Print this article
August 19, 2004
Elmer Bernstein Dead at 82
Prolific composer of To Kill a Mockingbird, The Magnificent Seven, The Ten Commandments brought diversity, integrity to the art of film scoring
by Jon Burlingame
Over half a century in films, Bernstein wrote more than 150 original movie scores and another 80 or so for television. That he won one Oscar (for 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie ) and received 13 other Academy Award nominations doesn't begin to describe the impact that his music had on Hollywood, and on generations of filmgoers, for he created several truly classic movie themes:
Film buffs will recognize even more, from the lush music of Hawaii (1966) to the offbeat noir score of The Grifters (1990), the so-serious-it's-funny music of National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) and a pair of his television themes: the National Geographic fanfare or the evocative melody of Hollywood and the Stars.
Born in New York of Ukrainian immigrant parents on April 4, 1922, he was originally destined for a career in classical music. As a young pianist, he gave his first concert at the age of 15 in New York's Steinway Hall. Encouraged by Aaron Copland, he undertook composition studies with several important teachers including Roger Sessions and Stefan Wolpe.
World War II intervened, and the young composer got his first taste of writing music for drama by working on radio shows in the Army Air Force. After the war, he returned to the highbrow world of classical piano but continued to dabble in radio scoring for the United Nations and producers like Norman Corwin.
His break came in 1950 when writer Millard Lampell, an old service buddy, convinced producer Sidney Buchman to hire the novice composer on a football movie he had written called Saturday's Hero. It was scored at Columbia, which released the film in 1951.
The next year, his music for the Joan Crawford thriller Sudden Fear attracted critical attention, but by 1953 he was virtually unemployable, reduced to doing pictures like Robot Monster and Cat Women of the Moon.
Bernstein soon learned that he had been "graylisted" for his involvement with left-wing causes, and although he had not been a member of the Communist Party, he had written music reviews for the Daily Worker in the late '40s. He wound up working as a rehearsal pianist for the ballet sequences in the film version of Oklahoma! and working with Danny Kaye's wife Sylvia Fine, jotting down her tunes for The Court Jester at Paramount.
A Paramount music executive took pity on Bernstein and introduced him to De Mille, who was then shooting The Ten Commandments and needed ancient-sounding music for dances. Bernstein, in 2001, recalled the legendary director's first question to the then 32-year-old composer: "Do you think you could do for ancient Egyptian music what Puccini did for Japanese music in Madame Butterfly?"
Bernstein thought that if he had replied "yes," he would have been fired. "I think I gave him the only answer that would have kept me there. I said, 'I don't know, but I'd like to try.' "Bernstein wrote all of the "source"music, the colorful songs and dances that were featured throughout the Biblical epic. And when Victor Young, who had originally been signed to write the dramatic music, dropped out due to ill health, DeMille assigned Bernstein to replace him.
The Ten Commandments and the groundbreaking jazz score for The Man With the Golden Arm also written during the year and a half he spent on the DeMille film catapulted Bernstein onto the "A"list of Hollywood composers. Golden Arm won him his first Oscar nomination and launched a series of jazz-oriented Bernstein scores including Sweet Smell of Success, The Rat Race, TV's Staccato and Walk on the Wild Side.
The jazz scores, plus the spate of Westerns and dramas that would dominate the composer's work throughout the '60s, helped to solidify his reputation as a master of musical Americana. The robust, exciting music of The Magnificent Seven brought another Oscar nomination and offers to do Westerns of all kinds including seven John Wayne films, among them The Comancheros (1961), True Grit (1969) and The Shootist (1976).
"I really loved the Westerns," said Bernstein. "They were fun to do because they addressed themselves to a particular kind of Americana which started with Aaron [Copland]. Also, in my early years I spent a lot of time with American folk music. It was like discovering a magic world. I think a lot of that stuck with me; it was part of my musical heritage."
To Kill a Mockingbird remained a special memory. A recognized classic about racial prejudice in the small-town South of the '30s, it won 1962 Oscars for Gregory Peck and screenwriter Horton Foote. Its understated music, often for chamber-sized ensembles instead of traditional full orchestra, has become a model for film composers ever since.
It wasn't easily arrived at, however. "It took me weeks and weeks," Bernstein confessed. "After the longest period of time, it came to me that what was going on here were a series of real-world adult problems seen through the eyes of children. That led me to the basic sound of the score: The piano being played one note at a time, something kids do all the time. Music-box type sounds, bells, harps, single-note flutes, were all things that suggested a child's world."
Even Peck remained in awe of the score. "The music that so moved us on first hearing, and haunts us today, is a work of the purest imagination," he said in 2001. "It is the ultimate in film music: it fits and it is inspired."
Bernstein's career took a strange turn in the '70, thanks to a call from his son Peter's old school chum, John Landis. Landis, then 27 and a film director, asked Bernstein to score his raucous college comedy Animal House starring John Belushi.
