The Academy Awards have been under scrutiny the last few years for its paucity of diversity – particularly in the acting categories. Online movements such as #OscarsSoWhite have become trending debates that discuss the lack of opportunity for actors of color to receive nominations, a phenomenon which is better understood as being indicative of a systemic practice of discrimination in the film industry, which also underemploys women.
In the technical categories, women are often underrepresented or, in many cases, absent altogether in any given year. Such is the case with the best composer category.
Female Composers at the Oscars
Last month Mica Levi was nominated for her score in Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie,” a biography about Jackie Kennedy immediately following her husband’s televised assassination, starring Natalie Portman. Levi is only the eighth female nominee to be nominated in a scoring category in the Academy’s 82-year history of giving out Oscars for music. The last female composer to be nominated was 16 years ago, when Rachel Portman was nominated in 2001 for “Chocolat.” And the last female composer to win was 19 years ago when Anne Dudley won for her score on “The Full Monty” in 1998.
One of Levi’s fellow nominees includes 14-time Oscar-nominated composer Thomas Newman. Only two female nominees have been nominated multiple times. Portman was nominated three times, for “Chocolat,” “The Cider House Rules” in 2000 and “Emma” in 1997 (which she won in the best musical or comedy score category). The other nominee is Angela Morley who was nominated for “The Little Prince” in 1975 and “The Slipper and the Rose” in 1978.
Morley was the first female nominated in a scoring category, a feat which took 40 years – the Academy began awarding scoring Oscars in 1943. And it took 50 years before a female won. In 1984, Marilyn Bergman shared her original song or adaptation score with her husband and co-lyricist Alan Bergman and composer Michel Legrand.
Levi’s Road to Success
Levi’s musical influence goes as far back as her childhood. The daughter of a record collector and professional Cellist, Levi learned to play instruments at an early age, eventually going on to attend Purcell School, Britain’s oldest specialist music school for young musicians.
The London native made a name for herself when she co-founded Micachu and the Shapes, along with Raisa Khan and Marc Pell. The experimental pop band drew critical acclaim for their blend of classical string compositions and experimental sounds using non-instrumental objects.
But the 29-year-old’s big break came in 2013 with the release of Jonathan Glazer’s feminist sci-fi odyssey “Under the Skin” starring Scarlett Johansson.
Levi’s hypnotic use of strings elevated the film’s supernatural element, landing her a BAFTA nomination, as well as cementing her as a promising composer on the rise.
Levi’s unique sound in “Under the Skin” made her compatible with Larrain, whose celebrated Chilean films often eschew orthodox storytelling techniques. Once again, the young composer was able to construct a theme that externalizes a female protagonist’s confusion in an unexplored setting, one that defines the heroine’s dichotomous journey between strength and fragility, leadership and grief.
Levi is already hard at work on her next film projects. She’ll next be heard on Michael Almereyda’s film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play “Marjorie Prime,” starring Jon Hamm, Geena Davis and Tim Robbins, which premiered at Sundance last month. And she has already joined Brady Corbet’s sophomore directing project “Vox Lux,” starring Rooney Mara and Jude Law, due sometime next year (Corbet made his directorial debut last year with “The Childhood of a Leader”).
Levi’s accomplishments at such a young age are unprecedented. At not even 30 years old, the musician is the youngest female composer to be nominated in a scoring category at the Academy Awards. Portman previously held on to that title; she was nominated for and won her first Oscar at 36.
Although Levi probably won’t take home gold later this month – “La La Land” composer Justin Hurwitz is the frontrunner having already nabbed the Golden Globe for Best Original Score earlier this year – her presence in a category otherwise dominated by more well-known male composers with numerous films and nominations under their belts is a wonderful sign for gender equity.
As amazing of a story Levi’s is, she is not alone. There are many talented female musicians working in film and television whose efforts don’t always amount to Oscar glory. So in honor of those women, here’s a list of 10 female film and television composers, some known, others up-and-comers, everyone should have on their radar.
Notable Female Composers
1. Lisa Gerrard
Notable films: “Insider,” “Gladiator,” “Ali,” “Whale Rider,” “Tears of the Sun”
Gerrard first came to prominence for scoring, along with Pieter Bourke, Michael Mann’s 1999 thriller “Insider.” She then went on to work with Ridley Scott on his Roman epic “Gladiator.” There was some controversy in 2001 when fellow composer Hans Zimmer, with whom she collaborated on the film’s score with, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Score, but Gerrard was left out. The two did, however, take home the Golden Globe earlier that year.
Gerrard’s haunting vocals and string arrangements have helped shape the sound and emotions of some of this century’s most profound films. Her contributions to films like “Gladiator,” “Man on Fire” and “Samsara,” make her an indispensable part of film music history.
2. Deborah Lurie
Notable projects: “Footloose” (2011), “Dear John,” “9,” “Imaginary Heroes,” “An Unfinished Life”
Lurie’s best known for her work on the Nicholas Sparks film adaptations “Dear John” and “Safe Haven,” both directed by Lasse Hallström. She has also worked on concert documentaries, such as “Katy Perry: Part of Me” and “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never,” the highest grossing concert film of all time.
Lurie also has a rare neurological condition called synesthesia, a phenomenon in which people often report seeing colors when they hear music, a condition she shares with Pharrell Williams, who has spoken openly about his synesthesia.
