21 April 2011

Streisand vs. Satan: The 1976 Best Original Song Oscars

Ever since the 83rd Academy Awards ceremony, where I live-blogged myself almost into oblivion, I’ve had this itching to micro-analyze an Academy Award category from the past. It would be easy to go over one of the Best Picture nominees from the last two decades (the year Unforgiven got the statue would be particularly fun, since that is one of the few times that my favorite movie of the year actually won). But I’m not doing things the easy way right now.

Instead, I am going to turn the magnifying glass onto one of the most interesting Best Original Song competitions in the history of the Oscars. Here is a category for which I normally have undisguised contempt—but there is something strange and wonderful about 1976 that cries out for exegesis.

Be cautioned: I have a Blogger tag titled “Jerry Goldsmith.” I make no pretension to objective judgment here. But it’s art, and it’s my blog, so why should you expect me to be objective?

Anyway, for your consideration and my biased opinion, here are the Best Original Song nominees for 1976 at the 49th Academy Awards, listed alphabetically by song title:

  • “Ave Satani” from The Omen, music and lyrics by Jerry Goldsmith
  • “Come to Me” from The Pink Panther Strikes Again, music by Henry Mancini, lyrics by Don Black
  • “Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born)” from A Star Is Born, music by Barbara Streisand, lyrics by Paul Williams
  • “Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky, music by Bill Conti, lyrics by Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins
  • “A World That Never Was,” from Half a House, music by Sammy Fein, lyrics by Paul Francis Webster

This is a remarkably . . . strange list. There are a number of top orchestral film composers represented here, something that doesn’t occur often today in this category: Goldsmith, Mancini, and Conti are all—or were, since the first two are dead—major film composers, and both Conti and Goldsmith have worked as Musical Coordinators for the Academy Awards ceremonies. In fact, when Julia Roberts won her Oscar for Erin Brokovich, she begged Goldsmith not to start up his music during her speech by calling him “baton guy.” Julia, that’s Jerry Goldsmith, one of the most respected artists in the industry. He scored Sleeping with the Enemy, you disrespectful. . . . Sorry, that moment really angered me. Film musicians don’t get enough respect as it is.

However, two things immediately stand out on the list. First, what in the world is Half a House? Never heard of it. Certainly never heard of its song. Second, The Omen? A horror film? With a song title in Latin, which contains a second word that is one letter away from “Satan”?

I’ll deal with those two later. Not to hold anyone in suspense, the winner in the category was “Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born)”—which I will now refer to as “Evergreen” since I hate it when pop songs in movies get “Theme from . . .” slapped onto the title in parentheses. I understand the promotional reasons, but it makes the title too long. Such as: “There’s Got to Be a Morning After (Theme from The Poseidon Adventure).” That is too damn long.

I don’t like Barbara Streisand a single iota; perhaps my dislike is not at the level of loathing that South Park has for her, but I have no use for her music. However, I understand why this song won the statue: it remains a well-known piece, although often referred to as a joke. Even if you don’t know the title “Evergreen,” you know the opening lyrics: “Love, soft as an easy chair. . . .” I’d rather love be more like a recliner that gets in all kinds of crazy positions, but everybody’s different. It certainly wasn’t the worst pop song of the year; that title belongs to “Afternoon Delight.”

Here is “Evergreen,” as performed in the movie:
No, I don’t like it. But I like Paul Williams, its lyricist, plenty. This is the fellow who gave us the songs for The Muppet Movie, The Phantom of the Paradise (some people have Rocky Horror, I have The Phantom of the Paradise), and another 1976 film, Bugsy Malone. Quite a few musical numbers from Bugsy Malone deserved a slot in this category, replacing that song no one’s heard of from a movie nobody has seen. “Ordinary Fool,” “Fat Sam’s Grand Slam,” “My Name Is Tulullah,” “You Give a Little Love” . . . all of these songs are terrific and could have stood proudly on this list. But my top pick from Bugsy Malone for a Best Original Song nomination is this one:
But no Bugsy Malone love in 1976. Oh well.

