The Music Speaks for Itself

Tribute to Elmer Bernstein

eb-70s-pigsweaterELMER BERNSTEIN Died Aug. 18, 2004

What a devastating month in the world of Hollywood composers. In the last 30 days we have lost Jerry Goldsmith, David Raksin and now Elmer Bernstein. Oscar-winning composer Elmer Bernstein died in his sleep at age 82. Mr. Bernstein was nominated for 14 Oscars (1 win), 2 Emmys (1 win), 3 Golden Globes (2 wins), 2 Tonys and 5 Grammys. He won the Best Musical Score Oscar for George Roy Hill’s 1967 film “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Elmer Bernstein was a protégé of American treasure Aaron Copeland. Bernstein scored nearly 300 films and TV shows during his fifty-two year career. His most recognizable piece of music was his theme from the Western “The Magnificent Seven.” The music was used by Marlboro cigarettes for their theme on TV ads that ran before such advertising was banned from TV. The score was used recently by propagandist Michael Moore in his political tract “Fahrenheit 9/11”

Elmer Bernstein’s Oscar nominations include ten for Best Score and four for Best Song. His Oscar credits include the films “The Man With the Golden Arm,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Hawaii,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “True Grit,” “The Age of Innocence,” “Trading Places” and “Far From Heaven.” Lush is the best word I can think of to describe Mr. Bernstein’s music. I have no musical training whatsoever. Julliard graduates may think the word ‘Lush’ is a bit quaint when describing the massively impressive output of Mr. Bernstein. I mean it as high praise. Mr. Bernstein added such color to so many movie-going experiences. I can’t remember how many times his choices combined with the action on screen to produce goose bumps and shivers.


Mr. Bernstein’s early scores include two of the most infamous “Bad Movies” of the 1950s. He scored both “Robot Monster” and “Cat-Women of the Moon.” Mr. Bernstein was not destined to remain in B-Movie limbo. Two years after “Cat-Women of the Moon,” Mr. Bernstein was nominated for his first Oscar. His jazz score for Otto Preminger’s “The Man With the Golden Arm” put him on the Hollywood map. The then controversial film dealt with drug addiction. Frank Sinatra delivered on of his best performances. Bernstein’s score evoked visions of smoke filled back rooms in seedy bars and hotel rooms. You can almost choke on the decadent atmosphere. Over the next few years, Mr. Bernstein was to score some of the most memorable films of the 1950s. His credits from that decade include Cecile B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” the gritty “The Sweet Smell of Success,” the baseball biopic “Fear Strikes Out,” “Desire Under the Elms,” “The Tin Star,” “Some Came Running” and “God’s Little Acre.”

In my humble opinion, the 1960s represent the period of his best work. His simple and moving score for “To Kill a Mockingbird” still brings tears to my eyes. I think I can hum his entire score from John Sturges’ “The Great Escape.” Of course there is “The Magnificent Seven.” Other credits from the 1960s include “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” “Hud,” “Baby the Rain Must Fall,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Love With the Proper Stranger,” “The World of Henry Orient,” “The Sons of Katie Elder,” “7 Women” and “The Gypsy Moths.” He received nine of his Oscar nominations and his only win during the 1960s.

As good as the 60s were, he was no slouch in the 1970s. Though I knew his music, I first knew the name Elmer Bernstein when he scored Tom Laughlin’s “The Trial of Billy Jack.” I was a complete “Billy Jack” fanatic in junior and senior high school. Mr. Bernstein score two of the “Billy Jack” films. Once I learned Mr. Bernstein’s name, I began to notice it everywhere! Among Mr. Bernstein’s credits from the 1970s are “Big Jake,” “The Rookies,” “Cahill: U.S. Marshall,” “McQ,” “The Shootist,” “From Noon Till Three,” “Animal House,” “Zulu Dawn,” “Meatballs,” “Moonraker” and “The Great Santini.” Mr. Bernstein’s sole Oscar nomination from the 1970s was for Best Song from the lame Roger Moore adventure/thriller “Gold.”


The 1980s brought Mr. Bernstein one more Oscar nomination for his score of the Eddie Murphy comedy “Trading Places.” He scored some of the biggest and most profitable films of the 1980s. His credits from the 80s include “Ghost Busters,” “Airplane!,” “Caddyshack,” “The Blues Brothers,” “Heavy Metal,” “An American Werewolf in London,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and “My Left Foot.” Of course he also scored “Leonard Part 6” so even the best can’t win them all!

I was thrilled when Martin Scorsese chose Mr. Bernstein to arrange and adapt Bernard Herrmann’s original score from the 1962 version of “Cape Fear” for his 1991 remake. Other memorable credits from the 1990s include “The Grifters,” “The Field,” “The Good Son,” “Devil in a Blue Dress” and “Bringing Out the Dead,” Once again, Mr. Bernstein received a single Oscar nomination during this decade. This time for his score of “The Age of Innocence.”

His last great score was for the 2002 film “Far From Heaven.” From the opening credit sequence “Far From Heaven” harkens back to the great soap operas of the 1950s. Think “Peyton Place.” Mr. Bernstein’s set just the right mood. He received his final Oscar nomination for the film.

The music speaks for itself. His talent was without question. Why else would people like Martin Scoresese, John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Peter Sellers, John Landis, John Sturges, Anthony Mann and others called on Mr. Bernstein repeatedly? Elmer Bernstein was one of the greats.

Reprint courtesy Entertainment Insiders

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