the thing three times, which is one reason the show is often so bad; I’m always on it.

“But it is so important to the public that when you hear someone say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter and who cares and I hate to go and blah-blah-blah,’ it’s offensive to the people. But I don’t take it as seriously as I might have had I not grown up for 40 years watching my uncle get nominated or waiting (for Oscar night) or not get nominated for ‘The Robe.’

“I’m always very happy to be nominated, and I’ve never been hurt by not winning,” he says. “Look, I get to vote for cinematography and costume design. What the hell do I know about costume design?”

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