Most observers of the Academy Awards probably remember “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from the 2005 film “Hustle & Flow” as representing either the nadir of the Oscar best song category — or as evidence that voters from the music branch are open-minded and have eclectic tastes.
Many of those same Oscar watchers probably were perplexed when the Academy only nominated three songs this year out of a possible five, and one of them wasn’t “The Wrestler” by Bruce Springsteen.
In general, the Academy Awards usually leave at least a little head-scratching in their wake year after year. But the best song category might cause those heads to spin while they’re being scratched. There is probably no category that invokes the reaction, “What?!” more often than best song.
Of course, whether the Academy “gets it” when it comes to best song is completely subjective, as are all the other awards in all the other categories. Yet best song seems to be the eccentric uncle in the Academy’s family.
“I think they hardly ever get it right,” said Robynn J. Stilwell, a professor at Georgetown University who specializes in music and film. “It’s one of those categories that started when songs played a bigger part in movies. Around the late ’80s and ’90s, songs became more of a marketing tool than an actual contribution to film.
“It’s hard to make a blanket statement, but there is a kind of marketing element present so they can make a video and sell a soundtrack. It’s not always an integral part of the film.”
More than end-credit backgroundAnd, Stilwell believes, it should be. “I remember Roger Ebert in the 1980s saying that one of the criteria should be that it not be played over the final credits. It should be part of the film itself. But some (nominated songs) have played over the credits, including Randy Newman singing, ‘You Have A Friend In Me’ from ‘Toy Story’ (which plays over the opening credits). That’s absolutely important to the film.
“The end-title space is often give over to a song in order to pitch sales of the records, it seems to me, while only marginally commenting on the film itself.”
“The Wrestler” plays over the closing credits.
In 1977, Carol Connors garnered the first of her two Oscar nominations for best song for co-writing the lyrics to “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from “Rocky.”
“I’ve always felt that in ‘Rocky’ it was at an absolute pivotal moment in the film,” Connors said of the use of the song as Sylvester Stallone’s character runs and trains in the streets of Philadelphia. “We wrote an entire lyric to Bill Conti’s melody, but the director John Avildsen only used 30 words. That became a mega hit, one of the great physical fitness songs of the world.
“As (the late director) Richard Brooks once said to me at (Hugh) Hefner’s, ‘No. 1, you don’t just see a film, you hear a film. No. 2, if you took the music and the song away from ‘Rocky’ it would not be the same film. It would be a different film.”
With that in mind, there is Springsteen’s “The Wrestler.”
Why was Bruce snubbed?Rules about nominating songs are rather hazy. The Academy would not return phone calls seeking explanation about their selection process for best song. Entertainment Weekly music critic Leah Greenblatt ascribed the perceived inconsistencies in the best song nominations to “weird technicalities.”
“They have some sort of ratings system that they use,” she said. “But this isn’t the Grammys. These are not necessarily music people at all. When it comes to songs, I think a lot of it comes down to the lobbying that the studios do.”
“The Wrestler” was considered such a sure thing, she said, that her magazine had already closed the page for that edition and had to open it up again when Springsteen’s ditty was dissed.
“The snubbing of Bruce is huge,” Greenblatt said. “He was about to play the Super Bowl in front of millions. He just won a Golden Globe. He just played at the inauguration. He’s not some sad, second-rate songwriter who didn’t make the cut.
“It would also have been good for ratings, if you want to talk about performances at the Oscars. All these shows struggling for ratings. Bruce seems to be a gimme. Who wouldn’t want to see The Boss?”
“Why wasn’t it nominated? I’m not sure,” said David Marchese, an assistant editor at Spin Magazine. “Maybe because the song was only featured during the end credits; maybe that made it feel less vital to the film. Sometimes Oscar voters want to appear au courant and forward-thinking — which might explain why ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ got two of three nominated songs.”
Added Marchese: “The Academy has a long history of nominating crap. Has anyone seen ‘Titanic’ lately? ‘Crash’?”
Politics at work?There are other elements to the best song enigma that seem odd as well. For instance, Stilwell said, there is the theory that the Academy voters like to slap down major recording stars, like in 1974 when Neil Diamond’s “Lonely Looking Sky” from the film “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” was nominated for a Golden Globe but was ignored by Oscar.
“At that point Neil Diamond was a huge star,” Stilwell said, “and there were rumors not that people didn’t like the film or didn’t like the music, but how dare he come in here and walk off with an Oscar!”
Of course, to frustrate Oscar theorists even further, one of the three nominated songs this year is “Down To Earth” from the film “Wall-E,” which was written and performed by Peter Gabriel. He’s a big star, too.
And the other two nominated songs, both from “Slumdog” — “Jai Ho” and “O Saya” — were written by prolific Indian composer A.R. Rahman, whom Stilwell calls “the John Williams of Bollywood.”
So the hubbub isn’t necessarily about the worthiness of the nominated songs for this year, but rather the fact that there were only three of them and that “The Wrestler” was left out — as was Clint Eastwood’s original song from “Gran Torino,” which was nominated for a Golden Globe but ignored by the Academy.
As a result, best song has enhanced its status as the sphinx of all Academy Award categories. Even Connors, a longtime member, said she is composing a letter to send to the Academy later this month, although she would not divulge the contents.
“I think the Academy desperately is trying to get it right,” she said. “I have my feelings about it. I will ask to speak in front of the Board of Governors of the music branch. I don’t know if that will happen.
“I am a voting member. I have some very, very strong opinions.”
When it comes to best song, she has a lot of company.