The Academy has been giving out Oscars for music, in various forms, since 1934. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that the field of film music has been – and largely continues to be – dominated by male composers and songwriters. In 87 years just three women composers have taken home the Oscar for Original Score (or some variant thereof) and there were just five other years where women composers were nominated.
And, fun fact, all but one of the winning/nominated composers are British…
So, which women composers have won an Oscar?
Hildur Guðnadóttir (2019)
While this was the third time a woman composer won an Oscar for original music, Guðnadóttir’s triumph at the 92nd Academy Awards is perhaps more important than you’d think. There was just one scoring prize up for grabs and the composer pipped the likes of John Williams, Alexandre Desplat, Thomas Newman and Randy Newman to the post. She won for Joker, Todd Phillips’s stark psychological drama starring Joaquin Phoenix.
Joker – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (WaterTower Music)
Anne Dudley (1997)
The second woman composer to win an Oscar for original music in as many years, Anne Dudley’s win for The Full Monty was a delightful surprise. During this period, the Academy gave Oscars in two scoring categories. Dudley won for ‘Original Musical or Comedy Score’; the winner for ‘Original Dramatic Score’ that year was James Horner, for Titanic.
The Full Monty – Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack (RCA Victor)
Rachel Portman (1996)
After 52 years, finally a woman composer took home an Oscar for original music. Rachel Portman’s win for Emma was richly deserved. Though she had already forged an acclaimed career on screen by this point, the Oscar-win catapulted Portman to even bigger success and a further two nominations followed. Her win was in the ‘Original Musical or Comedy Score’ category; Gabriel Yared took home the ‘Dramatic Score’ prize for The English Patient.
Which women composers have been nominated for an Oscar?
Mica Levi (2016)
Levi’s scintillating music for Jackie earned the British composer an Oscar nominaton for Best Original Score. She was up against the veteran composer Thomas Newman and a clutch of other bright and exciting new voices in film music – Nicholas Brittell, Hauschka, Dustin O’Halloran and Justin Hurwitz. It was Hurwitz who ultimately won, for the runaway hit, La La Land.
Jackie (Milan Records)
Rachel Portman (1999 & 2000)
Two years after her win for Emma, the Academy dropped the ‘Original Musical or Comedy Score’ category. So her nominations for The Cider House Rules and Chocolat were both for ‘Orignal Score’. She was in the running alongside some titans of film music, including Hans Zimmer, John Williams and Ennio Morricone. In 1999 she was even up against Gabriel Yared again, but it was John Corigliano who won the 1999 Oscar (for The Red Violin) and Tan Dun in 2000 (for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
Chocolat – Music from the Miramax Motion Picture (Sony Classical)
Angela Morley (1974 & 1977)
British composer and conductor Angela Morley earned two nominations in the 1970s for her collaborative work on adapted scores for musicals. With musicals a little more prevalent back then, the Academy gave an award for ‘Best Adapted Score/Original Song Score’. She was first nominated, with composer Douglas Gamley, for her work on Lerner and Loewe’s 1974 musical, The Little Prince. Then in 1977 her sole adaptation of the Sherman Brothers music for The Slipper and the Rose earned her a second nomination.
How many female songwriters have won an Oscar?
Things are a little better with regards the Best Original Song category, though women’s names are few and far between in the early years. Dorothy Fields won for her lyrics in 1936, but there wasn’t another woman in the winners circle until the 1960s, when lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman co-won for ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’ (music by Michel Legrand). They won again in 1973 for Legrand’s song for The Way We Were, memorably sung by Barbra Streisand. Streisand herself won for her original song ‘Evergreen’ (from A Star is Born) a few years later.
The songwriting Oscar winners list features many familiar names, including Carly Simon (Working Girl), Annie Lennox (a joint winner for ‘Into the West’ from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), Adele (Skyfall) and Lady Gaga (jointly for ‘Shallow’ from A Star is Born)
Kristen Anderson-Lopez has won two song Oscars, jointly with her husband Robert. They won in 2013 and 2017 for the songs ‘Let it Go’ (Frozen) and ‘Remember Me’ (Coco).
About Michael Beek
Michael Beek is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He joined the team in May 2018, following ten years as a freelance film music journalist and fifteen years at St George’s Bristol – where he was everything from Box Office Supervisor to the venue’s Content & Engagement Manager. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of Music from the Movies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records. Also a presenter, Michael has hosted concerts and live events for Bristol Film Festival and St George’s Bristol, plus Debbie Wiseman’s ‘Music and Words from Wolf Hall’ at venues across the UK.