Bernstein in Hollywood

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Sunday, August 11, 2019

Elia Kazan's film, "On the Waterfront," a 1954 black and white classic starring Marlon Brando, won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It was also nominated for — but didn't win — that year's Oscar for best original score. It was Leonard Bernstein's first film score, and his last. He didn't enjoy the experience:

"I had become so involved in each detail of the score," Bernstein recalled, "that it seemed to me the most important part of the picture. I had to keep reminding myself that it really is the LEAST important part… Sometimes the music would be turned off completely to allow a line to stand forth stark and bare, and then be turned on again. Sometimes the music, planned as a composition with a beginning, middle, and end, would be silenced seven bars before the end… And so the composer sits by, protesting as he can, but ultimately accepting with a heavy heart the inevitable loss of a good part of the score. Everyone tries to comfort you. 'You can always use it in a suite.' Cold comfort. It's good for the picture, you repeat numbly to yourself… it's good for the picture."

But Bernstein did fashion a concert suite from "On the Waterfront" and, not one to waste time, conducted the first performance with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood on today's date in 1954, exactly two weeks after the film opened.