15 Great Oscar-Winning Songs!: “The Way We Were”
When you’re a music fan who was born in 1970 it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the period of time between the social unrest of the late sixties and the cynicism and despair which were expressed by punk was mostly made up of soft rock platitudes. Obviously that wasn’t completely true…but some people didn’t go out of their ways to disabuse us of the notion. The fact that I was a small child at the time definitely limited my access to any of the edgier popular culture that was out there. Not that these romanticized expressions of love, sadness, and nostalgia I’m talking about were all bad. They clearly weren’t. People like Barbra Streisand and Marvin Hamlisch don’t have to be your favorites. Believe me, I get it. But if you dismiss them and their ilk out of hand you might be in danger of favoring style over substance rather completely.
Songwriter and composer Marvin Hamlisch was a musical child prodigy, having been born to a bandleader who played the accordion. By the age of five years old he was already playing back the piano music he had heard on the radio. His first big success was when his song “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows” was recorded by Lesley Gore and hit the singles charts at #13 in 1965.
That sure is one wholesome happy song. Gore would follow up that hit with another written by Hamlisch in 1967 called “California Nights.” By this point he had begun creating film scores in earnest, including his first for a movie called The Swimmer and a couple of the early “wacky” Woody Allen comedies Take the Money and Run and Bananas.
1973 would start a run of huge years for Hamlisch, with film scores of his accompanying multiple movies that year, including Save the Tiger which won an Oscar for Jack Lemmon, The Way We Were whose title song got him two of his own Oscars for Best Original Song and Best Dramatic Score, and The Sting, for which he took home another Oscar for Best Adapted Score. This triumvirate of wins made him the only person to win three of the awards in a single night who was not a director or screenwriter. Both “The Way We Were” (above), which also won a Grammy for Song of the Year, and “The Entertainer” were big popular radio hits, the former sitting at #1 on the singles chart for three weeks and the latter getting up to #3 on the pop singles chart in April of the following year.
1975 saw Hamlisch contributing to perhaps the most memorable project of his career, writing the music for the songs to the huge Broadway smash “A Chorus Line.” A film version would follow a decade later, but by that time songs such as “One” and “What I Did For Love” had already become standards for the musical theatre crowd.
Hamlisch appeared to be an unstoppable force by this point, and with the success of “A Chorus Line” he added a Tony Award and a Pulitzer to his existing Oscars and Grammys. When he won an Emmy for a live performance with Streisand in 1995 he became one of only two people to go the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) one better and make it a PEGOT. His romantic and songwriting relationship with Carol Bayer Sager resulted in the James Bond hit song “Nobody Does it Better,” as sung by Carly Simon and a second hit musical “They’re Playing Our Song.”
He continued to write film scores and his songs were nominated for Oscars six more times. A collaboration with the soon-to-be legendary Howard Ashman produced the 1986 flop “Smile,” but if you’re familiar with the music from that show you know it’s not to blame for whatever failure the show as a whole experienced. Although his golden age of the mid 1970s had faded away, Hamlisch never stopped being a steadily working composer, receiving his final Oscar nomination in 1997 and writing his final film score for the Matt Damon film The Informant! in 2009 prior to his death three years later.
Cover versions of Hamlisch’s biggest pop hit “The Way We Were” were recorded by Bing Crosby and Gladys Knight and the Pips with the latter hitting #11 on the Billboard singles chart