How to “Predict” the Oscars

It’s less than a week away from the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominations and two comments under my 77 Film Scores Eligible for Oscar post got me thinking. Rather than write long-winded comments, I thought I’d write a long-winded post instead. (Why can I expend so many more words on shallow awards trivia than other, potentially more meaningful subjects? Oy.)

After nearly 35 years of obsessively following the Oscars, three things happen (at least they did to me):

  1. You learn a lot about film (editing, sound, art direction, etc.) simply by following all the categories and figuring out what goes into “the best.”
  2. You learn to live with disappointment, a lot of it.
  3. You learn to “predict” the voting patterns of Academy members with greater accuracy.

An Oscar nomination and win are certainly no indicators of quality, no award is. But I’ll say it once again… The Oscars are the only awards show with a global reach and viewership in the millions that features film music. For me, that’s reason enough for me to champion it. It’s my Super Bowl, my World Series. Us Oscar freaks argue about the trivia as much as any sports fan. Over the years, I’ve learned to ignore the naysayers, no matter how valid their arguments are. Since the Oscars provided me with a ready-made list that served as guideposts in my film music education, I have an annual soft spot for their wild, wacky, and often wrong choices.

Realize, this post represents my opinions, culled from paying ridiculously close attention to these awards for so many years. I’m not an Academy member and I don’t know anyone who is, so I can’t pick their brains to see if my points have any validation. Like the Oscars themselves, take these opinions at face value.

In one of the comments from the 77 Film Scores post, Roger Reed wrote, “This is a question you have probably ranted and raged over for a long time, but do you have insight on why great composers in the past, such as Alex North, never won an Oscar for a film, and Jerry Goldsmith just one? This is another way of asking, who are the nitwits who vote? Are they often motivated by envy of genius? I know, Peter O’Toole and Alfred Hitchcock never got Oscars for films either, but I would be curious what you think.”

Let me address these one at a time.

It’s a shame that Alex North never won for a particular score. But with what I consider his greatest scores–A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, SPARTACUS, CLEOPATRA, to name a few–there’s always a more “obvious” winner, at least when looked through the window of Oscar’s narrow pervue. The jazz of STREETCAR was way too risky in 1951, so they went with a “safer,” more traditional romantic score–Franz Waxman’s excellent A PLACE IN THE SUN. SPARTACUS was beaten out by the popularity of the EXODUS theme. And CLEOPATRA was a financial disaster, while the winning score, John Addison’s TOM JONES, was attached to the Best Picture.

It’s the same situation with Jerry Goldsmith. Yes, PATTON should have beat Francis Lai’s LOVE STORY, but it was a wildly popular film with a wildly popular instrumental hit. PLANET OF THE APES was groundbreaking compared to John Barry’s THE LION IN WINTER. But LION was a prestige film that was an obvious Best Picture nominee (that should have bested OLIVER!), while APES was a sci-fi film, though a very successful one, with a very atonal score in a genre not yet embraced by the Academy. Probably the biggest loss was STAR TREK – THE MOTION PICTURE to Georges Delerue’s A LITTLE ROMANCE, a charming, if slight, film that uses a lot of Vivaldi for the score. But it’s hard to deny Delerue an award somewhere along the line, and he was very well respected in the industry. And let’s face it, STAR TREK the film stunk, which probably didn’t help matters.

When it comes to “predicting” Oscar, this is what you have to do–think like they think. As for the “nitwits,” there are two separate groups you have to keep in mind. First, the music branch. I don’t know how many members belong to the branch, but if you have any complaints about the nominees, blame them. Each branch of the Academy nominates their own. Actors nominate actors, screenwriters nominate screenplays, cinematographers nominate cinematography nominees, etc. (Everyone nominates Best Picture.) The music branch is made up of composers, songwriters and music editors. So when you wonder why BABEL or THE FULL MONTY, or any other score for that matter, is nominated, these are the professionals who make those decisions. Over the years I’ve come up with some very unscientific trends for nominees that include:

  • Best Picture nominees – Often a score will ride the wave of a likely Best Picture nominee, say MICHAEL CLAYTON or THE HURT LOCKER.
  • Once you’re in, you’re in – One nomination usually leads to many in the future.
  • Your name is John Williams – Though his sequel scores, which were perennial nominees in the ’80s, no longer command attention, expect to see one, if not both, of his Spielberg original scores from 2011 nominated next year. Williams ain’t gettin’ any fresher and he can still garner double nominations (MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA and MUNICH).

