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Commentary : Oscar Songs: High Hopes, Sour Notes

March 31, 1987|TERRY ATKINSON

The best original song is a song that was actually written for the picture and not just some piece of junk the producer found in the piano bench, you dig?

--Bette Midler, explaining song category at '81 Academy Awards

The Oscar-winning songs of the last two decades are absolutely no match for the ones that won in the '30s--or, for that matter, the '40s and '50s.

A brief comparison of two Oscar-song eras tells the story:

THE GOLDEN AGE

1934--The first best-song Oscar goes to "The Continental," the gloriously climactic dance number from the second Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical, "The Gay Divorcee."

1935--Harry Warren and Al Dubin's "Lullaby of Broadway" beats out Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" and the Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields-Jimmy McHugh composition "Lovely to Look At."

1939--"Over the Rainbow" captures hearts and the Oscar.

1940--"When You Wish Upon a Star" is best song.

1944--An embarrassment of riches. The 10 excellent nominees included winner "Swinging on a Star" from "Going My Way." And the list of 10 didn't even have these eligible songs: "The Boy Next Door," "Don't Fence Me In," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

From here on it was downhill--very gradually. There'd be plenty of top-notch winners to come, but the category slowly fell into a never-escaped rut--a preference for either romantic ballads (including a lot of pure mush) or novelty songs and a disregard for the screen's more meaningful and challenging songs.

By 1956, the Oscar-song pattern was set, favoring the safe and soft and particularly the lightweight. Some great songs, of course, still made the list--the gritty anomaly "High Noon" even won in '52. But in '56, a new music gave some movies like "The Girl Can't Help It" a special zest. Unfortunately, Academy members despised this music--because rock and roll was understood only by a generation unrepresented at the awards. Oscar gave a cold gold shoulder to rock--and has ever since.

Even when, in 1982, a rock song "Eye of the Tiger" got a nod from the academy (winning, in fact), it was a crummy tune. A good rock song has never been nominated. THE TARNISHED AGE

1957--Elvis Presley makes his best two films, "Jailhouse Rock" and "Loving You." Each is packed with great songs. None is nominated.

1961--Henry Mancini and Oscar begin their durable love affair. "Moon River" wins this year, "The Days of Wine and Roses" the next. Lovely and poetic, with words by Johnny Mercer, both deserve the Oscar. The problem is that the nominees don't--and never will, it seems--reflect the full film-song spectrum.

1964--Not one of the Beatles' songs from their debut picture, "A Hard Day's Night," is nominated. The attack of the novelty song recurs as "Chim Chim Cher-ee" from "Mary Poppins" wins.

1965--Nothing from the Beatles' second picture, "Help!" is nominated.

1970--The Beatles are granted the Original Song Score award, but none of the "Let It Be" songs are nominated individually.

1973--Marvin Hamlisch and the Oscar begin their love affair. He wins three statuettes, one for "The Way We Were," which is a nice song anyway. The several ground-breaking reggae songs from "The Harder They Come" are ignored by the Academy. At the show, Telly Savalas sings "You're So Nice to Be Around."

1975--The uninspiring nominees range from winner "I'm Easy" to loser "Richard's Window."

1977--The featherweight field: "The Slipper and the Rose Waltz," two Disney songs, a Hamlisch-composed James Bond theme, and "winner" "You Light Up My Life." Even worse than '72.

1978--Perhaps in panic over missing the disco train in '77, the academy gives the award to "Last Dance" from "Thank God It's Friday."

1979--Treacle fills the aisles. The forgettable nominees include "The Rainbow Connection" and "Theme From Ice Castles (Through the Eyes of Love)."

1980--The academy decides to get hip again and gives the Oscar to "Fame," the best of a sorry lot.

1982--A sort-of-rock song wins, but it's only the sappy "Eye of the Tiger," riding "Rocky" 's capetails. "Yes, Giorgio" provides the not-so-immortal "If We Were in Love."

1983--Rock may be seldom seen in the same room with Oscar, but the rock video grabs Oscar by the neck. "Flashdance" is nominated for two song awards, and the title tune wins.

1984--Now movies are incestuously entwined with videos and the pop charts, and the Oscars go on a pop feeding frenzy; nominees include songs written by Phil Collins, Kenny Loggins, Ray Parker Jr., Stevie Wonder and the team of Dean Pitchford and Tom Snow.

1985--By this time, the academy seems to have figured out a way to have its cake and more cake too, with the nominees including a lightweight pop smash (Lionel Richie's "Say You, Say Me") . . . and Marvin Hamlisch ("Surprise, Surprise").

1986--This year's cake and cake too: three lightweight pop smashes . . . and Mancini ("Life in a Looking Glass"). Two of the hit ballads are more than palatable ("Take My Breath Away," "Somewhere Out There"), even if Peter Cetera's No. 1 "The Glory of Love" is a stinker. There's a fun novelty number too, "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space." A slightly better selection than in most recent years. So who won?

Frankly, my dear . . . .

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