By Jim Schiff Daily Fine/Performing Arts Editor
Suffice it to say that predicting the Best Original Score at the Academy Awards is like splitting hairs: There’s very little Oscar politicking and the winner is crowned with relatively little hype or expectation. And because of this, you can expect that Academy voters are likely to reward a score on its merits rather than its Oscar buzz factor.
The Academy is known for making some odd choices as well as changing the category itself several times. We’ve moved away from the dual score groupings (Original Dramatic Score and Original Musical or Comedy Score) and long gone are the days of a separate category for Original Song or Song Adaptation score. We’re back to one collective lumping of film music, which pits those cute little Disney scores against our favorite war themes.
After a weak lineup of film scores last year, the 2001 nominees are a strong, diverse bunch. There are some heavyweight composers, like perennial nominee John Williams with two nods (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence”), James Horner with “A Beautiful Mind” and Randy Newman with “Monsters, Inc.” Then we have the relative newcomer Howard Shore with his spectacular “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings” score, arguably the most powerful soundtrack of the year.
You certainly can’t trust the Golden Globes this year: Craig Armstrong’s score to “Moulin Rouge” failed to garner an Oscar nomination yet took home the Globe. Add this to the fact that winning in the top Oscar categories has little or no effect on the Best Score winner (i.e. “The Red Violin” from 1999), and you have yourselves a mighty cloudy race.
But looking at each score individually, it becomes possible to narrow down the list of likely winners. Although Randy Newman has received 16 Oscar nominations over his incredible career, he has yet to take home a statue, making him this year’s sentimental favorite. But Newman needn’t bother preparing an acceptance speech – his score to “Monsters, Inc.” is a light, jazzy companion to the film, but probably not sophisticated enough to sway Academy voters.
With a whopping 41 nominations and 5 wins under his belt, John Williams is the undisputed god of modern film music. He hasn’t won since 1993’s “Schindler’s List,” but even so, a double nomination is probably going to split his vote. “Harry Potter” is the weaker of the two scores, recycling a lot of Williams’ best material from the early ’80s.
The race will likely be between “A Beautiful Mind” and “The Lord of the Rings,” and rightly so. These scores are easily the two best of the year. Horner won for “Titanic” four years ago, but “A Beautiful Mind” surpasses it with breathtaking string melodies and Charlotte Church’s haunting vocals. Likewise, “Lord” put Shore on the map with a raw musical energy that is rivaled by few composers.
It might come down to whose pipes the Academy prefers-Church’s or Enya’s-but for ambition, for innovation and for holding nothing back, “The Lord of the Rings” is the odds-on favorite this year. Shore’s orchestrations are remarkably complex, handling the romantic sections with great musical sensitivity and unleashing his army of horns, trombones and trumpets on the action sequences. Simply put, it’s a score that’s too hard to ignore – and a score that should rule them all come this Sunday.