Tech Support: John Williams charges back to lead the field of Best Original Score hopefuls

I”ve had the honor of speaking to many film composers over the past few years, and my admiration for their profession and their art only continues to grow. Composers almost always come aboard a film when the shooting is over and only the editor, director and sound mixers are still working. From that starting point, with no control over the film”s content, they are assigned to write the music. It is lonely, painstaking work.

But when done well, a cinematic score can be a miraculous accomplishment. Not only have many film scores become iconic (ranging from “Chariots of Fire” to “Star Wars” to “Gone With the Wind”), but the atmosphere of the film can be built through music. We can come to inhabit the world of the characters and the plot can be told, through notes. John Williams”s chugging theme for “Jaws” remains probably my favorite example of a character – the shark – essentially being created through the score.

The Academy Award for Best Original Score is one of two categories under the watchful eye of the music branch. (The other, Best Original Song, will be analyzed by Kris next week.) The branch definitely tends to cite films where the music is prominent and showy, which means that films more epic in scope frequently find a home here. Scores that have foreign influence also do reasonably well. While being in a Best Picture contender certainly helps, there are usually a couple of nominees every year representing films with few, if any, other nominations. In fact, I think it”s difficult to come up with a picture of a “typical nominated film” in this category.

This is also one of the most insular branches in the Academy, with seldom more than one new nominee welcomed each year, and 2005 being the only time in the past dozen years (since the Drama and Musical/Comedy categories merged) where three newcomers found themselves among the final five. So if the prospective nominee hasn”t been cited before, analyze with caution.

Interestingly, one of this branch”s favorite composers, Hans Zimmer, has decided to sit this year out by not submitting his scores for “Rango” and “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.” But even with Zimmer out of the running, there are many veterans to choose from.

And leading that list is undoubtedly John Williams, who seems highly likely to move into sole possession of the record for most music nominations (and second most overall), by passing Alfred Newman. Williams has earned 45 nominations to date, the same number that Newman earned in his career. His works include “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Schindler”s List.” Moreover, he has been nominated in all but a handful of the years in which he has even been in contention over the past few decades. Admittedly, one of those years was 2008 – the only year he has worked since 2005, meaning there has been a six year gap since he was last nominated, something that he has never experienced before in his career. Even so, I fully expect that to change this year due to his two collaborations with Steven Spielberg, the only director for whom he seems to still be working.

On “War Horse,” Williams will have an opportunity similar to those he had on many of the efforts that made him famous: there will be action scenes, sentimental scenes and numerous moments without dialogue where the music will be shoved into the spotlight. The samples seem to suggest he has lived up to his reputation for delivering memorable scores. If the film is the Best Picture contender we all assume, that will likely seal the deal.

“War Horse” is not Williams”s only contender as “The Adventures of Tintin” also has the combination of presumed December blockbuster, epic opportunities, good pieces (from what I”ve heard) and, of course, Williams”s name.

Alexandre Desplat”s emergence on the Hollywood scene has been one of the treats of the past decade for those of us who love film scores. With four nominations in the past five years, the Academy finally seems to have taken notice of his immense talents, something which did take a while longer than it should have. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” remains an unknown commodity. Nevertheless, it will give Desplat the opportunity to play our heartstrings, something he does extremely well. I have considerable faith in him to pull this off.

Like Williams, Desplat also has multiple films in the hunt this year. On George Clooney”s “The Ides of March,” he was responsible for building the suspense that kept us gripped in the main character”s moral dilemma. I have the inclination that “Extremely Loud” will have more heart, better playing to Desplat”s strengths. Though he could end up a double nominee. And even if he is not nominated for Daldry”s film, the fact that this title is in contention as well leads me to believe Desplat will be back this year.

