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

By Brian Skutle

If I was looking forward most to revisiting “The Full Monty” (1997), I was looking forward to revisiting our final film, Todd Phillips’s “Joker” (2019), the least. I have had very mixed feelings about this film since its release- would this watch change anything for the better?

The Composer: Hildur Guðnadóttir

Guðnadóttir is an Icelandic cellist and composer from a family of musicians. She has performed with bands such as Pan Sonic, Throbbing Gristle and others. Where she has made her strongest impressions, however, is as a film composer. Her works prior to “Joker” include “Journey’s End” (2017), “Mary Magdalene” (2018) and “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” (2018), and her Emmy-winning work for the HBO miniseries, “Chernobyl” (2019). That emphasis on strings, and the cello in particular, is emblematic of her music, which is heavy on atmosphere and mood in the same way the late, great  Jóhann Jóhannsson– another extraordinary Icelandic composer- accomplished in their work. Since “Joker,” Guðnadóttir has written acclaimed scores for Todd Field’s “Tár” (2022) and Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” (2022).

The Film: “Joker” (2019)

Of the three films we’ve discussed in this series, “Joker” is, without question, the most divisive. People have given Phillips plenty of grief over the years for how he blatantly aped two classic Martin Scorsese films for his take on the iconic DC Clown Prince of Crime, but seeing as though he’s admitted the influence of “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “The King of Comedy” (1983), I’d rather criticize him for how thin his narrative is. The film wants to be a treatise on how the poor and disenfranchised are left to suffer by the rich, with Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck being the driving force of the film’s class war, but it doesn’t have the courage to make Fleck politically-driven enough to make that work. It also wants to look at how shabby mental health care is for those whom can’t afford it, but that opens the film up to stereotyping mentally-ill people as violent misanthropes who need to be locked up rather than treated. If Fleck has gone down the rabbit hole to being radicalized to where he feels like he must resort to violence, there’s no evidence of that transformation in this film. After my third viewing of this film, I find myself less engaged in its ideas than ever. And yet, Guðnadóttir’s haunting score- which wants to explore Arthur’s psychological depths with its dark, dissonant strings- still exerts a hold, and is a perfect accompaniment to Phillips’s images.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) preparing for the spotlight in Todd Phillips’s “Joker.”

The Category: Best Original Score (2020)

Twenty years after the Original Score category was changed back to a single category after a four-year split, the category has certainly gotten more adventurous in terms of what wins year in and year out. The usual suspects were no longer slam dunks, except for nominations by John Williams and Thomas and Randy Newman, and a new generation of composers had become the ones most lauded by the industry. Guðnadóttir is one such composer, and when you see whom she won against, you can see how impressive it was.

Hildur Guðnadóttir with her Oscar for Best Original Score.

Here are the films “Joker” was up against at the 92nd Academy Awards for Best Original Score.

“Little Women” (2019), Alexandre Desplat

“Marriage Story” (2019), Randy Newman

“1917” (2019), Thomas Newman

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (2019), John Williams

Three Oscar-winners- and one should-be winner in Thomas Newman- is what Guðnadóttir was up against. That she won should be seen as a reflection of her own work, but truthfully, it’s hard not to see it also as a reflection of how average this category seemed. While I’ll always love what Williams wrote for that saga in a galaxy far, far away, his nomination for “Rise of Skywalker” is an encore for four decades for musical storytelling in that particular world. Desplat’s score for “Little Women” is certainly a lovely piece of work from the composer, but it takes something truly unique to standout on its own for an Oscar win (or, as I mentioned in the first part of this series, some promotional heft from a determined studio). And Randy Newman’s work for “Marriage Story” is certainly a departure from work in comedy, and Pixar, but was it enough to really stand out to get him his first win for Original Score?

While I’ve always been transfixed by Guðnadóttir’s work for “Joker,” I really would have liked to have seen Thomas Newman win for Sam Mendes’s WWI film. He is the composer most overdue Oscar glory, and the fact that he has not won is painful, because he’s always done great work, whether it’s for Mendes or Andrew Stanton or Frank Darabont’s early films. If he was going to lose out to anyone that year, however, I’m glad it was to Guðnadóttir, and not someone who had already won. She is one of the great talents in this new generation of film composers who is helping push our feelings about what film music can be- and how it can sound- forward. In a way, you can look at the three women who have won Original Score Oscars as a progression of film music styles, from traditional ideas of it (“Emma” (1996)) to more contemporary shifts in sound (“The Full Monty”) to Guðnadóttir challenging us with a score that is centered on atmosphere and mood more than building thematic moments and musical progressions.

Hopefully, it will not take another several decades for one of the many great female composers to win an Oscar, or maybe one of these women to win another one. Looking at these three in isolation, you can hear how they are giving us a glimpse of an art form changing right before our ears.

Murray Hamilton (Robert DeNiro) looking at Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) in “Joker.”

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


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