You would be hard-pressed to find an Oscar category with a more contentious history than Best Original Song. Sure, some of the more important awards like Best Director and Best Picture have had more irritating and downright perplexing winners, but there has never been a movement to remove those categories from the award ceremony wholesale. Meanwhile, Best Original Song has been the subject of think pieces that recount the torrid history of the award and occasionally just drop the pretence and call it a “garbage category”.
This might seem like an overreaction… that is until you look at the list of winners. When was the last time anyone listened to either of Madonna’s wins for ‘Sooner or Later’ or ‘You Must Love Me’? Even worse, can anyone point out which movies they were a part of? Who heard the love theme from The Towering Inferno and demanded it take home Oscar gold? Is ‘Things Have Changed’ anyone’s favourite Bob Dylan song?
Part of the problem is that there isn’t actually any definitive rule for what counts as a Best Original Song. The category states that the nominees must have been written for the film that they appear in, but that doesn’t preclude songs that were recorded separately and then haphazardly thrown into a movie’s ending credits. Songs don’t have to reference their parent films or really be related to them in any way, shape, or form. They just have to be there, which makes Best Original Song perhaps the least cinematic award in an award show focused on cinema.
But Best Original Song also isn’t exempt from the classic eye-rolling shenanigans that the Academy Awards are famous for. Randy Newman got a makeup award for his contribution to Monsters, Inc., ‘If I Didn’t Have You’, after having written one of the most iconic movie songs of all time, ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’ from Toy Story. The Muppets‘ ‘Man or Muppet’ won in 2011, but it only had a single other competitor that year: ‘Real in Rio’ from Rio. ‘Shallow’ won for A Star is Born in 2018, and the narrative quickly turned into the award being a consolation prize for Lady Gaga to make up for her loss in Best Actress.
There are lots of egregious snubs, baffling wins, and unfounded chicanery that surrounds the Best Original Song category, but today we’re softening our suspicions and celebrating some of the best music to win the award. Some very deserving songs have won over the years, including some all-time classics that continue to float around pop culture. For a category as historically wayward as Best Original Song, it’s not always unworthy schmaltz that takes home the Oscar. Here are 11 winners that actually stand the test of time.
11 Great Best Original Song Winners:
‘The Way You Look Tonight’ – Swing Time (1936)
There were actually two songs nominated for Best Original Song in 1936 that later became Frank Sinatra standards: Cole Porter’s ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ from Born to Dance and ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ from Swing Time.
Both are all-time crooner classics, and even though Ol’ Blue Eyes didn’t sing the original versions of either of these tracks, the Oscar-winning rendition of ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ by Fred Astaire is equally charming.
‘Over the Rainbow’ – The Wizard of Oz (1939)
One of the major issues with Best Original Song is that the Academy tends to gift the award to songs that have relatively short pop culture shelf lives. Not so with ‘Over the Rainbow’, Judy Garland’s iconic ode to escape from The Wizard of Oz.
Perhaps the most famous movie song of all time, ‘Over the Rainbow’ is a classic in every way, from composition to performance to its eventual adoption as a queer anthem. Few Oscar winners in any category have aged as well as ‘Over The Rainbow’ and its Best Original Song win has.
‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ – Pinocchio (1940)
As this list will make clear, Disney has a thing for Best Original Song. The studio has ten Best Original Song wins (not including Pixar films and other collaborations), and most of them are simply some of the catchiest and most memorable movie songs of all time.
‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ has two major factors going for it: the first is Cliff Edwards, whose wistful delivery is still timeless 80 years later; the second is the fact that Disney continues to use the song as its main theme, making it instantly recognisable to every generation of movie fan.
‘White Christmas’ – Holiday Inn (1942)
Best Original Song winners are rarely chart-toppers or million-selling singles, but ‘White Christmas’ is the exception of all exceptions. With over 50 million certified copies of Bing Crosby’s Holiday Inn theme sold, ‘White Christmas is the biggest-selling single of all time and remains a yuletide classic to this day.
Unfortunately, the Best Original Song category would devolve into pap almost immediately after ‘White Christmas’ won its Oscar, leading to a mostly-forgettable 30-year gap that only has a few truly memorable winners.
‘Theme from Shaft‘ – Shaft (1971)
After 30 years of placid love themes and overly-simplistic songs, the Academy voters suddenly and unexpectedly got really cool and decided to give Isaac Hayes’ funky and infectious ‘Theme from Shaft‘ the Oscar gold. Songs this good rarely get nominated these days, never mind winning the actual award.
Hayes’ itchy central theme has lost none of its iconic drive or irresistibility in the 50 years since it was first released back in 1971. The Academy would rarely be this smart again.
‘Last Dance’ – Thank God It’s Friday (1978)
After sifting through a few more years of schmaltz, the Academy once again found a worthy winner in Donna Summer, the disco queen who illuminated the soundtrack for the forgettable Thank God It’s Friday. But ‘Last Dance’, Summer’s show-stopping number, is completely unforgettable, with its slow-burning intro that explodes into one of the most transcendent songs of the disco era.
Filled with over-the-top drama and one mighty high note from Summer, ‘Last Dance’ is all the fun of disco without any of the eye-rolling hangups.
‘Take My Breath Away’ – Top Gun (1986)
Legendary electronic pioneer Giorgio Moroder became the king of Oscar music in the late ’70s and ’80s. Having produced ‘Last Dance’, Morodor won a Best Original Score award for 1979’s Midnight Express and a Best Original Song award for ‘Flashdance… What a Feeling!’ in 1984.
However, his eternal ode to love and lust, brought to life by Berlin in Top Gun, is his most endearing piece of Oscar gold. Like Top Gun, ‘Take My Breath Away’ is incredibly over the top, but once you buy in, it becomes irresistible in its ’80s charms.
‘Beauty and the Beast’ – Beauty and the Beast (1991) / ‘A Whole New World’ – Aladdin (1992)
Disney had already made a triumphant return to Best Original Song with The Little Mermaid‘s ‘Under the Sea’ in 1989, but in back-to-back years, the Mouse House landed two all-time classic love themes, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘A Whole New World’.
Both composed by Alan Menken, the songs are sweeping and syrupy odes to eternal love that have unforgettable central melodies. The kind of domination that Disney had in this category during the ’90s is remarkable, with half of the Best Original Song winners going to the studio that decade and ‘A Whole New World’ landing at number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
‘Lose Yourself’ – 8 Mile (2002)
Similar to how ‘Theme from Shaft‘ represented a major shift in the Academy’s willingness to play ball with less-traditional (and less-white) forms of music, ‘Lose Yourself’ is another breakthrough as the first rap song to win an Oscar. But ‘Lose Yourself’ is more than just a historical footnote: it’s a still-relevant track that continuously soundtracks montages and pre-game warmups around the world.
The best-case scenario for a Best Original Song winner is ‘Lose Yourself’, a film track that transcends the film, the artist, and even the Oscars themselves.
‘Skyfall’ – Skyfall (2012)
James Bond themes have seen surprisingly little amounts of Oscar love over the years. Paul McCartney and Wings got a nomination for ‘Live and Let Die’, as did Carly Simon for The Spy Who Loved Me‘s ‘Nobody Does It Better’ and Sheena Easton with ‘For Your Eyes Only’. But Bond finally came out on top thanks to the power of Adele and her instantly-iconic theme for Skyfall.
Perhaps the best Bond theme of all time, ‘Skyfall’ bolstered Adele’s legacy, ensured the continued relevancy of the Bond franchise, and showed that the Oscars could make a correct choice in Best Original Song every once in a while.