Oscar’s Overlooked Film Score: The Piano by Michael Nyman

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE!

This is the third year in a row I’ve written a post about an Oscar snub for this blogathon (previously: Preston Sturges’ snub in the director category and Alan Rickman’s total lack of Oscar nominations). In both those previous cases, I was able to suss out somewhat reasonable explanations for why those snubs occurred.

I’m at a loss to explain why Michael Nyman’s score for the 1993 film The Piano did not receive an Oscar nomination for Best Score.

The film received eight nominations and won three: Best Actress (Holly Hunter) Best Supporting Actress (Anna Paquin) and Best Original Screenplay. It was a huge critical success and also did well at the box office for a foreign film/period piece.

The score received Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations, as well as winning the Australian Film Institute and Chicago Film Critics awards.

I spent much of 1994 listening to the CD of the soundtrack, which is slightly different from the music in the film. Holly Hunter plays the piano solos herself in the film; Nyman plays them on the soundtrack CD. It’s lush and evocative and still resonates with me so many years later.

The main reason I’m so puzzled by the snub is that the music isn’t just gorgeous: it’s almost like another character in the film.

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The story of The Piano concerns a mute woman named Ada (Holly Hunter) who is sent from Scotland to New Zealand in the mid-1800s to become the mail order bride of Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). With her is her illegitimate daughter Flora (Anna Paquin). When they land on the beach in New Zealand, Ada is horrified when her piano is left behind because of the arduous journey inland to her new home. Alisdair’s friend George Baines (Harvey Keitel) agrees to take Ada and her daughter back to the beach. After unpacking the piano, Ada plays it right there on the beach.

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Baines is captivated by Ada and her music. He makes a deal with Alisdair to take the piano in exchange from some land and piano lessons from Ada. She is angered by her new husband’s thoughtlessness and is sexually cold to him. Baines proposes to Ada that she can “earn” the piano back if she play for him and let him touch her occasionally. She reluctantly agrees. The more intimate the contact, the closer she gets to earning back her piano.

As time passes, Baines becomes disgusted by his own behavior and returns the piano to her. She realizes she cares for him and they begin an affair. This leads to tragedy.

Because Ada is mute, the music (which she has written herself) is her voice. This makes the score even more important than one just made up of background music. I wish I could find the exact quote, but I recall an interview with Nyman where he talked about composing music that someone like Ada might have written herself. In this way, he contributed in no small part to the creation of Ada’s character, along with writer/director Jane Campion and actress Holly Hunter.

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The music evokes the romanticism and sensuality of the main story, but the film also comments on the subject of colonialism. The white characters in their fussy and voluminous 18th century clothing look absurd against the untamed New Zealand landscape. The sight of the piano sitting on the beach also looks absurd and the Maori natives make faces showing they know it. The music provides another contrast—while not strictly classical music of the era, it echoes it and also seems alien to the world Ada is playing it in. I remember being bowled over by the juxtaposition of the wild beauty of the landscape and the music from the moment the film began the first time I viewed it.

1993 had many spectacular scores for the Academy to choose from: The Lion King (the winner), Forrest Gump, Interview with the Vampire, Little Women, and The Shawshank Redemption were the nominees. While it’s hard to argue with most of these (the Little Women and The Shawshank Redemption soundtracks were also cherished CDs in my collection during this era) I think I would have swapped out Interview with the Vampire for The Piano.

Nyman created a stupendous score that added more layers to an already complex story. It’s a shame the Academy passed it over.

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19 thoughts on “Oscar’s Overlooked Film Score: The Piano by Michael Nyman

      1. Me too. And that you did too – loved it. As I love this movie. Debbie, have a lovely day ahead (or is it still Tuesday?). Looking forward to your Blogathons this year – are you planning any?

  1. It is a shame Oscar overlooked this score for Oscar because the music is not only essential for this film, but it’s beautiful and evocative. Lovely write-up. Thanks so much for joining our blogathon!

  2. I’ve never seen the film. You write a lovely review which makes me want to seek this out…andcquiet diwn my racing mind! Enjoyed the read. Siiiigh! The Academy. Will they EVER get it right?

    1. It’s a beautiful and, to some, controversial film. Definitely worth checking out.

      Every year when I pick a topic for this blogathon I come back to snubs because there are SO MANY.

  3. Interesting post. I don’t think there is any reasonable explanation of why the Piano’s score was not even nominated, and I agree with the others here that it is pretty much original stuff to comply with the Academy’s guidelines.
    If they didn’t overlook it by mistake (now, we know that the Academy Awards can do great mistakes!) , I can propose a more sinister theory. I have been noticing over the years that the Academy does not nominate certain films because they are sure they will win in that category, but they already have their chosen preferred winner beforehand. For example, Inside Out was not nominated for Best Picture, when Toy Story 3, also an animation, was nominated in that category in the past, etc. The score in Schindler’s List is not only amazing and part of the picture’s merit, but it is a TRIBUTE to the victims of the Holocaust. Knowing this, it was inconceivable that the Academy would do anything to jeopardise that win – hence, no nomination for the Piano.

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