This year's Best Original Score category is especially fierce—with three previous winners, one regular nominee, and one newcomer, it's anybody's guess as to who is going to win. But with the winner set to be announced this Sunday at the 92nd Academy Awards, let's take a look (and listen) through all of the nominees, and see which scores have the best chance of taking Oscar gold.
It's hard to see any composer more suitable for Greta Gerwig's adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women than Alexandre Desplat, whose waltzing and whirling has not only allowed him burrow his way into many people's hearts, but has also delivered him two previous Oscars (for "The Grand Budapest Hotel" in 2015 and "The Shape of Water" in 2017"). Desplat's score is mesmerizing if exhausting at times, with fascinating color coming from the composer's deliberate stripped-down palette to evoke America in the 1860s. It manages to keep up with the film's time-jumping exceedingly well and doesn't sacrifice emotional content in the process, although it might have helped the coherency a little more if Gerwig had asked Desplat to connect the sequences with a stronger thematic emphasis.
Nevertheless, Desplat's theme work is strong when it comes to Jo and her writing, with a driving six-note piece that conveys Jo's passion for her prose. Desplat has said that his score is a ballet of sorts and it's hard to disagree, especially as his writing is so uniquely suited to that. However, his music is often played at a frenzy, with lively cues coming across almost as scherzos, reminiscent of another brilliant score for an adaptation of a classic novel, John Williams' "Jane Eyre." But despite its obvious quality, it's not difficult to imagine "Little Women" missing out. Two awards in the last five years may be seen as enough for Desplat, especially as there are few moments in the film where the score is allowed to tell the story on its own. I certainly wouldn't begrudge this lovely score an award, however.
"Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker"
And, of course, there is John Williams himself. 87 years old with five Oscars under his belt, not to mention fifty-two nominations, the composer has just completed his multi-decade journey providing music for the "Star Wars" saga. 46 of those were for original score, with six nominations for movies in George Lucas' franchise—1977's "Star Wars" won the Oscar in 1978, and his latest nomination is for the ninth and climactic episode of the series, "The Rise of Skywalker". No composer in Hollywood has ever created a musical body of this magnitude, and such thematic and stylistic coherence being rewarded is perhaps a lesson to executives at Marvel and DC, whose modernistic scores are considered by many to be sonic wallpaper -Ludwig Göransson's "Black Panther" did indeed win the Oscar last February, however that was the exception, not the rule, and it's no coincidence that Göransson later worked for Lucasfilm, scoring the television series "The Mandalorian".
One thought behind a potential win for "The Rise of Skywalker" is that the significance of it being Williams' final "Star Wars" score may generate a sentimental vote for the composer. A similar notion was believed by many to be behind Ennio Morricone's 2016 win for "The Hateful Eight," which would potentially have been his last chance to win a statuette. But taken on its own merits, Williams has still written a marvelous score for "The Rise of Skywalker" which, frankly, does a lot to uphold a fairly mediocre film, and has saved one of his best themes for last with a stirring "Victory" motif for the Resistance that has a nostalgic feel with a trace of the bittersweet. Some have mentioned its eligibility regarding the appearance of many themes from earlier in the saga, and while it may seem that a lot is re-used considering some of the placements of themes for characters such as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, over eighty percent of the score is newly composed music. The Academy has been somewhat inconsistent on this matter in previous times, notably in 2003 when Howard Shore's "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" was disqualified, only for "The Return of the King" to win the following year. While everyone believes the category to be cut and dry in favor of "Joker," Williams may yet prove to be a dark horse.
To modern audiences, Randy Newman may appear to be somewhat of an odd choice. Known primarily nowadays as "that Pixar guy" from the legion of pictures he's scored from the animated film studio, including all four "Toy Story" installments, "Monsters, Inc.", and "Cars"—indeed his two Oscar wins have come from songs from Pixar movies—some today might be unaware of his Oscar-nominated scores for movies like baseball classic "The Natural" and Miloš Forman's "Ragtime," but you can bet voters aren't. To add to that, his score for Noah Baumbach's "Marriage Story" is terrific and turns heads in just the right way.
There's a Gershwin-esque playfulness about the way Newman begins his score, with the two montages describing the central characters of Charlie and Nicole; Nicole's feels warmer and kinder, while Charlie's is more melancholy and single-minded, like autumn to Nicole's spring. It's a show-stopping way to open both the film and score, foretelling not only the mood of the film but also the role intimacy plays, with everything eventually being blown wide open for everyone to see. Newman deliberately chose a small chamber orchestra, with most of the instruments in pairs, and it pays off in spades. It's not showy in the slightest, but it's heartfelt and essential and completely inevitable—you can hum along with much of it without knowing the music. "Marriage Story" is not only brilliant, but it's also an antidote to many of the brash scores blockbuster scores that often dominate film music discussion, so don't be surprised if Newman does indeed make it to the podium.
