Marvin Hamlisch - Writer

Composer. Nationality: American. Born: New York, 2 June 1944. Education: Attended Queens College, New York. Family: Married Terre Blair, 1989. Career: 1968—began scoring films. Awards: Academy Award, for The Sting , 1973, and The Way We Were , 1973; Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize, for A Chorus Line , 1976.

Films as Composer:


Ski Party (Rafkin) (song)


The Swimmer (Perry)


The April Fools (Simon); Take the Money and Run (W. Allen)


Flap ( The Last Warrior ) (Reed); Move (Rosenberg)


Bananas (W. Allen); Kotch (Lemmon); Something Big (McLaglen)


The Special London Bridge Special (Winters); Fat City (Huston); The War Between Men and Women (Shavelson); The World's Greatest Athlete (Scheerer)


Save the Tiger (Avildsen); The Sting (Hill); The Way We Were (Pollack)


The Prisoner of Second Avenue (Simon)


The Spy Who Loved Me (Gilbert)


Ice Castles (Wrye); Same Time, Next Year (Mulligan)


Chapter Two (Simon); Starting Over (Pakula)


The Absent-Minded Waiter (Gottlieb); Ordinary People (Redford); Seems Like Old Times (Sandrich)

Marvin Hamlisch
Marvin Hamlisch


The Devil and Max Devlin (Stern); The Fan (Bianchi); I Ought to Be in Pictures (Ross); Pennies from Heaven (Ross)


Sophie's Choice (Pakula)


Romantic Comedy (Hiller)


A Chorus Line (Attenborough); D.A.R.Y.L. (Wincer)


Shy People (Konchalovsky); Three Men and a Baby (Nimoy)


Big (Penny Marshall); The January Man (O'Connor); Little Nikita (Benjamin)


The Experts (Thomas); Shirley Valentine (Gilbert); Troop Beverly Hills (Kanew)


Switched at Birth (Hussein); Frankie & Johnny (G. Marshall)


Seasons of the Heart (Grant—for TV)


Fairy Tales on Ice: Alice Through the Looking Glass (for video); Open Season (Wuhl); The Mirror Has Two Faces (Streisand)


By HAMLISCH: article—

Screen International (London), no. 81, April 1977.

On HAMLISCH: articles—

Films and Filming (London), vol. 20, no. 9, June 1974.

Hollywood Reporter , vol. 238, no. 16, 26 September 1975.

Photoplay (New York), vol. 31, no. 6, June 1980.

Soundtrack! (Mechelen), June 1996.

* * *

A child prodigy, trained rigorously in classical music, Marvin Hamlisch discovered in his teens that playing piano concerts was not for him. Live performance made him too nervous. Instead, his talent took him in another direction. Hamlisch developed a love for popular music, especially show tunes. A fine ear enabled him to duplicate whatever he heard. "I had no style of my own," he later confessed, "Whatever I heard, I imitated." With his knowledge of music theory (particularly concepts of orchestration) and an affection for popular lyrics, Hamlisch decided on a career in show business.

One could hardly imagine a musician more suited to the composition of film music, a unique craft that demands acquaintance with a wide variety of musical styles, the ability to create simple yet attractive melodies which can be expressed and resolved in short phrases, and a familiarity with the tonalities and colors of different instruments. Film musicians also must be able to compose quickly, drawing on a repertoire of stock themes. Hamlisch proved, in a rather interesting way, that he could do this. After writing songs for such performers as Lesley Gore and Liza Minnelli, he was introduced by the latter to Buster Davis, a vocal arranger who gave him work on a number of Broadway productions, including Funny Girl and Golden Rainbow . Between assignments Hamlisch worked as a rehearsal pianist for The Bell Telephone Hour on television. One evening at a party he met movie producer Sam Spiegel, who was looking for someone to do the music for The Swimmer (eventually directed by Frank Perry). Hamlisch went home, wrote the theme music in three days, and got the job. Though not a complicated score, this music shows Hamlisch at his flexible best; its mournful, vaguely modern yet expressive harmonies suit the failed antiromanticism of John Cheever's deranged hero and his impossible quest to re-create the past.

In many ways, the scoring done for his next assignment, Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run , is Hamlisch's most impressive. This is because Allen's postmodern pastiche offers a series of ironic and subversive comments on all aspects of cinematic traditionalism, including the emotional coloring and commentative functions of film music. Allen allows Hamlisch to foreground the presence of the scoring even as he asks him to poke fun at the traditional repertoire of musical colors. The result is a film that catalogs even as it makes fun of traditional method. To accompany the voice of God narrator, for example, Hamlisch composed an up-tempo, vaguely military theme, orchestrated with percussion, strings, and brass, which overstates its own seriousness. Similarly, romantic motifs, utilizing harp and piano, are too sweet and help send up the film's ironic concern with star-crossed lovers. Most interesting, perhaps, are the various "action" motifs Hamlisch creates, including one that's vaguely Jewish, with mazurka rhythms as well as a prominent clarinet and strings playing in a minor key.

