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Hollywood's Score Keeper

Elmer Bernstein is the composer behind many classic movie themes. A tribute and screenings survey his 50 years of work.

November 08, 2001|JON BURLINGAME | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Many people spend a lifetime toiling at the same job. What's unique about Elmer Bernstein--now cel-ebrating his 50th year as a composer for films--is that few in this very select group manage to survive so long in such an exacting, often frustratingly trendy profession.

"Elmer Bernstein is movie music," says film historian and commentator Leonard Maltin. "He has spanned the waning days of the studio system and the golden age of Hollywood to the 21st century, with his talents and skills intact. He has done as much to promote appreciation and understanding of film music as he has pursuing his own career."

The numbers are impressive enough: more than 150 film scores and an estimated 80 for television, not to mention an Academy Award and another 12 nominations in all three Oscar music categories (original score, song, adaptation score). But Bernstein's lasting achievement may be his creation of a handful of truly classic movie themes:

* The driving jazz for Frank Sinatra's heroin-addicted drummer in "The Man With the Golden Arm" (1955).

* The alternately majestic and reverent music of Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" (1956).

* The rousing western anthem of "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), which became even more famous (some might say infamous) as the theme for the cowboys of Marlboro Country before cigarette ads were banned from the airwaves.

* The lyrical, quietly moving music of "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962), now hailed as a landmark in movie scoring.

* The slinky, other-side-of-the-tracks jazz for the New Orleans brothel tale "Walk on the Wild Side" (1962).

* The jaunty, thumb-nosing march for the prisoners of war plotting a massive breakout from a German camp in "The Great Escape" (1963).

Some, if not all, of those tunes are familiar to most Americans, even if they haven't seen the movies. Film buffs might recognize even more, from the lush music of "Hawaii" (1966) to the offbeat noir score of "The Grifters" (1990), the so-serious-it's-funny music of "National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978) and a pair of television themes: the "National Geographic" fanfare and the evocative melody of "Hollywood and the Stars."

"It doesn't feel like 50 years," says Bernstein, who acknowledges that his versatility has been a big factor in his longevity. "I think I have demonstrated an enthusiasm for change, and that's fairly infectious. I would hope that some of the energy and joy that exists in some of the work would communicate years and years from now."

Tonight, Bernstein will be honored for his lifetime of work at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. The tribute will include appearances by directors John Landis ("Animal House") and Carl Franklin ("Devil in a Blue Dress"), actor James Coburn ("The Magnificent Seven"), producer Noel Pearson ("My Left Foot") and jazz composer Terence Blanchard.

On Friday, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art begins a four-weekend series of Bernstein's films, including, on Nov. 16, the rarely screened "Summer and Smoke" (1961) in a dye-transfer Technicolor print, and, on Dec. 1, a new 35-millimeter print of the original roadshow version of Bernstein's Oscar-winning "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (1967). On Saturday at 7:30 p.m he will be interviewed by fellow composer Cynthia Millar before a screening of his Oscar-nominated "The Age of Innocence" (1993).

But for the 79-year-old composer, it's business as usual. He is in the midst of composing the score for Martin Scorsese's epic "Gangs of New York," now slated for a Miramax release next year (it had been scheduled for a holiday release this year but has been delayed). For Scorsese, Bernstein's connection to Old Hollywood is one key to their ongoing collaboration. "He is certainly one of the great cinema composers of all time," the director says by phone from New York. "The width and breadth of the work, the amount of work, shows a range that is quite unique. He isn't noted for just one thing, you see. It's an honor to work with him, because I admire not only his artistry, but his history and his knowledge. If I mention some film made in the 1930s or '40s, he knows the film, he knew the people, how they worked and what they did."

Bernstein is revered by many of the town's younger composers. James Newton Howard ("The Sixth Sense," "Dinosaur") considers Bernstein among the most influential of composers. "Effortless is one of the words that comes to mind when I consider Elmer's work," he says. "With his scores, one never has the feeling that the music is working too hard. Somehow, he has always been able to achieve gigantic effect with the most gentle and graceful gestures."

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