Film composer Bernstein dies

Friday, August 20, 2004

— 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 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" -- considered one of his weaker works -- 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 -- the traditional sense of stressing, underlining -- 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 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" 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" and "True Grit," not to mention comedies like "National Lampoon's Animal House," "Airplane!" and "Ghostbusters."

"Film music, properly done, should give the film a kind of emotional rail on which to ride," Bernstein told The Associated Press in 2001. "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 a challenge. For six weeks he could find no way to approach the story of 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 in ads for Marlboro cigarettes.

Survivors include wife Eve; sons Peter and Gregory; daughters Emilie and Elizabeth; and five grandchildren.