Elmer Bernstein, Film Composer, Dead at 82
LOS ANGELES – Film composer Elmer Bernstein, who created a brawny, big-sky theme for “The Magnificent Seven,” nerve-jangling jazz for “The Man With The Golden Arm” and heart-rending grace notes for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has died.
Bernstein, whose prolific career spanned seven decades and earned him 14 Academy Award nominations, an Oscar win and an Emmy Award, died in his sleep at his Ojai home Wednesday, said his publicist, Cathy Mouton. He was 82.
Although he won an Oscar only once for the 1967 film “Thoroughly Modern Millie” ó considered one of his weaker works ó Bernstein was revered for experimenting with various techniques that bolstered the films.
“It’s one thing to write music that reinforces a film, underscores it ó the traditional sense of stressing, underlining ó or gives it added dramatic muscle,” director Martin Scorsese once said. “It’s entirely another to write music that graces a film. That’s what Elmer Bernstein does, and that, for me, is his greatest gift.”
Among his more notable efforts were the scores for “Some Came Running,” “Birdman of Alcatraz,” “The Great Escape,” “Hawaii,” “The Great Santini,” “Cast a Giant Shadow,” “My Left Foot,” “A River Runs Through It,” “Devil in a Blue Dress” and “The Age of Innocence.” He also composed several works for symphony orchestras.
In addition, he scored such movie classics as “The Ten Commandments,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Great Escape” and “True Grit.” Other credits included “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “Airplane!,” “Stripes,” “Meatballs,” “Ghostbusters,” “Trading Places” and “The Rainmaker.”
“Film music, properly done, should give the film a kind of emotional rail on which to ride,” Bernstein told The Associated Press in a 2001 interview. “Without even realizing that you’re listening to music that’s doing something to your emotions, you will have an emotional experience.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” presented Bernstein quite a challenge. For six weeks he could find no way to approach the story, which concerned racism and the Depression in a small Southern town.
“Then I realized that the film was about these issues but seen through the eyes of children,” he once recalled. “The simple score was played by a small ensemble, at times employing single piano notes, much like a child picking out a tune.”
For “The Man with the Golden Arm,” in which Frank Sinatra played a heroin-addicted jazz musician, he discarded the studio orchestra for a jazz ensemble. For the landmark western “The Magnificent Seven,” Bernstein composed a galloping march that remained famous for years afterward in TV ads for Marlboro cigarettes.
A piano prodigy who studied composing under Aaron Copland in New York, Bernstein moved to Hollywood in 1950 to work on his first movie score, for the football film “Saturday’s Hero.” After a few more routine assignments he made his mark with the moody music for the Joan Crawford thriller “Sudden Fear.”
Although both hailed from New York, he was no relation to the legendary composer Leonard Bernstein.
“That’s a common question,” Mouton said. “They were friends and fellow New Yorkers, but they were not related in any way.”
A supporter of left-wing causes, Bernstein’s career was nearly destroyed by the Hollywood Red Hunt of the 1950s when he was summoned before a congressional subcommittee and told to identify communists in the film industry. He refused, saying he’d never attended a Communist party meeting.
“I wasn’t important enough to be blacklisted, so I was put on a gray list,” he once said.
Still, major studios refused to hire him, and he resorted to turning out music for low-budget films like “Robot Monster” and “Cat Women of the Moon.”
Ironically, it was the vocally anti-communist director Cecil B. De Mille who broke the gray list by hiring Bernstein to replace the ailing Victor Young on “The Ten Commandments.”
De Mille asked him, “Do you think you can do for Egyptian music what Puccini did for Japanese music in `Madame Butterfly’?” The young composer accepted the challenge, earning the first of his 14 Oscar nominations in the process.
Through 200 movies and 80 television shows, Bernstein would prove that he could adapt to any kind of music. He won an Emmy Award in 1964 for “The Making of The President: 1960.”
He is survived by his wife, Eve, sons Peter and Gregory, daughters Emilie and Elizabeth, and five grandchildren.
A memorial service is pending.
Elmer Bernstein, Film Composer, Dead at 82