Oscar song choices skip two big beats

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My first real memory of an Oscar smackdown came in 1985, when Lionel Richie and Phil Collins competed against each other. The pair were going head-to-head for best original song with their respective ballads from "White Nights," that beacon of Cold War hope and tap-dancing.

Two songs ... from the same film?! And from Casey Kasem's favored sons no less? Forget the Brando controversy; this was epic.

That Richie would also go on to snag the Oscar from the far cooler (at the time) Huey Lewis, who was nominated for pop-rock anthem "The Power of Love," only made it more momentous.

A lot has changed since 1985. For one thing, I no longer own a copy of Huey Lewis and the News' "Sports." But that landmark year came to mind when the Oscar noms for best song were unveiled last week.

Once again, two songs from the same live-action film -- a rarity -- had crept into the race ("Jai Ho" and "O Saya" from "Slumdog Millionaire.") And just like 1985, a controversy was brewing.

There were only three nominees, and none were Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler," the Golden Globe winner, or "Gran Torino," a Globe nominee co-written by Clint Eastwood. How is this possible, fans wondered, when there are two perfectly good slots going unused?

The answer stems from the complex system the Academy's music branch has developed the past few years.

The branch's several hundred members no longer list their top five choices, as they did for years (and as they do for best original score). Instead, they rate the songs on a scale of 6 to 10, with half-scores (say, 7.5) allowed, too. In order to land a nom, a song has to average an 8.25. (If more than five songs hit that mark, the five highest make it.)

That's a more quantitative approach than just asking voters to pick their favorites. There's only one problem: What happens if, in a bout of curmudgeonliness, voters decide no song deserves the 8.25 rating? You could conceivably end up with no nominees.

"I don't even want to think about that," branch chair Bruce Broughton says.

But the system doesn't end there. Voters don't just rate a song based on how they liked it. They rate each on the 6-10 scale twice, first strictly on the merits, then based on how it plays in the film. The idea is to make sure that people aren't just voting for a good piece of musicianship, but choosing a song that complements or enhances the movie. "People sometimes think this is like the Grammys, where we're just choosing out favorite song. But this is a film award, and you have to look at how a piece of music works with the rest of the film," Boughton says.

But this creates a new issue: What if a song is good but it happens to come in a bad movie? Or if it's used at an ineffective moment?

Where this especially becomes a problem is when a song rolls over the end-credits. Two of the nominees this year (A.R. Rahman's "Jai Ho" and Peter Gabriel's "Down to Earth") close their films, but there are important visuals to go with them. "The Wrestler" on the other hand, plays over a static black screen. The effect is to let the powerful final scene linger. But if you're judging the song based on how it plays in the movie, chances are you're not going to rate is as highly as a song that comes with snappy or affecting visuals.

"It's not a perfect system," Boughton acknowledges. "We're going to sit down after all this and see if there are ways to improve it."

Never the most sexy of categories, the Oscar for best song has become a little more marginal since Disney began the modern animated era with "The Little Mermaid" in 1989. Since then, an animated song has won nearly half the time, and in most other instances wins go to the broadest songs ("My Heart Will Go On" from "Titanic") with only the occasional nomination to novelty ("Blame Canada") or the poetic (Elliott Smith's "Miss Misery").

It's not clear that rule tweaks will change this. And it's not clear that nominating Springsteen -- or Miley Cyrus, who would have brought a VMA moment to the Kodak Theatre -- would make the awards more relevant. But they will probably make Oscar more varied and glitzy -- and more colorful than the days of white nights.
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