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FMS FEATURE ARTICLE...

July 11, 2003
Coulda Been a Contender
Why Leonard Bernstein Didn't Win the Oscar
by Jon Burlingame

Editor's note: Cambridge University Press recently published On the Waterfront, a collection of insights into the artistic and production aspects of the 1954 film classic. Among these keen writings is Jon Burlingame's chronology of Leonard Bernstein's involvement with the film, along with a detailed analysis of Bernstein's score. Portions of the final manuscript had to be excised for length, including Burlingame's discussion about the 1954 Oscars – which follows below. We hope you find it of interest. —MB

On Feb. 12, 1955, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominations for the 1954 Academy Awards. Among the 12 Oscar nominations accorded On the Waterfront, one was for Leonard Bernstein in the category of "scoring of a dramatic or comedy picture."

Producer Sam Spiegel pulled out all the stops to win for his movie. He took out full-page advertisements extolling the merits of his cast and crew, including one in The Hollywood Reporter (March 4) and another in Daily Variety (March 9) specifically designed to remind Academy members of Bernstein's musical accomplishment.

The 27th annual Academy Awards ceremonies were held March 30, 1955, in two locations: the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood and the NBC Century Theatre in New York. Bernstein did not attend; he was conducting opera at La Scala in Milan, Italy. The film won eight Oscars. Music was not among them.

Academy Awards, historically, haven't always been an accurate reflection of the best that Hollywood has had to offer. Politics, popularity and the voting rules themselves have been factors from the very beginning.

Bernstein lost to Dimitri Tiomkin for the music of the John Wayne film The High and the Mighty. The Russian-born Tiomkin was notorious in Hollywood for campaigning for Oscars; he eventually won four (two for the song and the score of High Noon, one for The High and the Mighty and another for The Old Man and the Sea).

In the case of The High and the Mighty, a thriller about a disabled airplane over the Pacific, Tiomkin had written a routine score with a hummable theme. John Wayne (as the troubled co-pilot) even whistled the title tune throughout the movie. By late summer 1954, no fewer than four records of The High and the Mighty were among the nation's 20 most popular songs. Tiomkin, a shrewd and aggressive self-promoter, managed to generate even more press when the Oscar music committee ruled that the song titled "The High and the Mighty" was ineligible because the lyrics were never actually heard in the film. Tiomkin convinced the production company to modify a single print of the film – one playing in Los Angeles at year's end – to incorporate the song, thus enabling it to qualify.

Tiomkin then took out trade ads ("The song that started America whistlin' again!") and, according to one report, even hired a skywriting airplane. Ironically, "The High and the Mighty" lost the Best Song Oscar to the even more popular "Three Coins in the Fountain." Academy voters may have made the Best Score Oscar Tiomkin's consolation prize at the expense of Bernstein's far more innovative and powerful work.

Disappointed Columbia music director Morris Stoloff, on June 22, wrote Bernstein: "Although the Academy may not have shown its appreciation, I personally value your music highly and I can speak as well for my company."

Herschel Burke Gilbert, who was nominated that year in a different music category for his scoring of Otto Preminger's musical Carmen Jones, recalled in a January 2000 interview that The High and the Mighty "was a huge, immediate success. It was a very big picture, with the whistling and the song. It was very popular. The music to the score of Waterfront was not popular in that sense. It made a striking impression on the composers and musicians." But, while composers and musicians choose the nominees, they are not the only Academy members who make the final choice. Actors, writers, directors, editors, production designers and many others, who can be easily swayed by a popular song, also cast ballots in the music categories.

In addition, it must be noted that Bernstein was an outsider, an influential figure in the New York musical community but not part of the Hollywood musical establishment (as were Tiomkin, along past winners and fellow nominees Max Steiner for The Caine Mutiny and Franz Waxman for The Silver Chalice). That, too, was probably a factor in Bernstein's loss.

Clifford McCarty, who covered the year's movie-music scene in the book Music and Recordings, 1955, agreed. He wrote: "From the first dispassionate music of the main title, one is aware that Bernstein's score is not only more original than most, but more interestingly used.... So fresh and powerful is Bernstein's music, and in so personal an idiom, that it at once sets itself apart from the more conventional "Hollywood' scores."

© 2003 Jon Burlingame

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