When a song is right in a film it can be magic. Recall how "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’" left a vivid imprint in High Noon or how the "Theme from Shaft" defined a new generation of film music or how "Falling Slowly" captured the bittersweet romantic mood in Once. Those were songs perfectly crafted for the films they were used in and worthy of their Oscar wins. There are also irreverent songs that slip by the snobbish Academy to get nominated (but not win) like "Blame Canada" from South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut. There are also great songs (like the title tracks from the Bond movies Goldfinger, Thunderball, and Diamonds are Forever) that never even caught Oscar’s eye… but don’t get me started on those injustices.
As movies grew more realistic, breaking into songs or just having songs became less commonplace and less important in movies. So songs composed for films in recent decades come across as more and more just tacked on to movies for the sole reason of trying to nab an Oscar nomination rather than because a film demands their inclusion. The additional pain of these superfluous musical interruptions or slapped on end credit ditties is the fact that if they do get nominated we then face the unpleasant certainty of having to suffer through a rendition of the song on the Oscar show. The Academy may agonize each year about declining viewership and complaints of the show running long yet they never seem to consider completely eliminating the live performances of the Oscar nominated songs from the show or better yet just eliminating the category altogether.
So alas, the category remains.
In looking back at the decades of songs Oscar has honored, you will find two kinds of bad. The first is a song that is musically offensive, bland, or just downright annoying. The second category of worst song winners is songs that simply are out of place or inappropriate in the films in which they are used.
Here’s a list of the worst Oscar-winning songs. I’m not even including all the candy-coated Disney songs (sometimes with multiple songs competing from a single film when pickings were extremely thin). If any song get stuck in your head and just won’t go away, don’t blame Canada, blame the Academy.
1. 'Whatever Will Be, Will Be" ("Qué Será, Será")
From: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Music and Lyrics: Jay Livingston and Ray Evans
This song was fine and dandy when Nat King Cole sang it, but when Doris Day forces the song upon us in what is otherwise a nicely crafted Alfred Hitchcock thriller, well it’s just downright annoying. She delivers each “Qué Será” with such distracting punctuation that we wish the assassin in the film would aim his gun at Doris Day and put us out of our misery.
2. "The Windmills of Your Mind"
From: The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
Music: Michel Legrand
Lyrics: Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman
Michel Legrand has composed some beautiful scores for films like A Man and a Woman, and the music for "The Windmills of Your Mind" might be fine if only there weren’t those silly lyrics. Here’s a sample: “Like a tunnel that you follow/To a tunnel of its own/Down a hollow to a cavern/Where the sun has never shone/Like a door that keeps revolving/In a half forgotten dream, /Or the ripples from a pebble/Someone tosses in a stream…" Huh? And this plays in a movie that serves up tough guy Steve McQueen and ruthless insurance investigator Faye Dunaway in a slick heist film. The seduction scene between the two over a game of chess is sexy cinema, but the song only detracts.
3. "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head"
From: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Music: Burt Bacharach
Lyrics: Hal David
Once again this is a song that just plays as wildly out of place. This Western, loosely based on the real-life outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, has a somewhat contemporary feel with actors Paul Newman and Robert Redford playing the title characters. But the song not only sounds anachronistic but it’s tonally all wrong. It draws the film to a full stop for a silly music video and lyrics like this… "But there's one thing I know/The blues they send to meet me won't defeat me/It won't be long till happiness steps up to greet me…" Really? They both die at the end. Where’s the happiness stepping up to greet them there?
4. "The Morning After"
From: The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
Music and Lyrics: Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn
Disaster films were big in the '70s and before the tidal wave or fire or earthquake hit, they wanted to take a moment to serenade the Academy in the hopes of grabbing an Oscar for best song in case the visual effects category was too tough. In The Poseidon Adventure, Carol Lynley lip-syncs (yep, she didn’t sing herself) a prescient little ditty that tells us “There's got to be a morning after/If we can hold on through the night/We have a chance to find the sunshine/Let's keep on lookin' for the light.” With a song like this, we find ourselves longing for the tidal wave.
5. "We May Never Love Like This Again"
From: The Towering Inferno (1974)
Music and Lyrics: Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn
Well one good disaster deserves another. The team of Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn struck gold a second time with another mediocre and totally irrelevant song. Maureen McGovern, who turned "The Morning After" into a hit song on the pop charts, gets to sing this song before the building catches fire. And if you listen carefully (but why would you want to) you can hear an instrumental version of "The Morning After" playing in The Towering Inferno. And to add insult to injury, it beat out Mel Brooks’ title track from Blazing Saddles. At least when you laughed at that, the humor was intentional.
6. "You Light Up My Life"
From: You Light Up My Life (1977)
Music and Lyrics: Joseph Brooks
This sappy film serves up the tired formula of a girl who dreams of being a singer/songwriter. The title track was lip-synched by actress Didi Conn. Couldn’t they have at least found an actress who could legitimately sing? The singer on the soundtrack album was Kacey Cisyk but it was Debby Boone who covered the title track and made it a hit on the pop music charts. The song, like the film, is entirely forgettable and clichéd. The salt in the wound this time was that this piece of fluff beat out what is probably the best song from the Roger Moore era Bonds, "Nobody Does It Better" from The Spy Who Loved Me. Shame on the Academy.
7. "It Goes Like It Goes"
From: Norma Rae (1979)
Music: David Shire
Lyrics: Norman Gimbel
This socially conscious film may have provided insight into the real-life plight of factory workers and the need for unions, but Sally Field’s pouty performance and this mundane song both snagged undeserving Oscars. Where was the real music from early unionizing or even some of the socially conscious rock and roll that could have given the film an edge and provided something powerful rather than just bland?
8. "Let the River Run"
From: Working Girl (1988)
Music and Lyrics: Carly Simon
Carly Simon has great music credentials and has written some memorable hits. But composing for the screen did not bring her best work, although the Academy thought so. The song tries to be a working girl anthem but it falls short. Although nothing else nominated was any better.
9. "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)"
From: Dick Tracy (1990)
Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
What a truly bad year. Check out the competition: "Promise Me You'll Remember" from The Godfather Part III; "Somewhere in My Memory" from Home Alone; "I'm Checkin' Out" from Postcards from the Edge; and "Blaze of Glory" from Young Guns II. Young Guns II got an Oscar nomination? When something like that happens you know you should just put the category out of its misery. Dick Tracy from a bloated comic book movie? But Madonna’s involvement in the film probably helped sway voters.
10. "My Heart Will Go On"
From: Titanic (1997)
Music: James Horner
Lyrics: Will Jennings
Titanic may have grossed hundreds of millions thanks to adolescent girls who went to see Leo repeated times, but the film and this song go on for too long and test one’s patience. Could we possibly have something that’s more sentimental and icky sweet? Celine Dion’s wispy thin voice doesn’t help. But I guess it’s a perfect song to sink a ship. Not enough fire or passion in this love theme to keep its lovers warm in the icy seas.