No subsequent project, not even Allen's Bananas , has drawn on Hamlisch's many talents so extensively and profitably. The rest of his film work, however, is certainly varied and interesting. For George Roy Hill's The Sting , Hamlisch used a number of piano rag tunes by composer Scott Joplin to create a "period" musical atmosphere (actually the film is set during the Great Depression while Joplin's rags belong to an earlier era, but this historical inaccuracy does not spoil the audience's enjoyment). These compositions are somewhat complex harmonically, which meant that Hamlisch could not abstract short, flexible phrases to use as emotional color in dramatic scenes. Consequently, the Joplin rags are used almost exclusively during transitional passages and during action or montage sequences with no diegetic sound.

The Barbra Streisand/Robert Redford vehicle The Way We Were , though a very different project, also brought acclaim, awards, and financial success. The film's schmaltzy title tune, with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, was initially rejected by Streisand as too simple musically, but her recording made the charts and won an Oscar for both lyricists and composer. This film is scored in a very traditional fashion with the title theme expressing a romantic emotional coloring associated, first, with the Streisand character and, second, with the film's overall nostalgic point of view. The theme assumes a number of different forms as it comments on moments of dramatic tension and emotion. As in the classic studio melodrama, the musical themes are an integral part of the drama, even though this is in no sense a musical film (Streisand does not "perform"); hence the notion of a title theme subsequently accorded dramatic prominence is important. Hamlisch's work for the James Bond project The Spy Who Loved Me is similar; here his title theme is integrated with the already famous Bond signature theme, but, because the romantic elements of this film are emphasized more than in others of the same series, the lush naughtiness of Hamlisch's "Nobody Does It Better" is prominently featured as coloring in the many scenes between Roger Moore and Barbara Bach. Hamlisch's action themes, boldly orchestrated in the Bond film tradition, are also noteworthy.

Most of the other films in which Hamlisch was involved offered him less opportunity for creativity and made slighter demands on his compositional talents. For Save the Tiger , he reorchestrated as nondiegetic commentative music a number of 1940s swing tunes, particularly two by Benny Goodman; the effect is interesting, for the reorchestrations inevitably seem richer than their originals, which play diegetically throughout the film. This contrast between the diegetic and the nondiegetic musically embodies the functioning of memory as an idealized reconstruction of bygone pleasures. Trapped by a past he cannot relive, the protagonist is tortured by a nostalgia evoked but not satisfied by his scratchy records. Disappointingly, however, the film's nondiegetic themes play in only a limited number of scenes with no natural sound; hence the contrast between music as event and music as comment is never fully worked out. Employed on some Neil Simon vehicles ( The April Fools , The Prisoner of Second Avenue , and Chapter Two ), Hamlisch wrote effective "invisible" action scores without dominant themes or motifs. Other projects, such as Seems Like Old Times , required little more: a simple, dominant theme which could be orchestrated and colored for comic, action, and romantic scenes alike.

Hamlisch's career declined in the eighties; this was a reflex of new methods of scoring (most particularly, using a medley of already existing popular tunes with ready-made cultural associations or creating such a medley with the object of subsequent recording sales, as in Stigwood's Saturday Night Fever ). Not all producers, however, have chosen music programs of this kind for their films. Hamlisch was thus able to create effectively unobtrusive background scoring for, among other similar projects, Shirley Valentine , Three Men and a Baby , and Big , three comedy dramas that traditionally benefit from this kind of musical treatment, where the themes are largely "unheard" but often contribute substantially to the creation of mood or meaning in a given scene. A Chorus Line offered Hamlisch the chance to adapt a Broadway musical for the screen; if the resulting film was less than successful, this could not be traced to his tasteful, if unflamboyant, rescoring. He has not worked much in the nineties, a period that has been dominated by big-budget action spectaculars that emphasize sound rather than music (e.g., Terminator II , Twister , Waterworld ). With his considerable musical talents, Hamlisch, had he been active during the studios' classic period (1930–60) could well have equaled, perhaps surpassed the elaborate, occasionally symphonic work of music directors such as Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann. In any event, his many credits and workmanlike, sometimes exceptional, scoring establish Hamlisch as the last and perhaps most talented in the line of traditional screen composers.

—R. Barton Palmer

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