By far the favorite for the Oscar, Hildur Guðnadóttir's score for the Joaquin Phoenix-Todd Phillips interpretation of Batman villain "Joker" is conspicuous by the way it elevates the film to a point where only Phoenix's performance and the music are in focus; the remaining disparate elements are not nearly as interesting or visceral. A colleague and friend of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, Guðnadóttir has retained not only the spirit of his music but also in picking unique projects, with her music for the television series "Chernobyl" gaining plaudits and winning an Emmy not only for the score but the innovative way it was constructed using samples of sound from inside an actual nuclear power plant.
"Joker" has been compared to Bernard Herrmann's score for "Taxi Driver," not least because of the similarities between the film and Martin Scorsese's films, but there is a kinship in the way they both inhabit and drive their main characters. The most-lauded scene in "Joker" is what has become known as the bathroom dance, where Phoenix's Arthur undergoes his metamorphosis into the clown prince of crime. The music for the sequence was written before production began, with Guðnadóttir sending the music to Phillips who then played it on set as inspiration and rhythm for Phoenix, much like Sergio Leone played Ennio Morricone's music while shooting his spaghetti westerns. The result is perhaps the most extraordinary moment in the picture, with Guðnadóttir's brooding tones expanding around him, cementing his transformation and elevating the stakes, all through two minutes of score.
One mark against a win might be how voters perceive the use of songs in the film, including an ill-fitting and ill-judged use of Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2." But Guðnadóttir has already picked up awards for the score from the Golden Globes, the Critics' Choice Awards, and the Hollywood Critics Association, so it's easy to see why most have their bets placed with "Joker". It's also the opportunity for a historic moment, with Guðnadóttir potentially the first female composer to win the combined category—two previous wins for Rachel Portman's "Emma" and Anne Dudley's "The Full Monty" scores came in years where the category was split between Original Comedy or Musical Score and Original Drama score. But make no mistake, if she does win for "Joker," there's no question that she won't have deserved it.
And there we have Thomas Newman, the perennial category bridesmaid. A big part of the film music dynasty that began with father Alfred Newman (who himself won nine Oscars), went on with uncles Lionel and Emil, and today continues with brother David (currently adapting Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" for Steven Spielberg) and sister Maria, who composes classical music—for those wondering, Randy is a cousin. Amazingly, "1917" is his 15th nomination, 14 of which have been for scoring—the other was for best original song in 2008 for "Down To Earth" from "Wall-E"—and among those are several collaborations with "1917" director Sam Mendes, including "American Beauty," "Road To Perdition," and Bond film "Skyfall." However, "1917" just might be his best chance yet.
Given the narrative device Mendes uses in "1917," where several shots are stitched together to give the illusion of one continuous take, Newman may have the most important role of any of the composers here: the responsibility of supporting the immersion of the audience into the film. While the best score is often described as that which is not heard, what is meant in actuality is that the music must be deemed such a critical part of the film by the audience that it seems created by the world of the film itself, as natural as weather. As the score is the emotional link between the picture and the audience it must do the heavy lifting, especially when the film is set in the trenches of World War I, which would barely fit a quartet, let alone a whole orchestra. I'd be lying if I said the score was completely immersive, but it's remarkably subtle in places. It's also surprisingly modernistic, with some electronic colors, and in places it's almost dissociative. Newman has said he tried to not score the action but the landscapes, with the score's constant low-key tension erupting into orchestral theatrics when we arrive at the beautifully-lit ruins of Écoust-Saint-Mein.
This, however, does create a strange sense of discontinuity. The other issue that might put voters off is a strange lack of genuine emotion in the last act of the film, especially in the big scene with the soldiers making the push as Schofield runs through. It should be stirring and dangerous and it should be full of the courage and determination of heart he has, but it leaves you strangely detached, and somewhat self-conscious. The final scenes are slightly more successful in supplying an emotional conclusion, but as a complete experience, it feels like it falls short. The upside is that the soundtrack on its own allows some of the grander pieces to breathe, but it then falls to see how many members will listen to the album. Of all the nominees, "1917" is the weakest score, but you do get the impression that Newman is due.