There was a time, between 1955 and 1959, when an Elmer Bernstein score was the last word. On screen, wicked women sashayed in tight skirts, zoot-suited men thumped each other’s inverted pyramid torsos, powder-blue Fords with fanciful tailfins eased down the block – and Bernstein put them all to unapologetically American music.
He first really grabbed movie-goers’ ears with his score for Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm. It was the first all-jazz soundtrack and it earned him the first of his 13 Oscar nominations (he won only one, and, ludicrously, it was for Thoroughly Modern Millie). In it, Sinatra played Frankie Machine, a junkie, gambler and wannabe jazz drummer. Then he did a cunningly sarcastic soundtrack for The Sweet Smell of Success, and he topped that with the hipster groove of Johnny Staccato, in which John Cassavetes played the coolest thing ever invented: a Greenwich village jazz pianist and sharp-suited private eye. Bernstein’s jazz score was cool, too, but they don’t hand out Oscars for TV soundtracks.
But it wasn’t all jazz. Bernstein wrote for westerns, music that breathed grandly with the magnificence of the prairies, heavily influenced by his former teacher Aaron Copland. And he turned his hand to biblical bombast for Cecil B De Mille’s The Ten Commandments, to juxtapose with exclamations like this: “Oh Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” His music, for all its intrinsic appeal, was necessarily the handmaiden of absurdity.
But there was one kind of movie that Bernstein didn’t care to write for in the 1950s – those fraught emotional films such as Written on the Wind or even Mildred Pierce that have subsequently kept film studies departments deep in theses for decades. He was a guy, and wrote guy’s music. “I was around in the 1950s and I didn’t go look at these films,” recalls the 80-year-old American composer. “We called them weepies, and they weren’t our kind of thing at all. We were into dark, cutting-edge movies, not pictures for women with Rock Hudson in them.”
So didn’t he see, say, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows at the time? That’s the one with Jane Wyman as a wealthy widow who falls for barrel-chested nurseryman Rock Hudson and thus scandalises polite New England society. “No,” he says, “I only saw it very, very recently.”
This is a shame and a blessing. A shame because he missed out on one of the great Hollywood movies of the 1950s. But also a blessing because he came to score Todd Haynes’s wonderful new film Far From Heaven without any preconceptions, still less with any desire to write 1950s pastiche. For Haynes’s film is All That Heaven Allows revisited, but devoid of irony or kitsch. It stars Julianne Moore as a putatively perfect New England housewife who finds that her husband is gay, and, at the same time, starts to lust after her black nurseryman, thus provoking petty-minded Wasp gossip. The consequences of these twin taboo lusts are devastating for all three leading characters. Like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 film Fear Eats the Soul, it uses the story of All That Heaven Allows to explore miscegenation. But, while Fassbinder’s film was set in contemporary Germany, Far From Heaven returns to the perfect world of 1950s bourgeois America and scratches away at its suburban mores until they bleed.
What did he make of All That Heaven Allows? “I went and saw it after I’d finished the score for Todd’s film. I found it fascinating. Frank Skinner’s score was very classically based – it’s influenced by Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Chopin. I couldn’t have written that. I consider myself musically as peculiarly American.”
Was Haynes after that American sensibility when he asked Bernstein to write for him? “I guess he was taken with at least some of my work.” He certainly was: Haynes lured Bernstein into writing for the film by sending him a tape of the nearly complete picture with a temporary soundtrack that included some of the score he wrote for the 1962 film of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. I tell Bernstein that before the interview, I had been listening to a recording of him conducting music for that film with tears in my eyes – but not knowing whether it was the music itself or its relationship with the story that put them there. “I was,” he says professionally, “just trying to be true to the emotions in the film.”
And, for Bernstein, that is the key to understanding his already much-praised score for Far From Heaven. “The critics have been very enthusiastic about it,” he says. “I’m not sure that’s all about the quality of the music – although at the moment it’s my favourite of all the scores I’ve written – but rather that there aren’t many scores these days that are so directly emotional, or true to a directly emotional story. But you’re right: To Kill a Mockingbird was the link for Todd, because it covered a similar emotional terrain.”
