The Washington Post
The Oscar for best original song is a garbage category
By Dan Zak
March 2 at 1:42 PM
It was nearly five minutes of theatrical fog, odd lunges and wide-eyed emoting, and Collins had to watch the slow-motion oddity from his seat. The academy wanted a “variety” of entertainers to perform the nominees for best original song, so it didn’t enlist the English rocker, then at the peak of his career.
“It was awful,” Collins told Rolling Stone afterward. The insult to injury was his loss to Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” which Collins suspected wasn’t even written for the movie it appeared in, Gene Wilder’s “The Woman in Red,” and was merely slapped onto the soundtrack. Here were two songs that have endured longer than the movies they were nominated for — and both should’ve lost to either “Footloose” or “Ghostbusters,” which forever defined the films of the same name.
It was yet another year that prompted the question: Why is there an Oscar for best original song anyway?
The list of undeserving — or worse, unmemorable — winners is a long and embarrassing one. Even more damning, many of the nominees and winners seem to have little to do with the movies themselves, blatant cross-promotional devices that serve only as the closing-credits Muzak for your shuffle to the exits.
That wasn’t always the case. The original-song category has been around longer than even the supporting-actor trophies, dating to 1934 when Hollywood still churned out musicals and composers could make a career out of furnishing soundtracks. In its first decade, there were sometimes more than 10 nominees a year — pantheons that typically included movie-music legends such as Irving Berlin (who racked up six nominations over the years), Harold Arlen (eight) or Sammy Cahn (26!).
But as the classic movie musical went out of style, fewer songwriters remained who were devoted to that enterprise and the category filled up with nominees more famous outside Hollywood. Over time there were more winners like Springsteen and fewer like Rodgers and Hammerstein. And hummable tunes from “Mary Poppins” or “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” gave way to out-of-left-field titles like “Raise It Up” from “August Rush” (2007) and “Simple Song #3” from “Youth” (2015). Raise your hand if you’ve heard those songs, or even the movies they’re from.
It’s now been 83 years of best original songs, some classic and deserving (“Over the Rainbow” in 1939) and some justly lost to the ages (“If We Were in Love” from “Yes, Giorgio,” a 1982 musical comedy starring Luciano Pavarotti. Wrote Roger Ebert in his review, “This is a bad movie.”). Here are nine big whoopess, one from each decade, to chart changing tastes and a pattern of bad decision-making:
As best we can tell, the category was invented as an excuse to honor Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. Their second collaboration, “The Gay Divorcee,” one of the top box-office hits of 1934, yielded the first best original song, “The Continental.” Rogers-and-Astaire flicks produced two winners and four nominees that first decade, including the deserving “The Way You Look Tonight” from “Swing Time” (1936).
But by Year 2, the academy had blown it. Sung blissfully by Astaire, “Cheek to Cheek” is accompanied by perhaps the most famous pairs dance in movie history. It lost to the passionless “Lullaby of Broadway,” warbled by Winifred Shaw and then re-purposed, instrumentally, for a bonkers Busby Berkeley number.
There were nine nominees for original song in 1941 — the roster would balloon to 14 in 1945 — but the ’40s brought some much-needed tightening of the rules, at least. After Jerome Kern won for “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” a forgettable ballad that hit the charts months before it was re-purposed for the film “Lady Be Good,” he demanded that the academy revise its rules to limit eligibility to songs written expressly for a movie, according to Susan Sackett’s book “Hollywood Sings! An Inside Look at Sixty Years of Academy Award-Nominated Songs.”
Perhaps Kern also recognized that “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” was the deserving winner — a patriotic ear worm and mammoth hit sung by the Andrews Sisters, at whom the film producers initially scoffed. “The Andrews Sisters can’t sing boogie woogie,” one said. “Boogie’s too tough for them.” The sisters went on to sell 30 million records, many of the boogie variety, according to Sackett’s book.
This decade at the Oscars belonged to Frank Sinatra. He not only won a best-supporting-actor prize for “From Here to Eternity” — he also sang three of the decade’s winning songs. “All the Way” from “The Joker Is Wild” (1957) and “High Hopes” from “A Hole in the Head” (1959) would go on to become standards in the Sinatra songbook.
But his first was one of the decade’s worst. “Three Coins in the Fountain,” from the film of the same name, was a perfunctory open-credits ditty whose lyrics blandly telegraphed the plot (Thrown by three hopeful lovers / Which one will the fountain bless?). It may well mark the point at which this whole best-song enterprise went off the rails. Can you even keep the melody in your head? Meanwhile, it beat out ultimate torch song “The Man That Got Away,” an Arlen showstopper that became Judy Garland’s calling card in later years. (She was supposed to sing it during the Oscar ceremony but was stuck in the maternity ward, where she watched Rosemary Clooney sing it on TV and herself lose the best-actress trophy.)
