During his long career in writing music, Marvin Hamlisch pulled off some significant achievements – especially in the world of film. He helped revive the ragtime of Scott Joplin, crafted the melody of one of Barbra Streisand’s most beloved songs, and gave one of the stronger James Bond scores. And it doesn’t even include his melodic crafting of a musical blockbuster about a group of dancers looking for that big break – though he would go back to it for the film version.
Hamlisch died on August 7 at the age of 68, leaving behind one of the great composing legacies of all time. As a film composer and songwriter, he earned 12 Academy Award nominations and 3 Oscars (all of those in a single year). He also earned two Golden Globes, four Emmy Awards, and a Tony Award for the music of A Chorus Line – which he also received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Hamlisch is one of eleven people to earn an Oscar, a Grammy, an Emmy and a Tony in competition during their career.
Hamlisch’s first picture was the 1968 Burt Lancaster drama The Swimmer, but some of his early scores were for comic genius Woody Allen – notably 1969’s Take the Money and Run and 1971’s Bananas. One of Hamlisch’s key actors for his early film music was Jack Lemmon, whose 1971 directorial effort Kotch (starring Walter Matthau in the title role) featured a Hamlisch score. The song “Life is What You Make It” earned Hamlisch and lyricist Johnny Mercer a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. The composer would also score the 1973 Lemmon drama Save the Tiger.
1973 was a dynamic year for Hamlisch, when he scored two blockbuster hits – and later reaped major rewards. He adapted the old-time ragtime stylings of pianist Scott Joplin for George Roy Hill’s 1930s caper The Sting, which reunited the director with his Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid duo in Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Hamlisch also worked with Redford on Sydney Pollack’s romantic drama The Way We Were, which also featured Barbra Streisand in an Oscar-nominated turn. His composing on the title track would lead to one of Streisand’s most memorable tunes – and a song that would identify the two of them closely for years. Hamlisch would win three Academy Awards for his work on both films.
For the rest of the 1970s, Hamlisch would work on film versions of two Neil Simon plays – 1975’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue and 1979’s Chapter Two. He would also compose music for the 1978 romantic dramas Same Time, Next Year and Ice Castles. Hamlisch would also enter the world of 007, scoring the James Bond adventure The Spy Who Loved Me (featuring Roger Moore as Bond). He also scored a memorable Bond theme in the hit song “Nobody Does It Better,” with lyrics by one-time romantic partner Carole Bayer Sager and sung by Carly Simon.
Hamlisch’s film scoring output would decline sporadically throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but still provided memorable work during that time. He scored Redford’s 1980 Oscar-winning family drama Ordinary People and the 1982 Holocaust drama Sophie’s Choice (in which he earned his last Oscar nomination for scoring). He even went back to his Tony-winning success A Chorus Line for Richard Attenborough’s 1985 film version. Hamlisch also scored the 1987 comedy hit Three Men and a Baby, the 1991 Al Pacino-Michelle Pfeiffer drama Frankie and Johnny, and the 1996 Barbra Streisand comedy The Mirror Has Two Faces. His final film project was the 2009 Steven Soderbergh comedy The Informant! starring Matt Damon – in which he earned his last Golden Globe nomination for his efforts. Hamlisch was still working right to the end, with him writing the music for the stage adaptation of Jerry Lewis’ classic comedy The Nutty Professor.
While he achieved great acclaim for his work on stage and in television, Marvin Hamlisch’s greatest composing legacy may end up being for what he did on the silver screen. He crafted powerful melodies for films featuring some of the biggest stars of all time, and received Oscars & other awards for his work. From Lemmon and Streep to Redford and Streisand, Hamlisch’s musical magic helped make the films he worked on more powerful and resonant than anyone may have envisioned.