Saturday Cinema

The Movies and the Music: A celebration of Oscar-winning film scores

Lyon National Orchestra performs 'Star Wars' music in concertJEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images

The Movies and the Music: Part One


January 06, 2017
The Movies and the Music: Part Two
by MPR
The Movies and the Music: Part Three
by MPR

Although I seem to have landed the role of "movie music specialist" thanks to Flicks in Five and Saturday Cinema, I've been a plain old dyed-in-the-wool movie buff ever since I can remember. It started when I was five or six and my Dad introduced me to original cast albums of Broadway musicals. Then I saw the movie versions of the musicals, and my love of movies seemed to grow from there. I always wanted to be an actor.

I studied acting at Northwestern University and improv at Second City. After graduation, I'm still not quite sure why I headed west to Los Angeles rather than east to New York, but thanks to some well-connected friends, I found work in films. Bit parts and day-player roles, admittedly — but still, it was exciting for a young kid just out of college.

For example, I spent a few days in a gorgeous Malibu beach house on where I got to meet and work with George Cukor on his last film (Rich and Famous) — and to work Candice Bergen (love her to this day). There was Mommie Dearest with Faye Dunaway. There was S.O.B. with Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews: another location on Malibu Beach, but this time in a fake beach house they blew up at the end of the movie. Cannery Row on location at the Los Angeles harbor with Nick Nolte and Debra Winger (and sharing a dressing room with Debbie Turner, who had played Marta von Trapp in The Sound of Music).

I have great memories — like the time on Mommie Dearest when I discovered the wardrobe that had been assigned to me, a dark blue wool-tailored 1940s business suit, was once worn by Katharine Hepburn. I found her name on a label in the waistband. (Yes, I was that thin in my early twenties! Unlike with Kate, it didn't last.)

I liked having enough grocery money every week, and paying rent without finding day jobs, so when I fell into a radio career by way of an acting class in L.A. in 1984, I never really looked least, not too often. I think it's down to a couple times a week now. I clearly recall working on many locations, backlots and soundstages. The old MGM lot and Warner Brothers were my favorites.

Movies are like magic tricks, and I sincerely believe the magic is lost for the audience if you know how too many of the tricks are done — although in these days of CGI, the old tricks aren't used as much. There's a special, odd, sometimes spooky feeling when you are on a huge, mostly completely dark soundstage. Only the area being filmed is blazing with studio lights that could set fire to anything they touch, including you. (You're warned to not stand too close with any hair product in your "do.")

Compared with the vast breadth and height of the stage itself, the playing area is very small, especially when filming shots of just two or three actors in close conversation, or an intimate scene. The rest of the cavernous stage area not on camera, the unlit part, is a chaotic collection of coats, bags, purses, newspapers, those famous wood-and-canvas director's chairs, lawnchairs the bit players brought from home, unused props, and set pieces and flats that tower up but never quite reach the catwalks high above it all.

In that darkness, the rest of the cast, the stand-ins, the extras, the gaffers and grips, wait and watch, or read a newspaper, peruse the trades or a book, or even knit by the light coming off the scene area. Most have their costumes covered with their own coats or blankets, as it gets pretty chilly the further you are from the lights. The assistant director calls for quiet, slates the scene number, calls for audio speed, camera roll, background action, and then, the director calls action.

If you're waiting for your bit 10 or 12 feet off camera in the half light, you can't even hear the dialogue the actors in the scene are doing. Film acting is so very different from stage acting. It's all done sotto voce, and only the director and sound recordist can hear the words via headsets.

Another thing about the "glamorous life" of filmmaking is that it isn't. Glam, that is. Not for the most part, anyhow. It can be downright tedious. You often get a wardrobe, hair, and makeup call for 5 a.m., you have to be on set by 7, and you still haven't filmed a single shot you're in until late that night. It can get pretty boring, and sometimes infuriating — like if it's Valentine's Day night and you had a date and your workday didn't wrap until 11:45 p.m., but that's another story for another time. I still have a grudge toward Faye Dunaway for that one. Yeah, Faye, I'm talkin' to you!

Still, I have a love affair with movies, and it's been a labor of that love to create for you "The Movies and the Music," a three-part, three-hour overview of the Oscar-winning film scores — from the first, for The Informer in 1935, through Ennio Morricone's sentimental favorite win for The Hateful Eight last year.

"The Movies and the Music" is a collection of the Best Score winners, and a look at how the cultural events of the day — war, peace, protests, youth, the McCarthy Era, women's rights, the Civil Rights movement — all shaped what you saw on screen throughout Hollywood history.

Part One starts with those romantic swashbucklers and tear-jerker Bette Davis romances, Korngold's and Steiner's music in the '30s, to Miklos Rozsa's highly researched, three-hour score for Ben-Hur, which wrapped 1959's Oscars with 11 wins. Part Two takes you through the turbulent '60s, starting with Ernest Gold's score for Otto Preminger's Exodus right up through the '70s and '80s when John Williams and John Barry began their ascendency to Oscar dominance. Finally, Part Three covers the 1990s to the present Academy Awards, including two of the three all-time biggest Oscar winners, James Horner's Titanic and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (a winner for Howard Shore) among the jewels of film scores.

The Oscars have changed dramatically since the first early gatherings of industry elite at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in the 1930s, when the whole deal was over and done in half an hour and you went out to dinner with your friends. Tickets were $5 — about $62.50 in today's cash.

What's the same is the excitement and the anticipation over who will win, the audience of movie fans on Hollywood Boulevard waiting for a glimpse of their favorite stars, and the celebrations with friends and colleagues afterward. Be part of celebration this year with "The Movies and the Music." I hope you'll be there with me for each and every envelope opening.