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Oscars’ Scoring Contenders: Short on Diversity, Long on Patriarchy (Guest Column)

In the long, slow quest by women and composers of color for bigger films and more visibility, the Oscar remains frustratingly out of reach.

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“The Wife.” “Eighth Grade.” “RBG.” “Sicario: Day of the Soldado.” “Mary Shelley.”

Those are just a few of the 2018 films scored by women, but when the shortlist for best original score was announced last month, all of the 15 scores whittled down by music branch members for the first round of Oscar consideration were composed by men.

“It shows that women are not getting the top films,” says Laura Karpman, a composer (“Paris Can Wait”) and governor of the music branch. “And that there is a continued invisibility.”

Karpman pushed hard for the shortlist — this is the first year since 1979 that the music branch has had one, joining a third of the other branches in the practice — explicitly in the hope that it would widen the field. She feels that if there had been a shortlist last year, Michael Abels (“Get Out”) and Tamar-kali (“Mudbound”) would certainly have been on it. As it was, the five nominees in 2017 were all white and male.

This year, Terence Blanchard’s score for “BlackKklansman” did make the shortlist. Spike Lee’s longtime collaborator, who’s been scoring films since 1991, has never been nominated for an Academy Award before. But other than Blanchard, the shortlist is blinding in its lack of diversity. Nicholas Britell (“If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Vice”) and Alan Silvestri (“Avengers: Infinity War,” “Ready Player One”) each have two scores on the list.

The shortlist was a win, Karpman notes, in that a broad range of scores — released from January (“Black Panther”) through December (“Mary Poppins Returns”) — are on it, rather than just the most recently released, top-of-mind five that typically get nominated.

But where are the women?

“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” (scored by Hildur Guðnadóttir) and “Mary Shelley” (Amelia Warner) weren’t among the 156 qualifying scores. Says Warner: “The Academy didn’t accept it, as IFC Films wouldn’t submit the film for overall consideration and scores cannot be considered without the film.” Sixteen scores composed by women were eligible, a big step up from years past and a sign that progress is being made somewhere along the chain. But with the exception of the WB comedy “Tag,” scored by Germaine Franco, all were for films with modest budgets ($5 million or less).

That’s in keeping with the historic trend of female composers being mostly relegated to independent films and documentaries. Smaller budgets mean less of a publicity push (or none at all) by those production companies, and the composers themselves often can’t afford publicists to campaign for awards consideration.

The 331 voting members of the music branch received a hodgepodge of screeners and FYC score albums. The resulting shortlist is largely packed with scores for films that were either box office behemoths (“Avengers,” “Black Panther,” “Fantastic Beasts”) or have significant awards buzz (“Beale Street,” “First Man”).

Missing is the melancholy, minimalist score for “The Wife” by Jocelyn Pook, the vibrant, retro-synth and brass-pumping music for “Eighth Grade” by Anna Meredith, and the intimate, buoyant chamber score for “RBG” by documentary-whisperer Miriam Cutler.

The shortlist may not come back next year, since the Academy Awards date is moving up even earlier and, clearly, the intended grasp for diversity didn’t much work. In the long, slow quest by women and composers of color for bigger films and more visibility, the Oscar still remains frustratingly out of reach.