In 2003, I and many film score fans were livid that Elmer Bernstein did not win his second Oscar for FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002). The winner—Elliot Goldenthal for FRIDA—is a fine choice. Goldenthal is a top-notch composer, and FRIDA is an excellent score and film. But passing up the chance to reward a true legend who, at age 79, was still turning out works of quality still rankles me.
Todd Haynes’ stylized homage to the 1950s films of Douglas Sirk (MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, WRITTEN ON THE WIND, etc.) was beautifully filmed and contains a moving, pitch-perfect performance by the always excellent Julianne Moore. (I like Nicole Kidman’s Oscar-winning performance in THE HOURS, but I would have given the award to Moore.)
Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, a happy housewife living the perfect life in the white-picket-fence world of 1957 Connecticut suburbia until she must face her husband’s (Dennis Quaid) homosexuality and her passion for her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert).
Many people have assumed that, given the film’s period look and feel, Bernstein set out to write a 1950s-style score. “My only concern was: What can the music do to inform us of their emotions?” Bernstein said in interviews at the time. “If this had been the same story set today, I would have scored it the same way.”
“I was scared to death the whole time I was working on this film,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘This is dangerous territory. This film is on a cliff edge.’ A bad score could have made this film funny. You wouldn’t have believed a word anyone said. That had a lot to do with my choice of starting simply, with just the piano. I had to exercise a certain kind of restraint.”
“I got the theme I wanted to use very early on,” he said. “I knew that the audience would hear this theme at the start and be drawn into the atmosphere…[The piano is] a really domestic instrument that you’d expect to find in a big suburban house like that.”
The film’s main title sequence sets the mood perfectly. From the beautiful autumn leaves to the stylized title writing, the film has the look and feel of a 1950s melodrama. Bernstein’s piano plays one of his most heartbreakingly beautiful themes. The strings and harp swell as the film’s title appears onscreen and we’re firmly ensconced in the passion of the music which will speak the words that the characters cannot.
The fact that Bernstein would be dead two years later makes his loss at the Oscars even more poignant. Yes, he already had an Oscar for his wonderful pastiche score for THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (1967). But it would have been nice for Bernstein to taste the sweet juice of victory one last time.