the gold rush

There’s No Reason the Oscars Shouldn’t Revert to Two Best Original Score Categories

Photo: Berliner Studio/BEImages/Shutterstock

For an institution notorious for being resistant to structural change until quite recently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made a number of adjustments to its shimmering façade over the years — adding categories, taking them away, tweaking the balloting process, and even altering eligibility requirements in lieu of enacting more consequential changes to the racial and gender makeup of its governing body. When, in 2018 for example, they were concerned about plummeting viewership and complaints over the homogeneity of its Best Picture nominees, members of the Academy took a step back, placed their hands on their hips, and said, “What if we just make a new category and call it Best Popular Film?” They were laughed out of this decision not long after, and have since tried to attack the problem at its root by adding underrepresented professionals to its membership.

Still, sometimes the Academy’s tinkering with Oscar categories has truly changed the show for the better — like the five-year blip when it established two categories for Best Original Score: one for dramas, and one for comedies. It began in 1995. Presumably annoyed that the Oscar for Best Original Score had gone to Disney movies for four of the past five years (The Little Mermaid in 1990, Beauty and the Beast in 1992, Aladdin in 1993, and The Lion King in 1995), the Academy decided to take action. Though it never explicitly chalked the change up to anti–Mouse House sentiment, its intentions were clear enough to anyone who paid attention: Split the category in two before Alan Menken could stockpile enough Oscars to build a piano bench. For the next four years, original scores were broken down by genre: one set of nominees for dramatic score, and another for musicals or comedies. It wasn’t a perfect fix, mostly because the Golden Globes–inspired merging of musicals and comedies makes no sense to anyone familiar with either genre, but it instantly made the Oscars more interesting and inclusive. Gone was the chance for voters easily distracted by catchy Disney tunes to ruin it for composers whose music didn’t need lyrics. The time for a more complete celebration of the underscore was long overdue. Though it was abandoned in 2000, I’m newly convinced it’s a strategy that should not only be revisited, but one that could change the show for the better. Many of our most high-profile awards bodies have been in dire need of structural change for as long as they have existed, but it is becoming increasingly clear to them — and audiences — that they must finally enact those changes if they are to maintain any kind of relevance in 2021 and beyond. But let’s go back to how it crashed and burned during the first go-round.

The 1995 ceremony (the one honoring 1994 films) almost certainly would have followed precedent and again given the Best Original Score award to Menken, half-Oscar himself at this point, for Pocahontas and called it a day, but the split allowed for Luis Bacalov’s lovely little score for Il Postino, the successful Miramax acquisition from Italy, to get recognized. The next year, when The English Patient famously won 9 of the 12 awards for which it was nominated, the split meant a woman winning for Original Score for the first time in Oscar history. Is it fun to imagine a version of 1997 where Rachel Portman’s alternatingly wry and wistful work on Emma beat Gabriel Yared’s haunting twist on the epics of Maurice Jarre? Yes. But unlike Gwyneth Paltrow in her breakout role, I don’t live in a fantasy land, and this way they both got to win. The category’s second winning woman came the following year: Anne Dudley for the charming English import The Full Monty, again in “Musical or Comedy,” where it too was lucky enough not to share a category with that year’s awards-hungry behemoth: Titanic. While James Cameron’s unsinkable ship suffered a handful of losses that year, it frankly had no chance of losing Best Original Score. To this day, it’s the highest-selling movie score of all time; yes, that had more to do with Celine Dion than James Horner, and yes, it’s just an Enya album with a more overexcited strings section, but voters don’t care about that sort of thing.

By 1999, the final year of the category’s fission, it seemed as though voters were reverting to their old ways. The winners weren’t surprising, or even all that different from each other, which made the whole dueling-genre idea feel more than a little pointless. Both awards went to wildly successful Miramax dramedies: Nicola Piovani won for Life Is Beautiful and Stephen Warbeck won for Shakespeare in Love. (If you had to guess which one was shoved in which category, you’d probably be right, but even if you weren’t, you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.) While it’s understandable that such a strikingly similar pair of winners were the two genre-blurring nails in this short-lived experiment’s coffin, that doesn’t mean the Academy can’t dust off its rulebook and try again.

In a New York Times piece published in 2000, the year John Corigliano’s score to The Red Violin prevailed over no fewer than three iconic movie scores simply because there was an instrument in the title (there is truly no other explanation, sorry), Charles Bernstein, then-chairman of the Academy’s Rules Committee, explained the Academy’s return to a single Best Original Score category, saying that members objected to the fragmentation “on the ground that no other Oscar category depended on a film’s genre.” He went on to call the categories “artificial,” adding that “the job of composing an underscore for a romantic comedy is not substantially different from working on a heavy drama.” While that explanation may have cut it 20 years ago, in hindsight, Bernstein’s objection acts as a backdoor commentary on the show’s most attention-grabbing awards after Best Picture: the ones doled out to actors. Is the job of a woman actor any different from the job of an actor who happens to be a man? And what of nonbinary performers whom the Academy has yet to acknowledge with its ancient categorizations? When the Academy deigns to nominate someone who doesn’t fit into its buckets, where will that performer be assigned in the simple, high-contrast awards tapestry it’s woven over the decades? And if breaking acting, composing, and other categories down by genre is a tough sell — will someone please think of the dramedies! — perhaps it’s time to give every category the luxury of having up to ten nominees.

Which takes me back to the failed dueling Best Original Score experiment. I spent so much time on winners that I forgot to call out the nominees. One of the AMPAS’s most consequential changes from both an institutional and audience perspective was the raising of the nomination limit for Best Picture in 2009. Urging Academy members to think, oh, let’s say three billboards outside its comfort zone has led to a more exciting playing field where crowd-pleasing summer blockbusters like The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road battle head-to-head with more traditional awards-season fare like Lion and Spotlight. Similarly, doubling the nods for Best Original Score (imperfect genre divide aside) led to the kinds of recognition that makes me wholeheartedly believe an actor who says it’s an honor to just be nominated. There is no chance Marc Shaiman’s bubbly romp of a score for The First Wives Club or Randy Newman’s lush and unforgettable soundtrack to Pleasantville would have cracked the top five in their respective years had there only been a single category. And what would their careers — or the movies themselves — sound like without that recognition?

Last year, I spoke to composer Thomas Newman about his history with the Oscars. He told me he was confident that he never would have received his first nomination (for director Diane Keaton’s 1995 flop Unstrung Heroes) if not for the widened net. What’s more, he said it was that specific nomination, for a category that no longer exists, that first earned the attention of his now-ongoing creative partner, director Sam Mendes. Awards shows may be silly, but the repercussions lead to the sorts of changes that ultimately trickle down to viewers who are yearning to see themselves in those grids of smiling nominee boxes. More than most categories, Best Original Score has historically been especially old and white and male, and why shouldn’t the exposure-based opportunities afforded to Newman back in the mid-’90s be possible for a new generation of musicians now that the more diverse nominating body is more likely than ever to seek out a more inclusive collection of nominees?

The Oscars need to change. We know this, and they know this. But knowing is far from half the battle. As the members become more representative of their industry, it’s up to them to tackle the inadequacies of the awards themselves. Best Original Score may just be one mid-tier category in a night that doles out well over 20, but I believe a thoughtful fissure could act as a crucial precedent to even bigger change capable of shaking the Dolby Theatre into something that becomes not only a more inclusive celebration of the movies, but thrilling and inspirational television. Why do I think it could work? Well, because it already did.

Oscars, Please Revert to Two Best Original Score Categories