First-time Academy Award nominee Ludovic Bource just so happens to be running against John Williams, the most Oscar-nominated person alive (and second in history after Walt Disney). As if that isn't odds-crushing enough, Williams's name is on two of the five nominations – for War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin, both directed by Steven Spielberg.
Still, as the composer for The Artist, Bource has a good chance of taking home the Oscar for best original score. Not only is he riding the momentum of a film that charmed the socks off critics and audiences alike; his music plays a comparatively weighty role in a movie that lacks dialogue.
Need further proof that Sunday might be his big night? Bource has already won a Golden Globe, a European Film Award and a BAFTA (the British Academy of Film and Television Arts).
From his studio in Paris, where acoustic and electric guitars line one wall and a piano sits next to his computer composing station, Bource, 41, plays down the notion that this score needed to be more substantial to compensate for the silent stars.
Instead, he says his goal for the music was to speed up the audience's response to the love story – to help them understand or "digest" it – without forcing emotions upon them.
He adds that the process was far more intense than his past experiences with director Michel Hazanavicius (the two have been friends for more than a decade). Every micro edit to the film required a corresponding tweak to the score.
Just as The Artist revisits the era of silent film, its score plays off the codes established during the golden age of Hollywood music, when composers like Max Steiner, Alfred Newman and Erich Korngold took what they'd learned from mentors Mahler, Lizst, Brahms and Strauss and created sweeping, romantic arrangements.
In The Artist, the leitmotif that represents the female lead character's love for the hero is heavy on swelling strings – and it isn't afraid of schmaltz.
The year was not lacking in progressive scores, however. Nominees Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch, who won last year for the atmospheric score for The Social Network, moved into even edgier territory for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Canadian Howard Shore for Hugo and Alberto Iglesias for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy round out the nominees.
"Actually a very strong slate this year, which you can't always say," according to Jim Lochner, the New York-based managing editor for Film Score Monthly Online. But creating a score for The Artist was a particularly challenging gig, he notes. "You can't imagine the movie without it; it is a character in film. He is giving musical voice to the dialogue that they're unable to [communicate]"
Bource, who shares the same agent as Reznor (Amos Newman, son of composer legend Randy), believes that people are content to hear music that is not overly challenging. "With the economic crisis, people are scared about what's happening and need to be reassured – and everyone wants to be reassured by love. Which is what you find in The Artist. There's nothing unclear about that."
His nomination has not been without controversy, however. In January, actress Kim Novak took out a full-page ad in Variety to decry his appropriation of composer Bernard Hermann's love theme for Vertigo (the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film she starred in). "I want to report a rape," she wrote.
Bource's response was that his borrowing of Vertigo's "Love Scene" composition was the "purest tribute to the maestro Bernard Hermann," adding that many films incorporate well-known works from the past.
Mike Knobloch, the president of film music and publishing for Universal Pictures, says a key criterion of a successful score is that the music fits emotionally. "Does the music succeed in the context of the film, is it a good complement, does it propel the story and provoke the right emotions?" he says by phone from Los Angeles.
Echoing Lochner, he says The Artist did require more from Bource. "Whether he admits or not, he had a lot more space to fill. Typically, a composer carves out space for dialogue. … But The Artist was more needy than other movies."
For his part, Bource says that the only pressure to win the Oscar has come from his son, soon to turn 5. Basically, he wants "The Monsieur" statue to meet his father's European Film Award, a sleek female statuette. Says Bource, "He wants them to kiss on the lips."