Moving on, I think most movie fans who are not specifically film music fans would select “Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky to win this category. It’s catchy, it’s uplifting, the fanfare makes you want to cheer (or at least punch frozen meat), and it plays over the major iconic moment in the film that won Best Picture that year. Everybody loves this montage:
And the song was composed by the awesome Bill Conti. Would I have picked this for Best Song over “Evergreen”? Without a doubt. But there’s another song on this list that I would pick over “Gonna Fly Now.”

And it’s not “Come to Me,” which plays over the end scene of the enjoyable The Pink Panther Strikes Again. Not a bad song, and the scene it accompanies is funny. And I don’t like criticizing the great Henry Mancini. But this just isn’t a great song, and it hasn’t survived as a perennial the way “Gonna Fly Now” and “Evergreen” have. Here’s what I found of it on YouTube, with Tom Jones belting it out:
This leads to the two strange nominees on the list. One has vanished into the aether, as if it never existed. It might even be a hoax, for all I know. The other, from a blockbuster grossing horror movie, is simply the strangest nominee for Best Original Song in the annals of the Academy Awards.

I have never seen Half a House. I can find no evidence of it ever getting a home video release. It has no individual entry at Wikipedia. There is one User Review on IMDb. I cannot locate the song on YouTube. Searches on the song title mostly turn up “The World That Never Was” from the videogame series Kingdom of Hearts. I honestly cannot unearth anything on the song except for the amusing bit of IMDb trivia that the film was so obscure—even in 1976—that the composer hired a publicist to set up an 800-number for voters to call in and hear the song. What I want to know is this: How did Academy members find out about “A World That Never Was” to be able nominate it in the first place? How did it get noticed before Bugsy Malone? And what about all the songs in Car Wash?

For all I know, “A World That Never Was” is a gorgeous song from an unfairly forgotten movie. But I have no evidence of that, and no video to show you. This obscurity is amazing for a Best Song nominee. This makes me ponder the absence of Bugsy Malone. The film was not a hit, granted, but it had a larger profile than Half a House. People still watch it and enjoy Bugsy Malone today. It has fan-sites; it’s on Blu-ray. (UK only, but region free!)

Now we land on the oddest nominee in the history of the Best Original Song category. The Omen was one the most financially successful pictures of 1976, coming in fourth for the year—with both Rocky and A Star Is Born edging it out. The Omen was one of the year’s surprise hits. It also won the Academy Award for Best Original Score, so that it got a song nomination makes some sense. (Here’s my review of the score.)

But the sense starts to fall apart when you realize that The Omen is a horror film about the antichrist being born in the form of a young boy. And this was before hard rock or metal bands contributed to current horror films. The Omen has an influential orchestral-choral score that is one of the most frightening works of incidental music written for a film. None of this indicates that it could have a “Best Song” nominee in it.

Yet here it is:
A song with a title that translates as “Hail Satan!” A choral song that is not remotely “pop” or “jazz” or “rock.” A song in Latin, chanted with Medieval Gothic gravity. A song that is an integral part of the film’s score; the lyrics, a Black Mass exhorting people to eat the body and drink the blood of Satan, recur throughout the film as the principle horror motif. How in the world did this happen?

And, why didn’t it win?

Well, it didn’t win because it there was no chance in—uhm, Hell—that it would get FM radio play. However, this is the true definition of a “Best Song” in a film: it is crucial to the film, part of the movie’s total soundscape, and emotionally gripping. Rarely has this sort of soundtrack work gotten noticed in this category. It resists the “commercial tie-in” aspect of the Best Original Song.

It’s great that “Ave Satani” got a nomination—and that the score won the Best Original Score award, one of the most deserving wins in the category’s history. (And it was up against two Bernard Herrmann scores!) But a double-win would have made up for the years of forgettable pop-schmaltz junk that tends to win in this category. A hymn to Satan taking the Best Song Oscar. How can you resist that?

To compensate for this loss, here is Goldsmith’s acceptance speech upon winning Best Original Score for The Omen—a win that came as a total surprise to him, since he thought Herrmann had it wrapped up for the posthumous honor on Taxi Driver:
I don’t really know what to say. I must thank Richard Donner and Harvey Bernhard for making the film in the first place; Lionel Newman for conducting it so beautifully; and Arthur Morton for a beautiful orchestration. And the piper’s dream did come true, dear Carol. Thank you. Hail Satan!
Okay, he didn’t say that last sentence.