“Talk to the Animals” from “Doctor Doolittle,” over “The Look of Love” from “Casino Royale”
As showbiz tastes shifted from modish jazz standards to fizzy, folky pop numbers, the original song became more of a non sequitur. In the first half of the decade, Henry Mancini scooped up five nominations; his “Moon River,” crooned by a guitar-strumming Audrey Hepburn on a window ledge, feels entirely consistent with the tone and story of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961). But Burt Bacharach reigned supreme through the second half of the decade, and his sunny “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” seems shoehorned into the otherwise foreboding “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” as if the Western tragedy needed a radio hit to score at the box office.
But the low watermark of the decade was surely “Talk to the Animals,” spoke-sung by Rex Harrison in “Dr. Doolittle” like a creepy uncle reading to you at bedtime to ensure a night of bad dreams. Composer Leslie Bricusse wrote it for Harrison’s nonexistent vocal range, which explains everything. Even the head of Twentieth Century Fox’s music department thought it was a “lousy song,” according to Mark Harris’s “Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood.”
To be fair, it was a lousy year for the category in general, but a retroactive Oscar should be awarded to “The Look of Love,” from the James Bond parody “Casino Royale,” particularly because of Dusty Springfield’s velvety interpretation.
“You Light Up My Life” from “You Light Up My Life,” over “Nobody Does It Better”from “The Spy Who Loved Me”
Two winners from the ’70s represented the evolution from staid songs to anthems, a genre that would dominate the category in the ’80s. The first was Keith Carradine’s “I’m Easy,” a solo guitar number from Robert Altman’s “Nashville” (1975). The performance in the movie is gripping, due in part to Altman’s camerawork, which slowly aims Carradine’s melody directly at Lily Tomlin. Song, actor and camera work in tandem to deliver crucial information about the characters and story. It’s one of the few example of a song truly earning movie gold.
The bookend of the decade was the Donna Summer hit “Last Dance,” during the full flowering of the disco era, which won the prize for 1978.
But in between the two was the real screw-up. James Bond, in addition to being a film franchise, is also a mini original-song franchise. Paul and Linda McCartney’s titular song for “Live and Let Die” (1973) was the first of five 007 songs to be nominated. Then in 1977 came the swooning, insistently sexy Bond tune that should have won: “Nobody Does It Better,” by category hogs Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager, sung by Carly Simon.
It was beaten by “You Light Up My Life,” an earnest God-tinged ballad that somehow became a decade-dominating chart-topper for Pat Boone’s one-hit-wonder daughter Debbie, despite being tied to a forgotten box-office dud. Its writer-director-composer, Joseph Brooks, accepted the award from none other than Astaire. “I’m so happy that, after all this time, it’s finally here,” said Brooks, who 32 years later was indicted on 91 counts of rape and other sexual crimes (and killed himself while awaiting trial).
“I Just Called to Say I Love You” from “The Woman in Red,” over the rest of the worthy field
What a decade! Either the academy was more clear-eared in the ’80s or the songs were just better. Winners included the dance anthems of “Fame” and “Flashdance . . . What a Feeling” and the power ballads “Up Where We Belong” from “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from “Dirty Dancing,” “Take My Breath Away” from “Top Gun” and “Let the River Run” from “Working Girl.” Almost all of them became mainstream radio hits, and good ones.
Still, there were some truly odd moments, starting with the 1982 ceremony. Presenter Bette Midler, God bless her, took pot shots at each nominee: “ ‘Endless Love’ from the endlessmovie ‘Endless Love.’ . . . ‘For Your Eyes Only’ from the film ‘For Your Eyes Only,’ and they weren’t kidding: I couldn’t watch a single frame.”
The winner, “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” brought four individuals up to the stage to claim the prize: Bacharach, Sager (who would go on to amass six song nominations), Liza Minnelli’s ex-husband Peter Allen and, naturally, Christopher Cross. “I think the question most asked me in the last few months is, ‘Why did four people write this song?’ ” said Sager, who did not actually answer the question. It beat out the more enduring “Endless Love,” whose composer, Lionel Richie, would win four years later for “Say You, Say Me,” unjustly beating Huey Lewis and “The Power of Love.”
The song performances became an ever more conspicuous and weird part of the Oscar broadcasts. Alongside the strained Reinking “Against All Odds” performance in 1985 was Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” spectacle. He sang most of his hit aloft in a miniature construction vehicle while dancing ghosts twirled below him on stage. At the climax of the song came the production’s big reveal — portly comic actor Dom DeLuise (who, no, had nothing to do with the movie), banishing the ghosts with a flick of his cape! And he then shot electricity OUT OF HIS HANDS! I mean, what on Earth?