Desplat was also responsible for the original compositions on Terrence Malick”s “The Tree of Life,” but they were marginalized and overridden by the considerable amount of classical music in the film. (On a tangential note, compilation soundtrack, along with ensemble performance, is one of two areas that is not awarded in an Oscar category but I”ve long felt should be. I recognize there is a difficulty in deciding who should receive the award but effective use of preexisting material can elevate a film”s quality immeasurably.) Desplat also put out quality work on “A Better Life” and “Carnage” and saddled up to the “Harry Potter” franchise. Quite the prolific artist.

There”s a third contender this year who I also feel has multiple genuine contenders in the running, and that is Alberto Iglesias. Iglesias, cited before for “The Constant Gardener” and “The Kite Runner” (for which he was the film”s only nominee) has by all accounts done superb if subdued work on “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” Like “The Constant Gardener,” this is an intelligent thriller and it appears to have earned immense critical respect. But will it inspire enough passion trying to build from a small release in December?

“The Skin I Live In,” on the other hand, reunites Iglesias with Pedro Almodóvar, with whom he has had a longstanding relationship. Iglesias did typically fine work. While I”m still doubtful that this film will play well with AMPAS, it is not as risqué as many Almódovar efforts (if it still is bizarre) and Iglesias”s score is as Oscar-friendly as any that he has done with the director. I wouldn”t rule him out.

Howard Shore has composed wonderfully fantastical music for Martin Scorsese”s well-received “Hugo.” Shore won three Oscars for his iconic work on “The Lord of the Rings,” so when all of that is considered, I”d say he”s a real contender. That said, I cannot help but wonder if Shore is properly beloved by his colleagues, with his commercial, television background. He had a LONG career before “Lord of the Rings” but was never cited, nor has he managed to return to the game since then. So despite my believing this is his best chance of the past eight years, I”m not sure I”d bet on him.

Dario Marianelli won a very deserved Oscar in this category for “Atonement,” having earned his first nomination here for “Pride & Prejudice.” With “Jane Eyre,” he returned to the period of early-19th Century England. The work was very solid so if the film is remembered, perhaps the music branch will be among those who cite it. Marianelli”s nomination for “Pride & Prejudice,” though very deserved, was fairly surprising.

A film that was not as respected critically as “Jane Eyre,” but managed to build a much larger fan base, was ”The Help.” To be totally frank, I thought Thomas Newman”s work was pretty forgettable. But Newman is immensely respected by his colleagues, having earned 10 nominations over the past 17 years. (Alas, he has yet to win.)  So if the film finds a significant fan base in the Academy, which it might, I”d be very hesitant to not give Newman great consideration.

And then we come to the films trying to make first-time nominees out of their composers.

Mychael Danna has never been nominated in this category, despite having composed the scores for many notable Canadian titles. This year, he turned his talents to the most American of all sports, baseball, with “Moneyball.” While I thought the score was effective, and the film is clearly well-liked, it doesn”t seem to be the sort of film or attention-drawing work that would lead to a first nomination. Though one never knows.

A far more likely first-timer in my mind is Ludovic Bource for Michel Hazanavicius”s “The Artist.” As a silent film, the music will be particularly important in building the mood and engaging the audience. Bource, a veteran French composer, is also likely to benefit from a massive nomination tally for the film. So I think he is the most likely first-time nominee for this year. His biggest obstacle, in my opinion, is the fact that he may be disqualified as the film uses significant pre-existing music. I doubt this will happen but I”ve been surprised by rulings on this issue in the past.

I”ll end by considering a collaborating duo who managed to turn their first nomination last year into their first win. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross took very innovative work on “The Social Network” all the way to statuettes on Oscar night. With “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” they will have another chance to bring the world of David Fincher to fuller fruition through their music. The beloved nature of the books will bring utmost attention to the screen version, and suspenseful thrillers call for integral music. Maybe they can become repeat nominees?

Remarkably, we”ve now finished taking a first look through all but one of the crafts categories. As stated above, Kris will be handling the last category, Best Original Song, so I”ll be taking next week off. In the meantime, feel free to discuss the Best Original Score category below!

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