From the Gray List to the A List

A Q&A with Elmer Bernstein: 50 years later, still making beautiful music for the movies

50 years he’s composed the scores to such movies as “The Magnificent Seven,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Airplane!” and “Ghost Busters.” Now he’s nominated for an Academy Award—he’s had 14 nominations, one win—for “Far From Heaven.” 

Your career has been so diverse. Do you have a favorite genre? 
I did 10 years of comedies and 10 years of Westerns. I really like to stay away from car chases. I prefer the more intimate film. You have a much more direct association with the emotions.

Is the score ever autobiographical?
Sometimes, but I’ll never say when.

In the McCarthy era you were gray-listed.
I had to appear before a subcommittee of the House Un-American Activities Committee. They wanted to know if I could identify communists, but how could I know any communists if I didn’t attend any Communist Party meetings?

You did some pretty, er, unique projects at that time.
All of a sudden I found myself doing things like “Robot Monster” and “Cat-Women of the Moon,” and I didn’t know what the devil was going on. But if you’re going to do a really bad movie, at least you do one that is at the top of the all-time bad-movie list.

But then you followed up with “The Man With the Golden Arm” and “The Ten Commandments.” Not bad.
Cecil B. DeMille indubitably saved my professional life.

How’s the industry changed since the golden age of Hollywood?
I guess it’s a thing that all old people say, but I like that period better than this period. I’m generally pessimistic about the dumbing down of America—especially with summer movies.

No yearning to score the “Jackass” sequel?
[Laughs] You’ve got it. But this year gives me a lot of hope. Critics finally got hungry for films that mean something.

But Hollywood’s getting younger. How do you keep working? 
There’s no way I can compete with someone who can write rap or rock and roll. Nor do I wish to. But I’ve always kept up to date with music changes. I worked very hard not to type myself.

Any thoughts of retirement?
Heaven forfend! Absolutely not.

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