"Elmer thought I was nuts," Landis recalled. "I wanted the score to be essentially a straight one, and a dramatic one. When I showed him the movie and discussed what I wanted, he understood, and he did it brilliantly. There are comedic things in the score, but essentially he scored it as if it was a serious narrative." And, he notes with pride, "that's an extremely influential score."
Almost overnight, Bernstein became THE comedy composer in town. For the next decade, he was largely typecast in that role, doing Airplane! and many of the Saturday Night Live alumni movies including Bill Murray in Stripes, Dan Aykroyd and Murray in Ghostbusters and Steve Martin and Chevy Chase in Three Amigos!
The Aykroyd-Belushi The Blues Brothers, directed by Landis, is scored almost entirely with traditional rhythm and blues songs. "Except," Landis said, "at one moment I needed God to touch John Belushi. And I thought, God music, hmmmm.... Elmer Bernstein! So Elmer did a little piece of music which is used all the time, by the way, as a library cue."
Landis also talked Bernstein into adapting Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro as the score for Trading Places, and Bernstein received a 1983 Oscar nomination for it. Music for smaller, well-crafted dramas like My Left Foot (1989) and Rambling Rose (1991), and the Scorsese films, shifted the balance once again for the composer.
Scorsese, in his role as co-producer of The Grifters, hired Bernstein to score the con-artist movie in part because of the composer's seminal jazz scores of the '50s and early '60s, music that reflected "the emotional temperature of America at the time," he said.
For Scorsese, Bernstein's connection to Old Hollywood was a key to their ongoing collaboration. "He is certainly one of the great cinema composers of all time," the director said in 2001, while the two were still toiling on Gangs of New York (which Scorsese ultimately threw out). "The width and breadth of the work, the amount of work, shows a range that is quite unique. He isn't noted for just one thing, you see. It's an honor to work with him, because I admire not only his artistry but his history and his knowledge. If I mention some film made in the 1930s or '40s, he knows the film, he knew the people, how they worked and what they did."
Bernstein adapted Bernard Herrmann's 1962 Cape Fear score for Scorsese's 1991 remake; received an Oscar nomination for the elegant music of the director's The Age of Innocence in 1993; and provided the musical atmosphere for his Bringing Out the Dead in 1999.
In person, Bernstein was friendly and erudite, thoughtful and surprisingly optimistic, especially for someone who had been knocking around show biz for over 50 years. Actor Edward Norton, who hired Bernstein for his first film as a director (Keeping the Faith), said "he is one of the most vibrant people I've worked with. It's his very youthful enthusiasm that makes it so invigorating to work with him. He brings the full depth of his classical training and classic Hollywood experience to the table but he brings with it the energy of a 28-year-old."
It's energy that Bernstein applied, with varying degrees of success, in different arenas over the years. He composed for Broadway and had two Tony nominations to show for it: 1968's How Now, Dow Jones and 1983's Merlin. He won an Emmy for The Making of the President 1960 and penned such classic TV themes as Riverboat, The Rookies and Ellery Queen. And he recently returned to his classical roots, writing a guitar concerto for Christopher Parkening.
He often took on a leadership role, including stints as vice president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, president of the Young Musicians Foundation, president of The Film Music Society and, most significantly, a decade-long tenure as president of the now-defunct Composers and Lyricists Guild of America where he fought a lengthy, expensive and ultimately futile battle against the studios that would have allowed composers to regain the rights to their music for movies and TV.
Film music fans remember with great fondness Elmer Bernstein's Film Music Collection: A series of 14 LPs (now highly prized by collectors) of previously unrecorded film scores by the greats, including Herrmann's Torn Curtain, Alfred Newman's Wuthering Heights and Alex North's Viva Zapata. Bernstein conducted them all in London at a personal cost of $50,000 a year back in the mid-'70s; ultimately the project's deficits drove him out of business.
Bernstein enjoyed "being the magician, the person who can manipulate the emotions of the audience, unbeknownst to them." He never retired and had only recently moved from Santa Barbara to Ojai (with additional homes in Woodstock, N.Y., and Warwick, England).
Asked about surviving the changes in films and filmmaking over the years, Bernstein said, "It doesn't feel like 50 years." He acknowledged, however, that versatility was a big factor in his longevity scoring a historical epic one month, tackling a western the next, then an intimate drama. "I think I have demonstrated an enthusiasm for change, and that's fairly infectious," he added. "I would hope that some of the energy and joy that exists in some of the work would communicate years and years from now."
Reflecting on his career, Bernstein said: "I can say that I can't think of anything else that I'd have rather done with my life. I think I made a difference. It is an amazing human privilege to look back at your life and simply to be able to say that you had some part in making millions and millions of people feel better, two hours at a time."
Survivors include Bernstein's wife Eve; children Peter, Gregory, Emilie and Elizabeth; and five grandchildren. A memorial service is in the planning stages.
This remembrance was adapted from the author's profile of Elmer Bernstein, published in the Los Angeles Times on November 8, 2001.
© 2004 Jon Burlingame