Before working in film, Lurie offered string arrangements to some of the music industry’s most popular songs of the 2000s, including Hoobastank’s “The Reason,” Daughtry’s “Home” and Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years.”
Lurie has been working on film and television for the last few years and will team up again with Dan Harris (the two previously worked on “Imaginary Heroes” in 2004) for his next film “Speech & Debate” set to be released later this year.
3. & 4. Wendy and Lisa
Notable projects: “Heroes,” “Crossing Jordan,” “Shades of Blue,” “Nurse Jackie”
Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, or as they’re better known collectively as Wendy and Lisa, were already superstars in the music industry before they branched out into television and film.
The two were part of Prince’s Revolution band in the ‘80s, touring with the late singer and even contributing to his “Purple Rain” album. After the band was dissolved, the duo went on to record their own albums and contributed to several big-name artists’ own songs like Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Eric Clapton and Seal.
Today, they are highly regarded in the television community for their contribution to many theme songs. Together they have written the theme music for shows such as “Heroes,” “Crossing Jordan,” “Carnivále” and “Nurse Jackie,” winning the Emmy for title theme for the Showtime series in 2010.
Currently, they are working on the NBC drama “Shades of Blue,” starring Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta, but something tells me they will always be remembered for their big hair, guitar-jamming days.
5. Kathryn Bostic
Notable projects: “Dear White People,” “Middle of Nowhere,” “I Will Follow”
Bostic’s musical abilities extend beyond the film medium. The composer and singer/songwriter has worked on Broadway, most notably in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” starring Robin Williams.
She has collaborated with “Selma” and “13th” director Ava DuVernay twice now, composing the scores to “I Will Follow” (2010) and “Middle of Nowhere” (2012). In 2014, she scored the racial satire “Dear White People,” directed and written by Justin Simien, who won best first screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards the next year. Spike Lee’s influence on the film is evident beyond the film’s visual style and tone. Bostic incorporates the jazzy tunes dominant in a lot of Lee’s films with classical music to create a score that playfully externalizes opposing views created by racial and political tensions.
Bostic’s vocals can currently be heard on cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s directorial debut “Cameraperson,” released last year, and she has several documentary projects due to be released soon.
6. Lesley Barber
Notable projects: “Manchester by the Sea,” “Mansfield Park,” “You Can Count on Me”
Barber made the Academy Awards shortlist this year for Best Original Score for Best Picture nominee “Manchester by the Sea,” directed by Kenneth Lonergan (also a nominee for Best Director). She may have missed out on the nomination, but her choir-driven score left an impression on film audiences.
Barber previously worked with Lonergan on his 2000 film “You Can Count on Me” starring Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo.
The previous year, she composed Patricia Rozema’s Jane Austen adaptation of “Mansfield Park.”
She recently scored the “Beaches” remake for Lifetime and will next score Boaz Yakin’s (“Remember the Titans”) new film “Boarding School.”
7. Miriam Cutler
Notable projects: “The Hunting Ground,” “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” “Lost in La Mancha”
The majority of Cutler’s work is in documentary. She was nominated for a News and Documentary Emmy in 2012. She also scored the college campus rape exposé “The Hunting Ground” which was nominated for Best Original Song last year at the Academy Awards.
Cutler’s other notable film is “Lost in La Mancha,” a 2002 documentary by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe about Terry Gilliam’s trials in getting his long-gestating “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” off the ground (the film currently has a release date of 2018).
Cutler continues her work in documentary film composition, with several projects yet to be released.
8. Britta Phillips
Notable projects: “Mistress America,” “The Squid and the Whale”
Phillips began her musical career when she joined indie/pop band Luna with future husband Dean Wareham.
Noah Baumbach (“Frances Ha”) hired Phillips and Wareham to score his comedy/drama “The Squid and the Whale” in 2005. The trio reunited again in 2015 when they collaborated on “Mistress America.” This is perhaps Phillips’ best work to date – the soundtrack is nostalgically rooted in ‘80s-era sounds that somehow manages a timeless feel and demands repeat listening. Phillips’ score for the film managed to get her on the Academy Awards shortlist for Best Original Score last year, along with Wareham.
9. Heather McIntosh
Notable projects: “Z for Zachariah,” “Compliance,” “Manson Family Vacation”
McIntosh is a busy woman. She averages about five projects a year since her first composer credit in 2012 with Craig Zobel’s biographical crime/drama “Compliance.” McIntosh and Zobel teamed up again in 2015 for the post-apocalyptic thriller “Z for Zachariah,” starring Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Margot Robbie.
Since then, McIntosh has taken on the comedy/drama “Manson Family Vacation” and has about half a dozen projects currently in the works.
10. Jocelyn Pook
Notable projects: “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Room in Rome,” “The Merchant of Venice”
Pook’s most notable work is in the 1999 classic “Eyes Wide Shut,” directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Tom Cruise. The haunting soundtrack replete with eerie chanting earned Pook a Golden Globe nomination the following year for Best Original Score.
In 2010, she worked on Julio Medem’s female romance “Room in Rome,” and created a score that’s polar opposite to “Eyes Wide Shut” – flirtatious, dulcet and accompanied by Natascha Atlas’ stunning vocals.
She has a project due later this year – “The Wife” by Swedish director Björn Runge, starring Glenn Close, Logan Lerman and Christian Slater.