It was with his music for To Kill a Mockingbird that Bernstein first gave full expression to a yearning romanticism undreamed of in all those sassy, urban jazz scores of the late 1950s, or even in the irresistibly whistlable main title numbers he wrote for The Magnificent Seven or The Great Escape. That romanticism became another string to his bow; you can hear it, too, much later in his emotionally evocative yet restrained music for Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence.
And emotional restraint was very important in his work on Far From Heaven. In a potent scene near the end of the movie, Julianne Moore walks along a railway station platform. He must have been aware when he wrote that music that there would barely be a dry eye in the cinema. “Absolutely. It’s an extraordinarily powerful cinematic moment. And it’s interesting that you single that out, because Todd and I had lots of discussions about how to score the scene. We went back and forth. I wrote something much grander that we didn’t use. The muted quality seemed more powerful.”
Why? “I think a lot of my job is about tact, about deciding where you want the music to be and where you want the music not to be. You constantly have to ask what is the function of the music. In that scene, you can hear Julianne Moore’s shoes on the concrete as she walks away. That says something that music can’t. So I deferred the musical climax.”
What did Haynes ask you to write? “Todd wanted me to get behind the feelings of the characters. He didn’t just want some derivative 1950s-style pastiche. The movie isn’t a trip down memory lane. What I wrote was a response to the honesty of the film that I saw. I wasn’t trying to be 1950s, I was trying to be emotional. That’s what we both wanted.”
Bernstein decided early that the score would be piano-driven, highly melodic, and that he would use only a small orchestra. “I got the theme I wanted to use very early on, which is unusual for me. It was complete malice aforethought: I knew that the audience would hear this theme at the start and be drawn into the atmosphere. The piano I used for two reasons. First, it’s a really domestic instrument that you’d expect to find in a big suburban house like that. But mainly because I knew Cynthia Millar [the British pianist, ondes Martenot soloist and film composer] would be available. She plays piano in a particularly sensitive way. It always helps when you’re writing for a particular player – it certainly did in this case.”
Was it unusual to have a virtually complete film to watch before you started writing? “Nowadays it is. In the 1950s, we didn’t see a film until it was complete. Now the schedules are so tight and complex that sometimes I see a film before they’ve started editing. I work pretty much from rushes, which can be very frustrating because my music needs to be tailored to the scene.”
Can’t that be a nightmare with directors like, say, Scorsese who spend a great deal of time editing their films? “It can. But with Marty, with whom I’ve worked four times now, you have to realise that you’re working with a great film-maker.”
Bernstein must have had to tell himself that a lot recently, because he’s just emerged from a nightmarish collaboration with Scorsese on Gangs of New York. “This last film was a horror story,” he says. “I had written the score for the film almost a year before. Then, when he started editing the film, he changed his mind. He rang me and said he was going to go for a Scorsese score, by which he meant that, as with Goodfellas and Casino, he was going to going to use recorded music on the soundtrack.”
A tough break for a veteran composer who has worked for more than 50 years in film music and written more than 200 major film and TV scores? “True, but it’s one of those judgment calls that’s very hard to argue with. I still think what I wrote was right – I just don’t know how it would work in the final edit of the film. How could I?”
But he’s not especially keen on what he calls “the interpolation of chart music” into movies. “I guess I’m partly responsible because I wrote The Man with the Golden Arm, which used popular music on the score for the first time. Before that, almost all the music you heard in American films was based on classical European music. That was certainly the case when I arrived in LA in 1950: the middle-European sensibilities of immigrants like Korngold, Waxman Steiner and Rosza were pre-eminent. It was only with Bernard Herrmann [Hitchcock’s frequent composer] that I heard a distinctively American sensibility. That was very exciting, and it gave me a creative impetus.
“But the composer who changed everything is Dmitri Tiomkin, who wrote the song High Noon for the film. Then for a while everybody wrote a title song in a film [Bernstein did it himself, memorably, for Walk on the Wild Side in 1962], then finally that wore itself out. But what hasn’t worn itself out is the interpolation of chart music for purely commercial reasons. That’s because most films are made for 12- to 18-year-olds.
“One of the great things about Far From Heaven is that it made no move towards commercialism with a capital C. That made it easier for me to write emotionally honest music. These days, that’s such a thrill.”