With the Academy recently seeming to do everything within its powers to extinguish the Best Original Song award, the passing of Marvin Hamlisch strikes an especially poignant note. The New York-born composer — who died yesterday, following a brief illness, at the age of 68 — was the kind of talent that category was created to recognize, capable of condensing a film’s entire thematic and atmospheric undercurrent into a single, inescapable three-minute theme.
It’s an art that might seem antiquated and even a little banal to contemporary audiences, as high-end film scoring grows ever less romantic and more esoteric, with pre-existing songs woven organically into scenes, if at all — the legacy of such modernist filmmakers as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. But the songs themselves haven’t faded: everyone can hum at least a few bars of Hamlisch’s title tune for “The Way We Were,” even if they haven’t seen the film. Ditto “Nobody Does It Better,” one of the most epic and steel-plated of all James Bond themes, even if “The Spy Who Loved Me” isn’t among the franchise’s most-treasured entries. In Hamlisch’s prime, great movie songs could still separate from, and often exceed, their source.
The aforementioned songs are among the eight that the Academy singled out for recognition — that category housing two-thirds of his 12 career Oscar nominations. But songwriting was by no means alone in Hamlisch’s skill set: he was equally accomplished in the areas of original score composition and adapted arrangement, film and television, Broadway and chart pop.
His unique 1973 Oscar triumph perfectly illustrates his versatility: not only did he win the Best Original Score and Best Original Song Oscars for “The Way We Were,” but he also scooped the now-obsolete Adapted Score trophy for his immensely popular, film-defining reworkings of Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano tunes in that year’s Best Picture winner, “The Sting.” He was only the second person, after Billy Wilder, to win three Oscars in a single night — all at the tender age of 29.
Such was the extent of his crossover appeal at that time that he even won the Grammy for Best New Artist the following year, one of very few non-vocal acts to do so. (Having later been honored at the Tony Awards for his musical “A Chorus Line,” and by the Emmys for assorted achievements, including musical direction for his loyal collaborator Barbra Streisand, he’s also one of a handful of names to boast the much-prized “EGOT” quartet of major showbiz awards. All that, and a Pulitzer Prize for “A Chorus Line,” too.)
You could argue that Hamlisch was an out-of-time artist even in his heyday, arriving to film composition in the late 1960s (debuting with Frank Perry’s aggressively modern “The Swimmer”) — just as a new wave of American filmmakers was beginning to toy with scoring options beyond swelling strings and sentimental love themes.
Perhaps not coincidentally, much of his most beloved film work has been calculatedly retro-leaning: “The Way We Were” was a throwback of sorts to a grander model of Hollywood romance, and Hamlisch’s accompanying orchestrations (and, of course, Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s title lyric) were suitably, wistfully lush. He revived an entirely ossified vein of 1920s jazz for the period frolics of “The Sting.”
And even after 13 years away from the movie scoring game — a hiatus that suggests he himself felt out of sync with new developments in the medium — when he returned, it was to provide the delightfully arch, knowingly dated caper jazz for Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 comedy “The Informant!,” a film that prided itself on its anachronisms. That the Academy didn’t quite get the joke — Hamlisch was hotly tipped for a sentimental late-career nod that didn’t materialize — suggests they preferred their nostalgia with a little less irony, the way the composer served it for much of his brilliant career.