Exactly how to recognize excellence in adapting pre-existing music for the film medium has plagued the Academy music branch from the very beginning. No category in Oscar history has been so endlessly tinkered with, undergoing near-constant changes in title and eligibility rules over nearly half a century.
Music is honored for the first time in “song” and “score” categories.
Score category includes both dramatic underscore (“Lost Horizon”) and original song scores (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”).
Score category is divided into “scoring” (music from various sources) and “original score” (music originally written for the film), but is so confusing that Max Steiner’s underscore for “Jezebel” is nominated in scoring instead of original score and no one seems to notice.
Categories become even more confusing, as Aaron Copland’s “Of Mice and Men” is nominated in both scoring and original score, losing to the patchwork quilt of folk tunes in “Stagecoach” in the first category and Herbert Stothart’s underscore of “The Wizard of Oz” (which, ironically, consists mostly of adaptations of Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg songs) in the second.
Another confusing year unfolds, as Copland’s “Our Town” is nominated in both scoring and original score; Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s lavish “The Sea Hawk” competes against MGM’s musical “Strike Up the Band” in scoring; and the songs of “Pinocchio” beat dramatic scores by the likes of Alfred Newman, Miklos Rozsa and Franz Waxman in original score.
Acad addresses confusion by renaming categories scoring of a dramatic picture and scoring of a musical picture. Nominees for the latter are the musical directors of the film, responsible for supervising the arrangements, orchestration and overall dramatic use of the songs.
Fourteen nominees in scoring for a musical picture constitutes an all-time high. MGM’s Judy Garland starrer “Meet Me in St. Louis” loses to Columbia’s Rita Hayworth picture “Cover Girl.”
Nominees in both scoring categories now limited to five each.
Only five finalists (including “Funny Face” and “Pal Joey”) lead to cancellation of category for this year.
Category title changed to “scoring of music, adaptation or treatment.”
Beatles producer George Martin nominated for music direction on “A Hard Day’s Night” (although missing from the song category are the Beatles tunes he worked from, including “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “And I Love Her” and the title tune).
A famous case of misunderstanding a non-nominated score: “The Graduate” isn’t acknowledged in the adaptation category, because it’s ineligible as mostly needle-drops — director Mike Nichols liked Simon & Garfunkel songs and littered the soundtrack with them. The only original tune penned by Paul Simon, “Mrs. Robinson,” wasn’t even complete. He finished it later and turned it into a hit single.
Another title change is implemented, “score of a musical picture, original or adaptation,” along with a rule change to allow both songwriters (of original musicals) and musical directors as nominees, resulting in songwriters Michel Legrand and Jacques Demy being nommed for “The Young Girls of Rochefort” while music director John Green was nommed for “Oliver!”
Yet another name change, this time to “original song score” (although music directors and adapters are allowed as nominees).
This year the category becomes “scoring: adaptation and original song score,” which again permits music-driven films to enter. Dimitri Tiomkin is nommed for his supervision of the classical music in “Tchaikovsky,” although a young John Williams notches his first win for adapting the Broadway tuner “Fiddler on the Roof.” This is the last year in which five nominees will compete; hereafter, it’s just three.
Another title change, to “original song score and/or adaptation,” a year in which two of three nominees are adapted from earlier works: Marvin Hamlisch wins for his use of Scott Joplin rags in “The Sting.” Ignored: Neil Diamond’s songs for “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” which becomes his most successful album, and the Bacharach-David song score for “Lost Horizon.”
Yet another monicker: “original song score and its adaptation or adaptation score” — broad enough to cover Jerry Fielding’s adaptation of opera “Carmen” for “The Bad News Bears” (one of the finalists, but not nommed), and the eventual winner, Leonard Rosenman for adapting the songs of Woody Guthrie in “Bound for Glory.”
One of the biggest scandals in Oscar history occurs when “Saturday Night Fever” fails to receive a single nomination in the music categories, either for song or original song score. It’s not even among the four finalists declared by the music branch as being of “sufficient quality” to merit a nom. Producer Robert Stigwood protests, to no avail. “Fever” goes on to become the bestselling soundtrack of all time.
Stanley Myers’ work on “The Deer Hunter” and Galt MacDermot’s supervision of his own original “Hair” score fail to receive noms in the adaptation category. A 1979 L.A. Times story exploring baffling music-branch decisions over the years, especially the “Saturday Night Fever” debacle, adds fuel to the fire.
Category is redesigned as “best adaptation score.” Six films are submitted (including “Ordinary People,” Hamlisch’s adaptation of the Pachelbel Canon, and “Rough Cut,” which Nelson Riddle adapted from Duke Ellington) but none make the final cut. Song scores were thrown in with dramatic scores, which led to song-driven “Fame” winning as original score.
Category returns as best original song score and its adaptation or best adaptation score. Again, confusion reigned as Henry Mancini’s “S.O.B.” and Trevor Jones’ combo of original music and classical adaptations for “Excalibur” were deemed ineligible, among others, and no award was given.
Slight retitling occurs, giving way to original song score or adaptation score: One of the former (“Yentl,” the winner) and two of the latter (“The Sting II,” from old ragtime, and “Trading Places,” from classical music) make the cut.
Category becomes original song score, with Prince winning for “Purple Rain.” Adaptation scores are no longer considered.
Another scandal occurs as Herbie Hancock’s “Round Midnight” score — consisting mostly of adaptations of existing jazz standards (which in past years would have been eligible as an adaptation score) — beats Ennio Morricone’s acclaimed “The Mission” for original score. Morricone finally gets his due in 2007 with an honorary Academy Award, widely assumed to be a consolation prize for the earlier oversight.
Score award is divided again, this time into original dramatic score and original musical or comedy score, widely assumed to be a reaction to Alan Menken’s four-Oscar win in the underscore category for Disney musicals between 1989-1994. Category lasts through 1998.
“Original musical” category created, for original-to-film song scores (with adaptor eligible “if his or her contribution is deemed relevant and substantial”) — but the category has never been activated due to paucity of entries.