How Do Songs Qualify for the Oscar for Best Song?
The Academy Award for Best Original Song is one of the catchiest and most beloved Oscar categories. It also has a long history—the Oscar for Best Original Song was introduced less than a decade after the first “talking” picture was released (1927’s The Jazz Singer).
What many Oscar viewers don’t know is that the criteria for eligibility is strictly defined by the Academy’s rules. These rules explain why songs from 2021’s Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody were ineligible for consideration, while “Shallow,” from the 2021 remake A Star is Born, received the award.
- The Academy Award for Best Song was first presented at the 7th Academy Awards in 1935.
- Since 1943, a song must be specifically written for a movie to be considered for a nomination.
- The award is presented to the composers and/or songwriters of the winning song.
History of the Category
The Best Original Song category has transformed over the years. Its first incarnation, the Academy Award for Best Song, was first awarded in 1935 at the 7th Academy Awards. The category was not created to recognize an original song. It could be awarded to any song in a movie, regardless of whether it was created specifically for the movie.
The category changed after “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” a song by Jerome Kern (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics), won Best Song at the 14th Academy Awards in 1942. The song was featured in the movie musical Lady Be Good (1941), but it had not been written for the film. In fact, “The Last Time I Saw Paris” was a top ten hit for the American singer Kate Smith in late 1940, almost a year before Lady Be Good was released.
Even though he won an Oscar for the song, Jerome Kern felt it was unfair that he was awarded for a song not written specifically for a movie. He petitioned the Academy to change the rules. The first song to win under the new rules was “White Christmas,” written by Irving Berlin, at the 15th Academy Awards.
Requirements and Eligibility
Currently, the Academy rules for the category define an “original song” as “[consisting] of words and music, both of which are original and written specifically for the motion picture.” (This in-text emphasis appears in the official Academy rules.) The rules go on to provide further clarification, stating that “the work must be recorded for use in the motion picture prior to any other usage, including public performance or exploitation through any media whatsoever.” In addition, a song is also deemed ineligible if it samples a previously-recorded track.
These rules sometimes lead to exclusions that surprise filmgoers. For example, the song “Ashes,” which debuted in 2021’s Deadpool 2, was ineligible for an Academy Award because the song had been written prior to the film’s production. (“Ashes” was performed by Celine Dion, who also performed the Academy Award-winning song “My Heart Will Go On” from 1997’s Titanic.)
Because of the Academy’s rules about original songs, movie adaptations of popular musicals often feature a newly-composed song for Oscar consideration. For example, when the 1996 film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1976 concept album and 1978 musical Evita was in production, Webber and Rice wrote a new song for the film, “You Must Love Me,” which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song at the 69th Annual Academy Awards. Chicago (2002), The Phantom of the Opera (2004), Dreamgirls (2006), Nine (2009), and Les Misérables (2012) are other examples of stage musicals that feature at least one new original song that was nominated for an Oscar.
The only individuals eligible to be nominated in this category are the composers and/or songwriters of the song. Performers, producers, music supervisors, and arrangers are specifically not included unless they also contributed significantly to the songwriting or composing. For example, when the aforementioned “My Heart Will Go On” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, the Oscar statuette was awarded to songwriters James Horner (music) and Will Jennings (lyrics), not performer Celine Dion. On the other hand, Bob Dylan was awarded the Academy Award for Best Original Song for 2000’s Wonder Boys at the 73rd Academy Awards as both the songwriter and performer of the song.
The official Academy rules state that in normal circumstances, only two songwriters can be named on a nomination, and both will receive Oscar statuettes if they win. However, there are provisions (referred to as “very rare and extraordinary circumstance”) where up to four songwriters can be named and awarded statuettes. On the other hand, an “established musical group” may be listed under the group name and receive only one statue regardless of number of group members. For example, rock band U2 was nominated for the song “The Hands That Built America” for 2002’s Gangs of New York; the nomination listed them as “U2” rather than as individual group members.
The Academy also has another original song award: Academy Award for Best Original Musical, given to films that feature “not fewer than five original songs” by the same writing team. However, this award has been inactive for over thirty years due to the low number of eligible films year-to-year. The last film to win this award (when it was then-known as the Academy Award for Best Original Song Score) was 1984’s Purple Rain.
Narrowing the Field
Originally, the number of nominees for Best Song was not limited. Before the rule was changed for the 19th Academy Awards, it was not uncommon for eight to 12 songs to be nominated. From 1946 to 2011, the Music Branch of the Academy used a point ranking system that would produce a maximum of five nominees if films reached a certain threshold of points. These rules were revised after the 84th Academy Awards in 2012, when only two songs received enough points to be nominated.
Currently, the Music Branch of the Academy votes on all eligible songs to produce a 15-song shortlist. A second round of voting reduces the shortlist down to the five Oscar nominees. There are also rules in place to limit the number of nominees to three or even zero if fewer than 26 songs are initially submitted for consideration.
Iconic American songwriter Sammy Cahn holds the record for the most nominations for Best Original Song (26). He is tied with Johnny Mercer, Jimmy Van Heusen, and Alan Menken for most Best Song Oscar wins (four). Mercer received 18 nominations, and Paul Francis Webster received 16 nominations (with three wins). Alan and Marilyn Bergman, a husband-and-wife lyricist team, have received 15 nominations (with two wins), and Van Heusen and Menken are tied for fifth place with 14 nominations each.
The first female winner was lyricist Dorothy Fields, who won for “The Way You Look Tonight” from Swing Time (1936). A year earlier, she became the first female nominee in the category for “Lovely to Look At” from Roberta (1935).
Singer-songwriter Randy Newman received a combined 15 unsuccessful nominations in both the Original Song and Original Score categories. Newman finally broke the losing streak—one of the longest in Oscar history—when he won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for “If I Didn’t Have You” from 2002’s Monsters, Inc. He won a second Oscar for Best Original Song for “We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3 (2011).