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Thursday, September 16, 2004

AP: Film Composer Elmer Bernstein Dies at 82

Entertainment - AP Music
Film Composer Elmer Bernstein Dies at 82

By BOB THOMAS, Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES - 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.

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AP Video Elmer Bernstein, Film Composer, Dead at 82
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Bernstein, whose prolific career spanned seven decades and earned him 14 Academy Award nominations, an Oscar win 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 afterward in TV ads for Marlboro cigarettes.

A piano prodigy who studied composing under Aaron Copland in New York, Bernstein moved to Hollywood in 1950 to work on his first movie score, for the football film "Saturday's Hero." After a few more routine assignments he made his mark with the moody music for the Joan Crawford thriller "Sudden Fear."

Although he was friendly with composer Leonard Bernstein, the two were no relation, Mouton said.

A supporter of left-wing causes, Elmer Bernstein nearly lost his career in the Hollywood Red Hunt of the 1950s when he was summoned before a congressional subcommittee and told to identify communists in the film industry. He refused, saying he'd never attended a Communist party meeting.

"I wasn't important enough to be blacklisted, so I was put on a gray list," he once said.

Major studios refused to hire him, and he resorted to turning out music for low-budget films like "Robot Monster" and "Cat Women of the Moon."

Ironically, it was the vocally anti-communist director Cecil B. De Mille who finally hired Bernstein to replace the ailing Victor Young on "The Ten Commandments."

De Mille asked him, "Do you think you can do for Egyptian music what Puccini did for Japanese music in `Madame Butterfly'?" The young composer accepted the challenge.

Through 200 movies and 80 television shows, Bernstein would prove that he could adapt to any kind of music. He won an Emmy Award in 1964 for "The Making of The President: 1960."

He is survived by his wife, Eve; sons Peter and Gregory; daughters Emilie and Elizabeth; and five grandchildren.


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