From John Williams and Ennio Morricone to Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer, there’s a long list of great film composers whose work defines our favorite movies. How many can you name? As you rack your brain, though, let’s try narrowing down the list. How many female composers can you name?
According to the 2017 Celluloid Ceiling Report, an annual study that tracks women’s employment in the film industry, women comprised just three percent of composers working on the top 250 highest-grossing films of 2017 (which represents no change from 2016). Ninety-eight percent of the films released in 2017 had no female composers. The Academy Award for Best Original Score was first awarded in 1935, and in its eighty-three-year history, only two female composers have won. The last time that happened was in 1998.
Signs of improvement do exist; in 2016, twelve women were invited to join the Academy’s (ninety-two percent male) music branch. Still, there’s an undeniable lack of visibility for female film composers. In an effort to change that, we pulled together a list of notable female composers and their songs. Sit back, turn the volume up, and enjoy.
Since she first began composing at fourteen, Rachel Portman has created over one hundred scores for film, television, and theater, including those for Emma, Chocolat, and Benny & Joon. She was the first female composer to win the Academy Award for Best Musical or Comedy Score. Also nominated for The Cider House Rules and Chocolat, Portman is known for her strong, traditional melodies. “Melodies are hard to write,” she once said, “but they’re so worth writing… They have a strange way of working with a film that I find intriguing.”
“Music has an endless life,” according to Anne Dudley, who is also known as one of the main members of the synth-pop band, Art of Noise. In 1998, Dudley won the Academy Award for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score for The Full Monty and has composed countless others, including those for Elle and American History X. She works in both classical and pop and, in 2012, was the music producer for the film version of Les Misèrables.
Lesley Barber recently composed the heart-wrenching score for Manchester by the Sea, and she has been vocal about Hollywood’s need to acknowledge female composers more fully. “Even when you look at some of the women’s organizations that deal with films, they don’t mention [composers],” she once said. It boils down to “the image of what a composer looks like.” Female composers need more visibility, and it behooves filmmakers to support this effort. After all, a woman can provide a “fresh sound” for films, Barber says, one “that will shake up the conventions of cinematic composition… and bring something new and powerful.”
An occasional uncredited “score doctor,” Shirley Walker was at her best composing for action and fantasy films, including the animated Batman series (she won an Emmy for her work on Batman Beyond). She prided herself on her ability to work under pressure, saying that “if you’re a person that can come in and write at the last minute and get something to work, and still protect a score and the composer whose name is on it, the studios need that and I was very good at it.” In 1992, when Walker was hired to compose for Memoirs of an Invisible Man, it was the first time a woman had been retained by a major Hollywood studio as a film’s only composer.
Mica Levi (aka Micachu)
Classically trained, Mica Levi also performs with her band, Good Sad Happy Bad, under the stage name, Micachu. She first entered the film world with her haunting score to Jonathan Glazer’s, Under the Skin. When Pablo Larraín saw the film at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, he was so moved by her work that he tapped Levi to score his next film, Jackie. For her effort, Levi was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score, the fifth woman nominated in the category. “If you’re going to make something,” she says, “you should try and be wild.”
Born with a combination of perfect pitch and synesthesia, Lurie is as comfortable working on big-budget, mainstream fairs as she is sweating over indie passion projects. She got her start on The X Files movie as a transcriber, while working on student films on the side. Since then, she’s worked on a variety of high-grossing projects and is perhaps best known for her collaborations with director Lasse Hallström on Dear John and Safe Haven. A truly versatile artist, Lurie utilizes everything from symphonies to hard rock to craft her powerful, thematic scores.
“A nice blend of prediction and surprise seem to be at the heart of the best art,” said Wendy Carlos, who was born in 1939 as Walter Carlos. In 1979, she underwent gender reassignment surgery, one of the first public figures to do so openly. Carlos studied both physics and music at Brown University and was an early experimenter in electronic music. At the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, she helped oversee the development of the Moog synthesizer and soon became known for her album, Switched-On Bach (1968), which is composed of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music performed on a Moog synthesizer. In addition to her bone-chilling work on The Shining, Carlos also scored for the original Tron and A Clockwork Orange.
Angela Morley, born Walter “Wally” Stott, nearly quit composing after she underwent gender reassignment surgery. Fortunately, she decided to continue and ended up becoming the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Academy Award, for her Original Song Score/Adaptation for The Little Prince (1973).
Additional Female Film Composers to Know
Natalie Ann Holt