September 3, 2013
The Big Picture: A Night At the Oscars
David Newman conducts the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra by Marilee Bradford
HOLLYWOOD—Nearly 11,000 watched, listened and cheered as David Newman conducted "The Big Picture: A Night at the Oscars" – a two-and-a-half-hour concert of great film music – Sunday night, Sept. 1, at the Hollywood Bowl.
Actress Mary McDonnell hosted the evening. The weather was warm but not oppressive, and the famed outdoor venue blessedly free of errant helicopters and airplanes for nearly the entire night. McDonnell was chosen because of her starring role in Dances With Wolves, one of a dozen films whose music was performed by the 84-member Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Newman conducted all of them "live to picture," meaning the actual film-score excerpts played precisely to the scenes for which they were written. The first-rate script was penned by Jon Burlingame.
As the evening was sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the program began with Jerry Goldsmith's 1997 "Fanfare for Oscar," while the title cards of all 85 Best Picture-winning films played. Newman then segued directly into the Americana-driven overture to How the West Was Won (1962), written by his father, Alfred Newman, performing over a montage of scenes from those 85 films. Film editors Scott Draper and Laura Gibson earned applause for their brilliant editing job, all the excerpts cleverly synchronized with the music.
Host McDonnell (who now stars in TNT's series Major Crimes) pointed out that Alfred had conducted that same piece of music for the first time in public live at the Bowl 50 years ago this month, on Sept. 25, 1963. She went on to say that each selection in the remainder of the program was chosen not just for its music, but for other aspects of filmmaking as well – script, acting, production design, visual effects, etc. – to help "illustrate the collaborative nature of the medium, while also presenting some of the greatest music ever written for movies."
Newman conducted the barrel-chase scene from Jaws (1975) in which Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss first encounter the Great White Shark to the strains of John Williams' Oscar-winning score (the film also won for its editing and sound). Next was an engaging pair of two musical dance clips: The first featured Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron's romantic pas de deux along the banks of the Seine (actually the M-G-M backlot) in Gershwin's "Love Is Here to Stay" from An American in Paris (1951, shot in glorious Technicolor), followed by the energetic Jean Dujardin-Berenice Bejo tap duet to Ludovic Bource's razzmatazz score from The Artist (2011, shot in glorious black-and-white), both films having won Best Picture as well as Oscars for their costume designs and music.
Hugo Friedhofer's Oscar-winning score for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) has been performed in concert only a handful of times, and Sunday night marked the first time that an eight-minute scene had been done "live to picture." Newman chose one of the most powerful and moving from the entire film, as Homer (Harold Russell) introduces his girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) to the daily realities of living with the metal prosthetics that replaced his hands and forearms lost in the war.
Friedhofer's original manuscript could not be found, so orchestrator Ron Goldstein reorchestrated the cue based on a conductor score reduction discovered in Australia plus a careful listening to the original film. Scored mostly for strings and woodwinds, the music underlined the emotions from start to finish. As McDonnell noted in her introduction, the clip offered "a master class in both screenwriting and film scoring."
The evening's longest clip was the climactic action scene from Up (2009), in which elderly Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) manages to rescue his young friend Russell, their dog Dug and the exotic bird Kevin from the mad, dirigible-piloting explorer Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer). Oscar winner Michael Giacchino charted the action and added to the fun with his lively orchestral score, all played with gusto by the Bowl Orchestra.
Concluding the first half was the finale of Casablanca (1942), among the most beloved films of all time. McDonnell noted that it was "the quintessential example of dozens of elements, all coming together to create a magical movie experience... all dovetailed beautifully into a masterpiece of commercial filmmaking.... what Hollywood is all about." Max Steiner's Oscar-nominated score incorporated healthy doses of Herbert Hupfeld's standard "As Time Goes By" (written in 1931 to modest success but made a timeless hit by its use in this film) and the French national anthem "Le Marseillaise."
McDonnell surprised the audience by emerging from the wings after the intermission in her original Dances With Wolves (1990) costume (and getting a laugh from the crowd by noting that, 23 years after making the film, "it still fits!"). She regaled the crowd with anecdotes from the fllming, including the Lakota Sioux extras renaming her "Dust in Her Face" after being left behind during horseback-riding training, and the unforgettable morning when all of the cast came out to witness the buffalo-hunt sequence.
Newman and the Bowl Orchestra played John Barry's "Buffalo Hunt" from Dances, from the original orchestrations by Mark McKenzie (another piece that had not previously been performed live in concert).
McDonnell introduced a 10-minute sequence from Bullitt (1968): It was the legendary car chase, which opens with a four-minute cue from composer Lalo Schifrin – one of the great jazz scores of the 1960s – which has since been extended by bassist-composer John Clayton (and, as of Sunday's performance, further augmented by orchestrator Ron Goldstein to make it "more cinematic"), to cover the action of the entire chase scene.
This was followed by a nine-minute sequence from James Newton Howard's score for King Kong (2005), the Peter Jackson remake. The sequence began with Kong's rampage through the streets of Manhattan, trailing taxi-driving Adrien Brody, until he spots Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and they leave the world behind for just a moment of idyllic play in snow-covered Central Park before their ultimate ascent up the Empire State Building. As McDonnell said, "the visual effects, and this music, make you believe that this monster is real... and that he's not really a monster."
The finale ("some will say we've saved the best for last," McDonnell said) was Elmer Bernstein's poignant music from To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Newman played the final 10 minutes of the score, from the scenes in which the children of small-town Southern lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) are attacked in the woods, we discover who saved them (Robert Duvall as "Boo" Radley) and the film concludes on a quiet, heartfelt moment with Atticus and daughter Scout (Mary Badham). McDonnell spoke of "the profound truths expressed visually, verbally and musically" in this sequence.
The encore was that eternal crowd pleaser now reaching its fourth generation: Judy Garland singing Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg's lullaby of hope, "Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz (1939). The Bowl's "Big Picture" series of film music concerts each Labor Day weekend has become an annual destination for those who especially enjoy hearing movie music played live in the art form's hometown. Many observers felt that Sunday's concert was among the finest film-music programs the Bowl has presented in years.
©2013 Marilee Bradford