The Academy Award for Best Original Song is one of the awards given annually to people working in the motion picture industry by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). It is presented to the songwriters who have composed the best original song written specifically for a film. The performers of a song are not credited with the Academy Award unless they contributed either to music, lyrics or both in their own right.
The award category was introduced at the 7th Academy Awards, the ceremony honoring the best in film for 1934. Nominations are made by Academy members who are songwriters and composers, and the winners are chosen by the Academy membership as a whole.
The original requirement was only that the nominated song appear in a motion picture during the previous year. This rule was changed after the 1941 Academy Awards, when "The Last Time I Saw Paris", from the film Lady Be Good, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, won. Kern was upset that his song won because it had been published and recorded before it was used in the movie. The song was actually written in 1940, after the Germans occupied Paris at the start of World War II. It was recorded by Kate Smith and peaked at number 8 on the best seller list before it was used in the film Lady Be Good. Kern got the Academy to change the rule so that only songs that are "original and written specifically for the film" are eligible to win.
The first time there were back-to-back million-selling Oscar-winning songs by the same recording artists was in 1955 with "Three Coins in the Fountain" and 1956 with "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing" and both were hit songs recorded by The Four Aces. Henry Manicni (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics) became the first songwriting duo to receive back-to-back Oscars for "Moon River" in 1961 and "Days of Wine and Roses" in 1962.
Songs that were published prior to a film's production having nothing to do with the film, such as "Unchained Melody" in the 1990 film Ghost and "I Will Always Love You" in the 1992 film The Bodyguard, cannot qualify (although "Unchained Melody" was nominated when first released for the 1955 film Unchained). In addition, songs that rely on sampled or reworked material, such as "Gangsta's Paradise" in the 1995 film Dangerous Minds, are also ineligible.
When a film is adapted from a previously-written stage musical, none of the songs from the stage version of the musical (and other sources) are eligible. As a result, many recent film adaptations of stage musicals have included original songs which could be nominated, such as "You Must Love Me" in the 1996 film Evita, and "Listen", "Love You I Do" and "Patience" in the 2006 film Dreamgirls.
There was a debate as to whether or not Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who were awarded the Oscar in 2008 for "Falling Slowly", were in fact eligible. "Falling Slowly" has been released on two other albums — The Swell Season, Hansard and Irglova's duo project and The Cost, by Hansard's band The Frames. The Swell Season was released in August 2006, and The Cost in February 2007, before the release of Once. However, the AMPAS music committee determined that, in the course of the film's protracted production, the composers had "played the song in some venues that were deemed inconsequential enough to not change the song's eligibility". The same issue arose two years earlier with "In the Deep" from Crash, which appeared on Kathleen "Bird" York's 2003 album The Velvet Hour after being written for Crash, but before the film was released.
Until the Academy Awards for 1944 (awarded in 1945) any number of songs could be nominated for the award. For the 1944 awards, 14 songs were nominated. Since then, only five are nominated each year, except for 1988, 2005 and 2008, when only three were nominated.
Though this is one of the few Oscar categories where one film can receive multiple nominations, the first to do so was Fame in 1980. Only four films have featured three nominated songs: Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Dreamgirls, and Enchanted. Dreamgirls and Enchanted lost on every nomination: An Inconvenient Truth original song "I Need to Wake Up" defeated all three of the nominated songs from Dreamgirls, while "Falling Slowly" from Once defeated all three of Enchanted's nominations. After these two consecutive defeats, a new rule was instated in June 2008 that a film could have no more than two songs nominated in the Best Original Song category in one year.
Nominated songs are usually performed live at the televised Academy Awards ceremonies. Although pre-televised ceremonies were broadcast on the radio, the tradition of performing the nominated songs did not begin until 18th Academy Awards in 1946, in which performers included Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson, Dinah Shore and Dick Haymes.
Randy Newman holds the record for most vocal performances of a nominated song at the televised ceremonies with seven appearances, with an additional appearance as an accompanist for James Taylor. Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis, James Ingram and Celine Dion each performed a nominated song at the televised ceremonies four times.
In the early years, the songs were usually not performed by the original artists as in the film. For example, in 1965, Robert Goulet performed all the nominated songs at the ceremony. However, in recent years, it has become standard to first offer the original artist or artists a chance to perform it at the ceremony. When the artist or artists are unable to do so (or in rare cases where the telecast producers decide to go with someone else), the Academy chooses more well-known entertainers to perform the song at the ceremony. For example, Robin Williams performed "Blame Canada" at the 72nd Academy Awards instead of the South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut voice actors, Trey Parker and Mary Kay Bergman (Bergman actually passed away a few months before the show). Beyoncé Knowles sang three nominated songs (one of which was a duet with Josh Groban) during the 77th Academy Awards even though she had not performed these songs in any of the respective films.
That same year, song "Al otro lado del río" (On The Other Side Of The River), which was featured in the film "The Motorcycle Diaries", won the award, becoming the first song in Spanish and the second in a foreign language to receive such an honor (The first winner being the title tune to Never on Sunday, which was sung in Greek in the film by its star, Melina Mercouri). It was written by Uruguayan composer Jorge Drexler, but the producers would not let Drexler perform the song during the show for fear of losing ratings. Instead, the song was performed by Carlos Santana and Antonio Banderas. Drexler's acceptance speech for the award consisted of him singing a few lines a cappella and closed by simply saying "thank you."
At the 80th Academy Awards, "That's How You Know" from the film Enchanted was performed by Kristin Chenoweth, rather than the film's star, Amy Adams. However, Adams performed another song, "Happy Working Song", which nominated from the same film.
Conversely, a number of well-known groups and solo artists, such as Elton John, Barbra Streisand, and Bruce Springsteen, have both performed on stage and made acceptance speeches after winning the award.
In 1985, Phil Collins was passed over to perform his nominated composition "Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)". According to representatives of both Collins' record company and Columbia Pictures, this was because the producers of the telecast were not familiar with his work. Ann Reinking performed the song instead, with Collins sitting in the audience. In 2009, Peter Gabriel, who was originally scheduled to perform his nominated song "Down to Earth" during the live broadcast, declined to perform after learning that he would be allowed to sing only 65 seconds of the song during the ceremony's Best Original Song nominee performance medley. Gabriel still attended the ceremony, with John Legend performing the song in his place, backed by the Soweto Gospel Choir.
Since 1946, the only other times that Best Original Song nominees were not performed was in 1989 and 2010.