Elmer Bernstein Biography

During a career that spanned five decades, American film composer Elmer Bernstein (1922–2004) remained at the top of his field. Refusing to be stylistically pigeonholed, his movies ran the gamut from Westerns to epics to comedies to intimate dramas. His innovations included using jazz music in film scores (The Man With the Golden Arm) and scoring a comedy as if it were a drama (Animal House) . In 2002, over fifty years after his first movie, Bernstein received his 14th Academy Award nomination, for Far From Heaven . He was 80 years old at the time.

Early Years

Bernstein was born on April 4, 1922, in New York City. He was the only child of Jewish Eastern European immigrant parents, Edward and Selma, and much doted upon. Although his father was a high school

English teacher, both parents were extremely interested in the arts, and enjoyed the company of the colorful denizens of that world. As Bernstein fondly recalled for Cynthia Miller of the Guardian Unlimited , "They surrounded themselves with Greenwich Village [New York] drunken poets and painters. It was not uncommon for me to find a poet at the foot of my bed reading to me at midnight from the Bible." So it was hardly surprising that the young Bernstein would find himself drawn to the arts, and his parents encouraged his interest.

Bernstein began his artistic explorations with painting and dance classes. He then studied acting at the King Coit Drama School for Children from 1932 until 1935, and appeared on Broadway as Caliban in The Tempest when he was just 10 years old. His secondary education was obtained from the Walden School, from which he graduated in 1939. Alongside these pursuits, he had been studying piano, even when the family lived in Paris for a year in 1933, and music soon eclipsed his other artistic pursuits.

At the age of 12, Bernstein received a piano scholarship to study with Henrietta Michelson, who taught at New York's famed Juilliard School of Music. His goal was to become a concert pianist, and he gave his first recital three years later in New York's Steinway Hall. Early in his long association (1934–1949) with Michelson, however, she noticed that he also had an interest in improvisation and composition, and she took him for an evaluation by then-rising star Aaron Copland. Copland encouraged Bernstein to take composition lessons and he did so, through scholar- ships at the Chatham Square Music School (1936–1940) and in private study with Israel Citkowitz, Roger Sessions, Ivan Langstroth, and Stefan Wolpe. In addition, he studied music education at New York University from 1939 until 1942. Then Bernstein was called for military service in World War II.

First Employment as Composer

Bernstein's time in the U.S. Army Air Corps played to his strengths. He was assigned to special services, where he was charged with arranging folk music and writing scores for Army Air Corps Radio. Bernstein's first experience with the latter was a rush job to fill in for the regular composer who had gone AWOL. He gamely completed a score overnight and then was too nervous to attend the next day's rehearsal. Once it aired though, Bernstein found the immediacy of the process compelling. "It was instant," he told Miller. "You made the music and they played it right away to millions of people. I found it thrilling."

After his discharge from the army, Bernstein tried to find work as a composer, but found no takers, so he returned to giving concerts as a pianist. His luck turned in the late 1940s, when he was asked to write music for a United Nations Radio show called Sometime Before Morning . The work was brought to the attention of then-vice president of Columbia Pictures Sidney Buchman, who offered him a job composing music for the movie Saturday's Hero (1951). Bernstein thus found himself headed for Hollywood in the autumn of 1950.

Hollywood Transition

Bernstein arrived in Hollywood during its so-called "Golden Age." It was, perhaps, especially convivial for musicians, as studios had their own composers, orchestras, and music departments (the head of which was usually a seasoned composer). There was more time to compose and rehearse, and an autonomy in the creative process that later became largely lost. Commenting on the differences to the Hollywood Reporter in 2001, Bernstein said, "There's a tendency, particularly among young directors, to want to dot every "i" and cross every "t" and listen to every note you're writing as you're writing it. Micromanaging is death to creativity…. I want to hear what the filmmaker thinks his film is about…. But then it's my job to translate all that into musical terms. Tell me about the film, but don't tell me how many trumpets to use."

The Golden Age was not without its dark side, however. The 1950s also encompassed the McCarthy Era, when accusations of Communism could ruin a career almost overnight. After Bernstein completed his first two movies, Saturday's Hero (1951) and Boots Malone (1952), he found that his progressive political views had placed him in the wasteland of being "gray-listed." That is, although he escaped black-listing (total career banishment) by virtue of not being a card-carrying Communist Party member, his politics were considered sufficiently suspect to relegate him to scoring such second-rate, camp films as 1953's Robot Monster and Cat-Woman of the Moon . While Bernstein later joked about it, telling the Hollywood Reporter that one thing "that benefited me was that I wasn't important enough for anyone to get very excited about," it was a frightening time. And interestingly, it was one of Hollywood's most rabidly anti-Communist directors, Cecil B. DeMille, who got Bernstein's career back on track.

Genre Master and Innovator

DeMille was directing the biblical epic The Ten Commandments (1956) when his regular composer, Victor Young, fell ill. Bernstein had already been recommended to write the film's dance scenes, so DeMille summoned the young composer to see about his taking over the entire score. First, of course, DeMille had to satisfy himself that Bernstein was not a political subversive. He questioned Bernstein directly about his political affiliations, and apparently accepted the reply. He then delivering a short lecture about the perils of Communism. There seems to be little doubt that DeMille's intervention rescued Bernstein's career.

