Sunday, February 9, 2014

One Category at a Time: Original Score

There are all sorts of theories on how the Academy votes for Best Original Score, arguably the most subjective of the craft categories. Appraisal of music is so prone to personal tastes that just when you think you've got the Academy pegged, they go and do something unpredictably awful (like award Gustavo Santaolalla a second consecutive Oscar for a score that makes liberal use of pre-existing compositions) or go and do something unpredictably cool (like give Trent Reznor an Oscar for an extremely atypical electronic soundtrack).
One criteria that pundits seem to agree on is that being a Best Picture nominee is almost essential. Since 2000, only one winner of this category was not up for the big prize (2002's Frida). Another observance is that first-time nominees tend to be very successful as of late. This would bode well for Gravity's Steven Price, but I'm not sure I agree with that logic. Academy members don't consider the actual people behind the work they're voting for in the craft categories. If they did, guys like Roger Deakins and Thomas Newman and Kevin O'Connell would all have Oscars by now. Price's name won't even be on the ballot, so his first-time nominee status gives him no visible advantage. What does give him a visible (or I guess, "audible") advantage is the ubiquity of the music in the film. As it was with The Artist and Life of Pi, long stretches in the absence of dialogue tend to showcase the music very well, and Gravity's score makes itself heard every step of the way -- almost to a fault.

Another Best Picture contender with music by first-time nominees is Her, scored by William Butler and Owen Pallett of Arcade Fire. If the Academy gets into the same mood they were in when they voted for The Social Network a few years ago, this could actually end up being one of the night's true surprises, and what a handsome winner it would make! Of the five nominees, its music is arguably the most unique, and that helps it stand out, at least amongst those who saw it. But is it actually that widely seen (and loved) within the Academy? Or can its Best Picture nomination be attributed to the passion votes of an enamoured few?
Notoriously, this branch tends not to nominate those who haven't been to the big dance before. We were lucky to get three first-time nominees this year (albeit for two films)! Usually it's only one. The rest are almost always comprised of branch favourites, and that includes Thomas Newman and John Williams for Saving Mr. Banks and The Book Thief respectively. A lot of people overestimated the appeal of the former and the latter never caught on in the first place, so the fact that they have nominations here is clearly out of music branch love for the composers. This is Williams' 49th nomination (a record among living people), but seriously, who thinks that his score for The Book Thief, tender and delicate that it is, is among his best work? You could perhaps make the same argument for Newman, although I quite liked what his trademark musical stylings did for Saving Mr. Banks. At any rate, neither is likely to win.

But there is another branch favourite nominated this year who's in pretty decent position to upset: Alexandre Desplat, who copped his sixth nomination in just eight years for Philomena. As I speculated in my Best Adapted Screenplay post, if the older demographic of the Academy is sizable enough to push the film to a Best Picture berth, then who's to say the film doesn't have enough support to possibly push through in some of these contested categories? I'm not gutsy enough to predict it, but it feels like this film is lurking. Never underestimate the malevolent cunning of Harvey Weinstein. While Desplat winning for this of all things would be quite the embarrassment (given the superior quality of his former works, and of course, the other nominees), I can't deny that seeing the prolific composer with an Oscar in hand... I'd be all smiles. The last thing I want is for him to become another Thomas Newman; Frequently nominated, never wins.

Will win: Gravity
Runner-up: Philomena

Should win: Her
Should've been nominated: Man of Steel

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