Best Oscar Winning/Nominated Original Songs
by Matt Sills
The very deserving “Man or Muppet” won Best Original Song last night at the Oscars. Of course, it didn’t have that much competition. In fact, it only had one competition. You also may have noticed that, unlike previous years, neither nominated song was performed during the ceremony. It’s a rough time for the Best Original Song category as no one really seems to be writing songs strictly for inclusion in movies anymore. I doubt that years from now, we’ll remember either of the songs nominated last night, but I’m here to be positive, so let’s look back at better times, and some of the greatest songs to either win the category or be nominated.
“I’ve Got You Under My Skin” from Born To Dance (Nominated – 1936)
I had never heard of the film Born To Dance before I started writing this article, and the same might have been said for Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, if some guy named Frank Sinatra hadn’t gotten a hold of it. Sinatra first performed the song in 1946, but it was his Nelson Riddle arranged masterpiece on the 1956 album Song For Swingin’ Lovers that turned it into a standard that’s been performed by everyone from disco queen Gloria Gaynor to U2 front man Bono.
“Over The Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz (Winner – 1939)
I’m not a huge fan of The Wizard of Oz (yes, I know I’m the only one), but the power of this song cannot be denied. In the context of the film, it’s a dazzling statement, set against black and white, of a young girl whose desire to find a different life for herself will soon be fulfilled in ways she never imagined. It helps that Judy Garland’s performance is stunning. But the lasting appeal of this song belong to music of Harold Arlen and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, which can be hopeful and sad at the exact same time.
“When You Wish Upon A Star” from Pinocchio (Winner – 1940)
It’s been over 70 years since this song first appeared in Disney’s Pinocchio, and the film studio has released thousands of movies with hundreds of iconic songs. Today, when a new Disney movie is released, THIS is the song you hear over the company’s logo. Enough said.
“The Woody Woodpecker Song” from Wet Blanket Policy (Nominated – 1948)
What the heck, right? I know, I was thinking the same thing. But here it is, Woody Woodpecker’s theme song, with that infectious laugh and everything, nominated for an Oscar. In fact, it has the distinction of being the only nominated song to appear in an animated short film as opposed to a feature length.
“Unchained Melody” from Unchained (Nominated – 1955)
Strange real world connection: “Unchained Melody” was the theme song for the 1955 film Unchained, a prison movie starring former NFL running back Emile “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, who also starred in a 1957 air disaster film called Zero Hour! That film was the basis for one of the greatest comedies of all time, Airplane! Airplane! was co-directed by Jerry Zucker. Zucker would go on to direct the 1989 film Ghost, whose iconic pottery wheel scene included “Unchained Melody”.
“Theme From Shaft” from Shaft (Winner – 1971)
Isaac Hayes’s win for this song included a bunch of firsts: first African-American to win in this category, first African-American to win in a non-acting category, and first winner of best original song to both write and perform the song. It’s also the first and best song to include the question, “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?”
“Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky (Nominated – 1976)
Rocky was the best picture winner in 1976. It catapulted its lead, Sylvester Stallone, to movie star status. Its story line has been copied over and over again. Yet, what’s the thing people remember the most? The theme song. Gonna Fly Now, the theme to the original Rocky film, is one of those songs that transcends the film itself. It’s rare to find someone who hasn’t completed a race or a homework assignment or a chore, raised their arms in the air, and hummed this song.
“Blaze of Glory” from Young Guns II (Nominated – 1990)
The winner in 1990 was some horrible Madonna song from Dick Tracy, and the other three nominees were just as easily forgotten. Back then, you would have figured Jon Bon Jovi’s song from Young Guns II would have disappeared as well. But here we are, over 20 years later, and I defy you to go to a karaoke bar on a Friday night and NOT hear this song. In fact, I bet someone somewhere is singing it full blast into a hairbrush right now.
“Streets of Philadelphia” from Philadelphia (Winner – 1993)
In the 1990s, Disney dominated this category, winning seven times. The other three were some song from The Prince of Egypt that I couldn’t remember if my life depended on it, some song from a movie about a big boat that hits an iceberg, and this song. This song, one of Springsteen’s best, lyrically and musically reflected the sadness and hope of the film, and was well deserving of the Oscar. Unfortunately, the Academy later would overlook Bruce for another great song, “The Wrestler”.
“It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” from Hustle & Flow (Winner – 2005)
I could have gone with Eminem’s win for Lose Yourself a few years earlier, but this one was a much bigger surprise, and a lot more fun. Seeing the mostly white, older Academy members honoring Three 6 Mafia, a mostly unknown, underground hip hop group until that point, was one of the more surreal moments in Oscar history. While it was well deserved, it was a riskier moment for a ceremony, and organization, that takes itself way too seriously most of the time.