For the first time ever, the Academy recognized only two movie tunes as Oscar-worthy. What gives?

By Clark Collis
January 27, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

There’s one thing that’s even less easy than being green: being nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar. For the first time in the history of the Academy Awards, only two tunes made the cut this year: ”Man or Muppet” from The Muppets and the Rio track ”Real in Rio.” ”I thought it was going to be more songs,” says legendary Brazilian musician Sergio Mendes, who co-wrote the Rio tune. ”On the other hand, I’m glad it’s just two!” The two-tune showdown certainly increases his odds against Flight of the Conchords member Bret McKenzie, who penned ”Man or Muppet.”

But the paucity of nominees demonstrates the continued slide for a category that was once chock-full of familiar pop hits like ”Over the Rainbow,” ”Footloose,” and ”My Heart Will Go On.” After several years of weak and obscure song nominees, the Academy’s music branch introduced a rule change in 2009 demanding that tunes receive an average score of 8.25 or higher (out of 10) from branch members to earn a nod. And if just one song hits the 8.25 mark, the track with the next-highest score gets a nomination. This year, it’s entirely possible that musicians in the Academy thought only one song was good enough for recognition.

That’s bad news for Golden Globe nominees like Elton John’s ”Hello Hello” from Gnomeo & Juliet and the Albert Nobbs tune ”Lay Your Head Down,” which was co-penned by Glenn Close. The actress admits she was surprised by the omission: ”People in the songwriting world had been really complimentary about it.” Meanwhile, Madonna’s Globe-winning W.E. song, ”Masterpiece,” was not submitted (it appears too late in the film’s final credits to be eligible).

The result is a two-horse race — or a bird-vs.-Muppet race, anyway. Whether that’s a damning indictment of today’s movie tunesmiths or of the music branch’s rules is a matter of debate. But McKenzie is both thrilled to be nominated and happy the competition is so limited. ”It’s barely a list,” says the New Zealand native. ”It looks like there’s been some sort of mistake. But I’ve got a 50 percent chance!”