Oscar-winning composer Elmer Bernstein dies
At a key moment in ”Fahrenheit 9/11,” the familiar theme music to ”The Magnificent Seven” plays and generates a laugh of recognition. Elmer Bernstein, the Oscar-winning composer who wrote that music, along with the similarly memorable scores for ”The Ten Commandments,” ”To Kill a Mockingbird,” ”The Great Escape,” ”National Lampoon’s Animal House,” and about 250 other movies and TV shows, died Wednesday at his home in Ojai, Calif., according to wire service reports. He was 82 and died in his sleep after a long illness, his spokesperson said.
Bernstein’s career stretched over more than 50 years, from the 1951 movie ”Saturday’s Hero” to 2002’s ”Far From Heaven,” which earned him his 14th Oscar nomination. His career was nearly nipped in the bud by the Hollywood blacklist — he had written music reviews for a Communist newspaper — and he was reduced to scoring sci-fi cheapies. He was restored to Hollywood’s good graces by rock-ribbed anti-Communist Cecil B. DeMille, who hired him to replace the ailing Victor Young as composer for 1956’s ”Ten Commandments.” After that score, which earned him his first Oscar nomination, he worked steadily for the next half century, earning an Emmy in 1964 for ”The Making of the President, 1960” and an Oscar for 1967’s ”Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
Bernstein was eclectic, composing music for films in many genres. His score for 1955’s ”The Man With the Golden Arm” was one of the first to use a jazz band instead of a traditional orchestra. He wrote majestic themes for war movies and Westerns (like ”Magnificent Seven,” which showed the influence of Bernstein’s mentor, Aaron Copland) as well as the childlike piano-and-flute theme of ”Mockingbird.” In the 1970s and ’80s, he scored numerous comedies, including ”Animal House,” ”Airplane!”, ”Stripes,” ”Trading Places,” and ”Ghostbusters.” The ’90s saw him score several Martin Scorsese movies, including ”The Age of Innocence” and ”Cape Fear.”
His last few years saw him working with directors many decades younger, like Edward Norton (”Keeping the Faith”) and Todd Haynes (”Far From Heaven”). ”Certain young directors are intimidated by my experience,” he told EW last year. ”Others are willing to listen to me.” As for how he was able score such a diverse set of movies, he said it was simple. ”You look at the film, then you have conversations with the filmmaker,” he said. And then, ”you hope some inspiration happens.”