While scoring DeMille's movie, Bernstein was also working on Otto Preminger's The Man With the Golden Arm (1955). The story revolved around a man who wanted to be a jazz musician, so Bernstein thought it logical to use jazz music in the score. What he found merely sensible, however, was electrifying in its innovation and impact. Nobody had ever done such a thing before. Critics and audiences alike were enthralled, and the effort earned Bernstein his first nomination for an Academy Award. His once stalled career had kicked into overdrive.

As the years went by, Bernstein proved himself not only a master at conforming to myriad musical genres, but also at making them his own. His score for 1960's The Magnificent Seven (also nominated for an Oscar) became the new prototype for Westerns, and its theme became familiar to millions as the signature melody for Marlboro cigarettes. His child's view score for 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird (another Oscar nominee) avoided the then-popular large orchestral accompaniment in favor of the simple sounds of piano and flute alone, and was quickly hailed as a film music classic. From epics to dramas to Westerns to comedies, Bernstein spoke the appropriate musical language and imposed his unique stamp.

Among Bernstein's many notable earlier movies were Sweet Smell of Success (1957), God's Little Green Acre (1958), Walk on the Wild Side (1962, title song nominated for an Oscar), and True Grit (1969). He also did a great deal of television work, including themes and scores for such diverse programs as General Electric Theater, Gunsmoke, Julia, The Rookies , and the famous fanfare for National Geographic specials. By 1974 Bernstein had racked up 11 Academy Award nominations and one win, for 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie , but his pioneering spirit was far from resting.

In 1977 Bernstein was contacted by director John Landis, a childhood friend of the composer's son Peter. Landis had an unusual idea for scoring his comedy, National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), as if it were a drama, and wanted Bernstein to do the honors. Bernstein finally agreed, and another trend was born. That successful innovation led to a spate of comedies that included Airplane! (1980), The Blues Brothers (1980), and Ghostbusters (1984), and introduced the then-60-something-year-old composer to a new generation of fans. Once again, however, Bernstein resisted being pigeonholed and began to look for another set of challenges.

Remained a Contender

Bernstein came back into the public eye with his scoring of the 1989 drama My Left Foot . He then teamed up with eminent movie director Martin Scorsese. To Jeff Bond of the Hollywood Reporter , film editor Thelma Schoonmaker recalled Scorsese's response to a colleague who suggested Bernstein might be past his prime: "[Scorsese] said, 'Yes—that probably means he knows something.'" Bernstein subsequently earned his 13th Oscar nomination for Scorsese's The Age of Innocence in 1993, at the age of 72.

In his later years, Bernstein spent a fair amount of time composing for traditional concert venues. He wrote a guitar concerto for Christopher Parkening, as well as symphony suites and compositions for viola and piano. Then in 2002, Bernstein defied the odds by winning yet another Oscar nod, over five decades after his start in the business, for Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven . At 80, he had once again shown that his work was ageless.

Bernstein's final projects included a performance of his "Fanfare for the Hollywood Bowl," celebrating the inauguration of the Bowl's new stage, in June of 2004 and, fittingly, the score for a documentary on DeMille for Turner Classic Movies. He had long been active in his community, from helping to found such organizations as the Young Musicians Foundation (president, 1960–1970) and the Composers and Lyricists Guild (president, 1970–1979), to presiding over such entities as the Film Music Society (1996–2001) and the Film Music Museum (2002–2004). His multiple accolades, in addition to recognition by the Academy, included one Emmy, two Golden Globes, and several lifetime achievement awards.

When Bernstein died on August 18, 2004, in Ojai, California, the film industry lost one of its most enduring lights. Who else could have written music for such different movies and eras as The Man With the Golden Arm, The Great Escape, Desire Under the Elms, The Shootist, Meatballs , and Far From Heaven ? It could be that Bernstein himself summed it up best to Time 's Barbara Isenberg. "I rarely do anything at the same time each day, simply because anything you do routinely cannot possibly be fresh. I think a life with change in it keeps you young." Perhaps that is why Schoonmaker told Bond, "Elmer always seemed like the youngest person in the room to me, full of energy and optimism and a very bouncy personality." Bernstein's infectious enthusiasm for all kinds of music and quick grasp of what was needed to make a movie work would be his lasting legacy.


Back Stage , August 27, 2004.

Billboard , August 28, 2004.

Daily Variety , January 6, 2003.

Entertainment Weekly , March 21, 2003; September 3, 2004.

Hollywood Reporter , December 11, 2001; August 19, 2004; November 16, 2004.

Newsweek , March 10, 2003.

Time , December 2, 2002.

Variety , August 23, 2004.

World and I , December 2004.


"Elmer Bernstein Awards & Nominations," Elmer Bernstein, http://www.elmerbernstein.com/bio/awards.html (November 24, 2006).

"Elmer Bernstein Fact Sheet," Elmer Bernstein, http://www.elmerbernstein.com/bio/facts.html (November 24, 2006).

"Elmer Bernstein (Part 1)," Guardian Unlimited , October 6, 2002, http://www.film.guardian.co.uk/interview/interviewpages/0,6737,808687,00.html (November 27, 2006).

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