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Will Alexandre Desplat Take Home Another Oscar? A History of Score Wins

Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood is the only newcomer to the category.

Will French composer Alexandre Desplat win best original score award for “The Shape of Water,” as most Oscar prognosticators are currently predicting?

As more than 7,300 eligible Academy members cast their ballots this week, they are mulling over the musical categories as well. Competing with Desplat is Jonny Greenwood’s score for “Phantom Thread,” Carter Burwell’s for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Hans Zimmer’s for “Dunkirk,” and veteran John Williams for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

Interestingly, statistics don’t favor a second win for Desplat, who took home the gold three years ago for his music for “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Zimmer has also won once; Williams five times.

Only four times in the past 25 years has a previous winner walked up to the podium to accept another Oscar. The last time was more than a decade ago, when Gustavo Santaolalla won back-to-back awards for “Brokeback Mountain” and “Babel” (and “Babel” was pitted against Desplat’s first nomination, for “The Queen,” in 2006).

Oscar voters tend to favor first-time nominees, which could bode well for Greenwood, the Oxford-born Radiohead guitarist and keyboardist, whose “Phantom Thread” score is getting a lot of buzz. Greenwood is the only newcomer to the category.

Greenwood’s previous best shot, “There Will Be Blood,” was disqualified in 2007 when the music branch ruled the film contained too much pre-existing (mostly classical) music. The decision upset many observers, including Paul Thomas Anderson, who directed both films, and might add weight to some voters’ decision-making process.

Historically speaking, three other factors must be considered. First, the era of one film sweeping all its various components into wins is pretty much over. Only six times in the last 25 years has the Best Picture winner coincided with the choice for score (notably “The English Patient” which won nine Oscars, “Titanic” with 11 and “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” with 11, all more than a decade ago).

Second, is the film densely packed with music and is it prominently featured? Six years ago “The Artist” won for its score, but that was a silent film that depended heavily on music for its dramatic impact. “The Last Jedi” is wall-to-wall music, and great as it is, viewers have become so accustomed to hearing John Williams’ thrilling soundscapes that they often take them for granted.

Dunkirk” also has a lot of music, but that’s a different story: director Christopher Nolan told Zimmer that he wanted an “objective” score, not an emotional one, and it is so carefully intertwined with the film’s sound design that it’s sometimes impossible to tell where one leaves off and the other begins. There is a hint of emotion when Zimmer invokes Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” near the end of the film.

A third consideration, and nowadays the most important: how unusual is the music? Is it colorful, ethnic or otherwise exotic-sounding? That description fits at least 13 of the last 25 winners (such flavorful scores as Tan Dun’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Elliot Goldenthal’s “Frida,” A.R. Rahman’s “Slumdog Millionaire” and Mychael Danna’s “Life of Pi” all won).

Desplat’s previous win, for “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” qualifies because of its quirky and unique sound (with balalaikas, zithers, alpenhorns and other central European instruments prominently featured; even Desplat called it “a really weird ensemble, really strange”).

The Shape of Water” is another of Desplat’s quirky scores. It features whistling and accordion, in addition to the use of 12 flutes for a blurry, watery sound that’s just right for this romantic fantasy about a mute cleaning woman and an amphibious creature. And it’s memorably melodic; like last year’s winner, “La La Land,” moviegoers leave humming the theme.

Of the 7,373 current voting members in the Academy, only 305 are in the music branch (nearly all trained musicians, composers, songwriters and music editors). They choose the nominees but are a small fraction of the total voters – and music can be a very subjective decision. (Did I remember it? Did I like it? Was it right for the movie?)

“Last Jedi” and “Phantom Thread” are traditionally classical in sound and “Dunkirk” is largely electronic-based, all of which may seem same-old, same-old to voters seeking a fresh sound.

Burwell’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” also has an offbeat tone: guitars and mandolins, appropriately folksy middle America, plus a clapping-and-stomping motif (“that you might hear in a Baptist church,” Burwell noted in interviews with Variety) for Francis McDormand’s character on the warpath.

This is only Burwell’s second nomination, yet he’s a 30-year veteran, well-liked and -known for his many scores for Coen Brothers movies. Could the growing momentum for “Three Billboards” also serve to remind voters of Burwell’s music?

There’s no such thing as “a sure thing” when it comes to Oscar voting.

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