The real trick comes in the actual voting of the award itself. Once the nominees have been compiled, all 5,755 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences vote in every category, except for the documentary, short subjects and foreign film categories, which have special committees that screen those films. Once you open up the voting to that large a number, you’re dealing with a lot of people who know nothing about music and how it functions within a film. (The same probably goes for art direction, costume design, makeup, etc.) I have no doubt that most voters mark their ballots honestly with “the best” in mind. But ultimately, there are studios to be appeased and agendas, spoken or otherwise. Plus, voting in any awards capacity averages out and so it does with the Oscars, with more popular films obviously ranking higher. Trends in the winners are much more obvious, especially when you consider the bigger voting pool:

  • Musicals or films about music – For the musically uninitiated, if it’s about music or contains a lot of songs, it’s a no-brainer: FAME, THE RED VIOLIN, ALADDIN, etc.
  • Popular songs and themes – When all else fails, a popular theme and/or potentially Oscar-winning song will help usher in a score. It may not always win, but it can often help garner a nomination. “Up Where We Belong” (winner)/AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN (nominee, Jack Nitzsche), “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” (winner)/BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (winner, Burt Bacharach), THE WAY WE WERE (song and score, both winners for Marvin Hamlisch), “O Saya” and “Jai Ho”/SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (A.R. Rahman won for both the latter song and score), and practically every Disney animated musical from PINOCCHIO through MARY POPPINS, the Alan Menken hits and THE LION KING.
  • We’ve gotta give it SOMETHING! – For quite a while, voters seemed to want to award every Best Picture nominee something. Consolation prize usually went to the Score category: IL POSTINO, ATONEMENT, THE FULL MONTY, BABEL. With 10 nominees in the Best Picture category, that doesn’t come into play as much.

Unfortunately, like Alex North, a lot of great film composers never won competitive Oscars–William Walton, George Duning, David Raksin, Jerry Fielding, Richard Rodney Bennett and Lalo Schifrin, to name a few. At least Ennio Morricone was finally awarded an honorary award for lifetime achievement. Out of the current crop of composers, I’m still waiting on that Thomas Newman win.

In discussing this year’s eligible scores, Bizarro Pedro wrote in another comment, “Looks like Social Network is winning a lot for score. I still think it’d be a little too ‘ambient’ for the oscars though.” Don’t be too sure about that. The Academy awarded MIDNIGHT EXPRESS and CHARIOTS OF FIRE, two popular electronic scores, and nominated other ambient scores like MICHAEL CLAYTON and HURT LOCKER recently. Anything is possible. I still think there’s a chance that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross may miss out on a nomination, but it’s probably unlikely. The popularity of SOCIAL NETWORK is too high among the critics and other awards groups for them to ignore the music as well. But who knows. I could be wrong. I have been before and will continue to be in the future.

That’s what makes the Oscars so enjoyable–their unpredictability. When they get it “wrong,” it’s usually very wrong. But when they get it “right,” for those of us who follow these things, it’s a beautiful feeling. At the end of a life, nobody cares who won what (except us film music fans). But the obit will read “Oscar-nominated” or “Oscar-winning” composer. In the great scheme of things, it may not mean much. But the phrase has a nice ring to it.

4 comments

  1. I couldn’t have said it better. You’ve got pretty much the same impression of how stuff gets voted at the Oscars as I do.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful take on this. Like most people, i really had no real notion of who voted for these awards, aside from the fact that they are members of the Academy. Your explanation of who votes for the nominated scores (i.e. people who understand the art of film music) makes me feel much better about the process as I have much less to complain about in looking at the wonderful scores that have been nominated over the years. What you may have left out is personal lobbying that may take place. Perhaps Dimitri Tiomkin (who won four) was more adept than North or Goldsmith in self-promotion.

  3. ‘An Oscar nomination and win are certainly no indicators of quality,…’

    But like Robert Osbourne (host on TCM) said in a recent interview for The AV Club, without the Oscar, no one would even try that hard. That is, these may not be the best movies in the whole world, but at least someone (Hollywood studio executivess, anyway) tried.

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