Oscar Winning Women: Film Composers (Part 1 of 3)

By Brian Skutle

Film scores have been a fundamental part of my love of cinema since the 1990s. A big part of what has shaped my taste in terms of what film music I respond to is that, from the outset, I tried not to limit myself to just following the titans of the genre- names like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, and Alan Silvestri– but allowing my ear to hear the way different music worked in films, and what it added to it. In part, because of the independent film boom of the 1990s, some of my favorite film scores were often not the ones nominated for Academy Awards. They still are not, by and large, but it’s always been interesting to see how the Oscars voted. In this 3-part series, I want to look back on the women whom have won Oscars for Best Original Score, the films they won for, who their competition was, and whether the win was deserved.

The Composer: Rachel Portman

Portman is a British composer who started out in television in the 1980s before going to feature films. In addition to being the first female composer to win an Oscar, she was also the first woman to win a Primetime Emmy for music, for her work on the film, “Bessie” (2015). Prior to 1996’s “Emma,” she scored films as varied as “Benny & Joon” (1993), “The Joy Luck Club” (1993), “Sirens” (1994), “Smoke” (1995), and “Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” (1995). After “Emma,” she would become a staple at Miramax films, receiving nominations for “The Cider House Rules” (1999) and “Chocolat” (2000) and also scoring films for Robert Redford (“The Legend of Bagger Vance” (2000)), Roman Polanski (“Oliver Twist” (2005)), Mark Romanek (“Never Let Me Go” (2010)), as well as a multi-film collaboration with Jonathan Demme which included “Beloved” (1998), “The Truth About Charlie” (2002), and “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004). It’s always been interesting to me to hear how composers navigate through multiple genres and types of stories, and one of the things you can say about Portman is that she has found a classical voice for her music that fits in everything from period drama or comedy, light romance, character-driven narratives to plot-fueled thrillers. Whenever I see her name in the credits, I look forward to what she might bring to a film, although it does seem that she has been type-cast scoring certain types of films by Hollywood studios, as her credits also include “The Other Sister” (1999), “The Lake House” (2006), “Dolphin Tale 2” (2014) and “Godmothered” (2020).

The Film: “Emma” (1996)

Douglas McGrath’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel came in the middle of a run of Austen adaptations that included Amy Heckerling’s 1995 comedy, “Clueless.” It was also the solidification of Gwyneth Paltrow as one of the ‘90s up-and-coming stars, and her shining performance as Austen’s eternal matchmaker is at the centerpiece of a cast that included Toni Collette, Alan Cumming, Ewan McGregor, Jeremy Northam and many, many more. I’ve always been quite taken by the light, lovely charm of this film, and Portman’s score is a big part of that. The score does not deviate from our long-held thoughts on how period films should sound- string-dominant, heavy emphasis on woodwinds in the melodic motifs, brass used sparingly, and very little (if any) percussion. Because the film is a romantic comedy, pizzicato strings are used to enhanced the comedy of manners happening on-screen, and the way Portman has them running counter with instruments like clarinet, oboe and bassoon make the score as charming a piece of period film writing as has ever been delivered by a film, with her theme getting to the romantic heart of the story itself.

Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Harriett Smith (Toni Collette) in Douglas McGrath’s “Emma.”

The Category: Best Original Score, Comedy and Musical (1997)

With the Disney Renaissance that started with “The Little Mermaid” (1989), the Oscars were turning into something painfully dull if you were a connoisseur of film music. From 1989-1994, if Disney had a film out, you could predict- in ink- what film would win the Best Original Score and Best Original Song Oscars, and even on the years Disney didn’t have a nominee, the winners in the Score category (“Dances With Wolves” (1990) and “Schindler’s List” (1993)) were the presumptive Best Picture winners. After “The Lion King” (1994) swept the categories, the Academy split up the Original Score category into two, one for Dramatic Score, the other for Comedy and Musical, in hopes of removing the dominance of Disney, and while Disney did still take home two music Oscars for “Pocahontas” (1995) the first year of the split, Disney’s influence on the categories did wane, and the only times one film has won both categories since are “Titanic” (1997), “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003), “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) and “La La Land” (2016).

While the four-year experiment of two score categories did its intended job of spreading the wealth around for various films, if you look at that time period more closely, you can see another disparity reveal itself. By the mid-’90s, Miramax had become the awards-season force among the studios, always finding one film in its stable to sell to Academy voters as the choice to vote for. In their bid to win as many Oscars as possible, they targeted individual races with precision as a place to get their awards, and when the path for one of the major awards appeared closed, the Original Score category seemed to be their path. Of the 8 Original Score Oscars given out between the 1995-1999 award shows, 5 went to Miramax films; only two of those- for “The English Patient” (1996) and “Shakespeare in Love” (1998)- were the eventual Best Picture winner. At the 1997 awards show, Miramax swept the Score categories, with “Emma” winning Comedy and Musical, while “The English Patient” won Dramatic Score.

Rachel Portman with her Oscar for Best Original Comedy or Musical Score.

Here are the films “Emma” was up against at the 69th Academy Awards for Best Original Comedy or Musical Score:

“The First Wives Club” (1996), Marc Shaiman

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996), Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz

“James and the Giant Peach” (1996), Randy Newman

“The Preacher’s Wife” (1996), Hans Zimmer

I’ll admit that I have not seen any of these films since 1996-1997. While I did try to watch Disney films when they were released, one would really have to land with me to be a part of my rotation in the future, and “Hunchback” did not. “The First Wives Club” offered some entertainment value to me, but not enough for me to return to it, so Shaiman’s score didn’t really linger, but I’m sure the always-reliable Shaiman did a good job with the film. As a greater appreciator of Henry Selick now than I was then, I’m due a revisit of “James and the Giant Peach,” and I have no doubt Newman did a wonderful job. As for “The Preacher’s Wife,” while I have no doubt Zimmer attributed himself well to his reunion with Penny Marshall, does anyone really remember anything musically from that film if it didn’t involve Whitney Houston’s wonderful voice?

For me, only a handful of original comedy or musical scores stood out that year- one is Portman’s for “Emma,” one was Danny Elfman’s score for Tim Burton’s chaotic “Mars Attacks!”, and the other was Carter Burwell’s for the Coen Brothers’s darkly comedic masterpiece, “Fargo.” (As with “The Preacher’s Wife,” “That Thing You Do!” stands out more for its songs than anything Howard Shore composed for the score.) Ultimately, in the absence of Elfman and Burwell in the category, Portman was far and away the best choice for the Oscar. Yes, I do feel like she possibly benefited from the Miramax machine, but the truth is- I’m delighted by her score, plain and simple. If I gave another listen to the other four, I might feel differently, but when it comes to being a perfect accompaniment to its film, and one that stands out more for its musical craft when listened to individually, Portman’s work is wonderful, and was a great choice to break down an Oscar barrier in this particular category.

Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northam) in “Emma”

Read Brian’s review of “Emma” over at Sonic Cinema.

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