It’s been stuck in my head for weeks like a psychotic episode: “My Heart Will Go On,” Celine Dion’s big, bombastic ballad from “Titanic.” Now that James Cameron has finally released the 3-D redo of his 1997 shipwreck epic — the winner of 11 Academy Awards, including best original song — it still won’t go away. It goes on … and on …
But we’re all about turning a negative into a positive around here, so we’re using this as an opportunity to talk about five other great winners of the best original song Oscar. There are dozens to choose from so you’ll have some favorites of your own, but these are sure to keep you humming along:
“Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
One of the greatest songs ever from one of the greatest movies ever. A favorite from childhood that’s just as moving for grown-ups, it’s full of girlish innocence and melancholy longing. Written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, it’s been copied and covered endlessly by singers ranging from Frank Sinatra to Kylie Minogue. Sam Harris became a minor star by belting out a soaring version of it on “Star Search” in the mid-’80s, and Katharine McPhee made it one of her signature tunes on “American Idol.” But of course it will always belong to Judy Garland. She performs it early in the film when she’s still a naive farm girl, before all the tornadic activity and house-dropping that inspire her journey down the yellow brick road.
“When You Wish Upon a Star” from “Pinocchio” (1940)
A personal choice, since this is the song my mother supposedly sang to me when I was a baby. Or so goes the lore — I was too young to remember. Written by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington and sung by Cliff Edwards in the voice of perky sidekick Jiminy Cricket, this is probably the greatest song ever to come from a Disney animated movie. It’s certainly the most identifiable with the studio, since it plays along with the logo before every Disney film. It’s hopeful and earnest and unabashedly sentimental. And like the song that inspired this week’s list, this one will really get stuck in your head. It also provided inspiration for one of the more daring episodes of “Family Guy,” titled “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein.”
“Moon River” from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961)
When Audrey Hepburn sings it alone on the fire escape of her Manhattan apartment, it’s intimate, sweet and plaintive, an indication of the insecure woman looking for love that she tries to suppress through her glamorous persona and wild nights. When it swells during the film’s climactic conclusion — in an alley in the pouring rain, as Hepburn finds the cat she cast aside and clutches it to her chest while giving George Peppard a passionate kiss — it’s heartbreaking. I cry every time in a matter of seconds. Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer — they did not screw around. (Chevy Chase also felt prompted to belt out this song during an especially thorough doctor’s exam in “Fletch.”)
“Theme From ‘Shaft’” (1971)
He’s a bad mother… so how do you NOT choose this song among the top five? It has such great energy and is such a fabulously funky reflection of its time: The horns, the driving chicka-chicka, the staccato strings. Isaac Hayes is at his smooth, soulful best here, crooning lyrics that seemed so racy in their day about Richard Roundtree’s character, “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks.” This was a bold pick from the Academy, and it made Hayes the first black person to win an Academy Award outside of the acting categories. Can you dig it?
“Lose Yourself” from “8 Mile” (2002)
So damn catchy. Such vivid visuals. And so crucial to the story as an exploration of the main character’s fears and ambitions. Who knows whether Eminem can actually act, but he did a great job of playing a version of himself here in Curtis Hanson’s drama about an aspiring rapper battling his demons as he struggles to make it out of his working-class Detroit neighborhood. I love what an unconventional choice this was for the Academy (and I pondered “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from “Hustle & Flow” as one of my five selections this week for the same reason). And I think it’s hilarious that forever more, we can describe Eminem as Academy Award winner Marshall Mathers.