Leonard Bernstein, via

In an earlier post, I spoke of the New York Philharmonic and On the Waterfront. Patrons at David Geffen Hall watched Elia Kazan’s classic from 1954 while the orchestra played the score—which is by Leonard Bernstein, the Philharmonic’s own (at least in the orchestra’s conception—and the conception is perfectly understandable).

Bernstein wrote just one movie score: this one. He recalled,

“When I was first shown a rough cut of the picture, I thought it a masterpiece of direction; and Marlon Brando seemed to me to be giving the greatest performance I had ever seen him give, which is saying a good deal. I was swept by my enthusiasm into accepting the commission to write the score, although I had resisted all such offers on the grounds that it is a musically unsatisfactory experience for a composer to write a score whose chief merit ought to be its unobtrusiveness.”

That is a keen, even memorable, observation.

“And so the composer sits by, protesting as he can, but ultimately accepting, be it with heavy heart, the inevitable loss of a good part of his score. Everyone tries to comfort him. ‘You can always use it in a suite.’ Cold comfort. It is for the good of the picture, he repeats numbly to himself.”

Another keen and memorable observation. And Bernstein indeed fashioned a suite out of his score—a symphonic suite. He also fashioned a piece for voice and piano. When you see it cited now, you also see an always-intriguing designation, after the title: “(withdrawn).”

Robert Osborne, a film historian and TV host, introduced the Waterfront evening at Geffen Hall. He said that Bernstein was snubbed by the Oscar people, which may be why he never wrote another movie score. The Philharmonic’s program notes were even more adamant. The non-award to Bernstein was “indefensible,” they said—and those notes also quoted Bernstein:

“I am furious about the Academy Awards. It is obviously politics, and I don’t care, except that it would have jacked up my price for the next picture to double.”

Bernstein, a holy leftist, talking this way? What is he, a grubby capitalist?

The standard line is, “It’s an honor to be nominated.” Bernstein was, in fact, nominated for the Oscar. His fellow nominees included at least two other famous composers: Max Steiner (for The Caine Mutiny) and Franz Waxman (for The Silver Chalice). The winner was Dimitri Tiomkin, for The High and the Mighty.

It’s funny how, even now, people are injured on Bernstein’s behalf. He is kind of a god and mascot of the Philharmonic, and of New York. Elia Kazan is a villain, or at least an equivocal figure, because he testified before HUAC. Bernstein raised funds for the murderers of policemen—“pigs,” in the argot of the day (as in “Off the pig”). But he is Saint Lenny.

If you can survive a critique by Tom Wolfe—“Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s”—you can survive anything.

At any rate, Bernstein was an astounding musician, and the lack of an Oscar is but a pimple on his butt, if that. Moreover, his devotees can remember that Gandhi never won the Nobel Peace Prize.


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