Fast forward to 4:18 if you can’t bear the rest of the number. Parker would say 30 years later: “I need an Oscar. Last time, Stevie Wonder took my Oscar.”
“You’ll Be in My Heart” from “Tarzan,” over the rest of the field
Collins finally won, 14 years after “Against All Odds,” and it was for a treacly Disney song from “Tarzan.” Intolerably, he beat out Aimee Mann’s “Save Me” (so effective in the otherwise messy “Magnolia”), the riotous “South Park” tune “Blame Canada” (memorably performed during the ceremony by Robin Williams and a kick line of Mounties) and the small masterpiece “When She Loved Me” (by perennial nominee Randy Newman). “Now my life can go on, I think,” Collins said, as if still smarting from 1985. He performed this time around, not that anyone remembered anything beyond the comic blaze of Williams.
Collins’s win was preceded that decade by those of other rockers (Bruce Springsteen and Elton John) and victories for other Disney enterprises: “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas.” There was also a strong showing by stage composers given voice by pop divas: Stephen Sondheim won for “Dick Tracy” (Madonna sang it), Andrew Lloyd Webber won for “Evita” (Madonna again), and Stephen Schwartz won twice, the second time with a duet by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.
Let’s not forget the elephant in the room: “My Heart Will Go On” from “Titanic,” written by James Horner and Will Jennings. It’s the platonic ideal of the modern best original song — a soaring ballad with an international superstar on vocals (Céline Dion), and featured during the end credits — a far cry from the earliest best original songs, which were daintier and always part of their movie’s narrative.
“Into the West” from “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” over “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” from “A Mighty Wind”
Annie Lennox is a god. But she should not have won an Oscar in 2004 for the end-credits song to the final, interminable part of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. This win is the academy’s problem in a nutshell: It generally rewards the boldface name instead of the song that really matters to a movie. Also nominated that year were husband and wife Michael McKean and Annette O’Toole, for the plaintive duet from “A Mighty Wind,” Christopher Guest’s mockumentary about folk musicians. The song was beautiful, it came at a pivotal moment in the story, and its writers were two veterans of the entertainment industry. The song was sung by two other beloved figures, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, who performed during the ceremony in character as folk duo Mitch & Mickey. It was both sweet and funny. Giving it an Oscar should’ve been a no-brainer.
The academy turned a page the previous year by awarding a rap song for the first time: “Lose Yourself” from Eminem’s “8 Mile” (2002), which beat out old-school theater duo John Kander and Fred Ebb as well as U2 rockers Bono and the Edge. “Whoo!” presenter Barbra Streisand exclaimed when she opened the envelope. Eminem’s co-composer, Luis Resto, wearing a blazer over a Pistons jersey, scooted by a tuxedoed John Williams on his way to the stage — one era passing by another. Three years later, the winning song was called “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.”
“Writing’s on the Wall” from “Spectre,” over “Til It Happens to You” from “The Hunting Ground”
“Til It Happens to You” is not a great song, but it was better than Sam Smith’s pouty, slack-jawed Bond entry, and it had a timely sociopolitical message (about sexual assault on college campuses). Plus, it was written by Diane Warren, the self-proclaimed Susan Lucci of the original-song category. She’s up for an Oscar this Sunday for her ninth time — for a song you haven’t heard from a movie you didn’t know existed (“Stand Up for Something” from “Marshall”).
“I want to win,” Warren told the Associated Press this month. Her losing nominations span 30 years, including three in the past four years. She’s also the embodiment of what the original-song category has become: a repository for soaring choruses and life-affirming song titles. Think of winners “Let It Go” (2013) and “Glory” (2014), and nominees such as “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” (2016) and this year’s “This Is Me,” the ridiculously overblown song from “The Greatest Showman.”
Warren’s biggest commercial hits were nominated in the 1990s: Dion sang “Because You Loved Me” from “Up Close & Personal,” Trisha Yearwood sang “How Do I Live” from “Con Air” (how weird was that song-movie pairing?), and Aerosmith performed “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” from “Armageddon.” Her greatest achievement, though, was her first nomination: “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” from “Mannequin” (1987). She wrote it with Albert Hammond in one day, according to Sackett’s book, and the duet was originally considered for Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald, or John Parr and Laura Branigan. Fortunately it went to Grace Slick and Mickey Thomas of Starship.
Actually, who cares about the Oscars. Has there ever been a better music video?