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Oscar Insiders: Why the Academy Should Kill the Best Song Category

Natalie Portman as the Swan Queen
Fox Searchlight Pictures

The bad news is, Oscar experts and insiders are clamoring to change the crazy rules that silence great movie music. The good news is, the Academy is apt to be all ears to new ideas.

“Music-branch reform is essential," rails one major Oscar authority who wants to remain nameless. The best song process is weird: Voters watch film snippets, which distort the context, and trim the list down. "It's an odd thing," 20-time nominee Randy Newman told Steve Pond. "If no cinematographer did a great job that year, they don’t have only four nominations. The Academy has always had some kind of negative feeling about the song category."

Champ composers like Newman and Alan Menken sometimes decline to submit songs for Oscars. The Academy disqualified The Kids Are All Right and The Fighter because the cinematic use of songs "diminished [the] impact" of the scores. Obviously, they enhanced them. True Grit's and Black Swan's scores were disqualified because they were "diluted" by existing music.

But there's more than one way to use existing music, as proven by "Swan Lake" in Black Swan and Of Gods and Men, which I saw back to back at Telluride. The arrangements and dramatic impact were opposite, manic vs. meditative, and equally effective. Edith Piaf was a different singer in Inception and Saving Private Ryan. The hymns in True Grit are adapted, made new. The whole soundtrack, music blending with "effects" and songs, is an artwork. In an era of recombinant music -- all forms of culture are now recombinant -- isn’t it antiquated to ban scores that use existing music? "For a long time, there was an Oscar category called best score adaptation or something to allow for scores that used a lot of pre-existing music to compete against each other," says the Oscar expert. "Why not create a new category for that, maybe replacing best song, which really doesn't feel necessary anymore?" "Boy, do I agree!" says an even more famous Oscar insider.

There are two bits of good news, though. The music branch is one of the least resistant to change. "I can tell you this," says Academy vp and past president Sid Ganis, "the Academy really and truly is a fluid organization. Hey, didn't we two years ago say, wait a minute, not five movies [for best picture], let's have 10 movies? The proof is in the pudding. Year after year, we're altering the rules to keep up with the times, logic, what's happening in the industry and feedback from everybody from members to members who are unhappy."

So there's hope for movie music. Not only that, there's hope for Tchaikovsk-errific French foreign Oscar submission Of Gods and Men, whose snub left the French film community "stunned and numb," according to a campaign consultant. The Cannes and National Board of Review prize winner opens in the U.S. on Feb. 25, and though it's not eligible for another run at the foreign Oscar, it is eligible for other Oscar categories next year. It's not apt to go for best song, with all that "diluting" music in a climactic scene that will haunt you for days, and for which, at the Festival de Cannes, fest director Thierry Fremaux tells me he tinkered with the sound system "because I wanted the theater to feel like a cathedral."

So the Oscar campaign for Of Gods and Men isn't scuttled -- it's just beginning for next year? "Could be!" says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, who thinks Leonard Rosenman rather deserved his Oscar for the score of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, despite all that awful "dilution" by Schubert and Handel. "Let's see what happens."

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