The word “prolific” gets tossed around a lot, but it couldn’t be more appropriate in discussing the work of the late, great Marvin Hamlisch. This is especially true in considering his many contributions to film over the past five-plus decades.
Yes, he’s been duly decorated in other artistic realms — the longtime Broadway favorite “A Chorus Line,” which eventually ended up on the big screen, earned him a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 — but he also crafted some of the best-loved and most enduring songs and scores in movie history.
Hamlisch died Monday after a brief illness, his family said. The former child prodigy, who was accepted to Juilliard School of Music at age 7, was 68.
Regardless of the genre or year, Hamlisch’s music had a unifying factor — something intangible, an old-fashioned sense of showmanship, a feeling of substance and a respect for craft. He tapped into our emotions in a way that felt intimate and personal, yet he expressed yearnings that are universally relatable,
One great example of this is “The Way We Were,” a soaring, unabashedly sentimental, achingly melancholy ballad from the 1973 Sydney Pollack romantic drama of the same name starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. Nearly 40 years later, it still holds up beautifully, and it gave Streisand one of her signature tunes.
It also earned Hamlisch the Academy Award for best original song, which he shared with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman. (The couple said in a statement Tuesday: “He was more than our collaborator. He was our beloved friend. He was family.”)
1974 was a huge year for Hamlisch at the Oscars: He also won for his original score for “The Way We Were” and for his instantly recognizable adaptation of Scott Joplin’s music for “The Sting,” the seven-time Oscar winner that reunited Butch and Sundance, Paul Newman and Redford, as Chicago con men along with director George Roy Hill. The theme song “The Entertainer” is so insanely catchy, it’ll probably be stuck in your head the rest of the week now. You’re welcome.
In a reflection of his versatility, Hamlisch also composed the greatest James Bond theme song yet in the 22-film history of the franchise (in my opinion at least — you can have “Goldfinger” or “Live and Let Die”) with “Nobody Does It Better” from 1977’s “The Spy Who Loved Me.”
It’s romantic and wistful but with an increasing power, and like “The Way We Were” is for Streisand, it’s become a signature hit for Carly Simon. It’s so enduring, though, even Radiohead has performed a cover of it, putting their own spin on the song while remaining true to its essence.
If you were a little girl in the 1970s, you probably watched “Ice Castles” — a lot. And so you heard Hamlisch’s “Through the Eyes of Love” a lot. The 1978 drama follows the rise and fall of a figure skater who struggles to resurrect her career after a freak accident leaves her blind.
Hamlisch wrote the score and was nominated for an Oscar, alongside legendary lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, for Melissa Manchester’s ballad. This song is very “him” — starting out quietly and intimately with just a few notes on the piano, then building to a crescendo.
It sounds very of its time in retrospect but still finds a way to tug at you all these years later. And just try not to get choked up when Lynn-Holly Johnson trips over those roses on the ice and Robby Benson has to come out and rescue her.
There was, of course, a film version of “A Chorus Line” in 1985, directed by Richard Attenborough (of all people) and nominated for three Academy Awards, including one for yet another Hamlisch original song. But songs from the revered Broadway show, like “One” and “What I Did for Love,” have turned up in countless other films as disparate as “My Giant,” ‘’Shrek” and “American Dreamz.”
Naturally gifted and incredibly versatile, Hamlisch ranged from jazzy scores for the early Woody Allen comedies “Take the Money and Run” (1969) and “Bananas” (1971) to more somber work in heavy-duty dramas including “Ordinary People” (1980) and “Sophie’s Choice” (1982).
In between there were romances including the wistful theme for “Same Time, Next Year,” with Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda, and the disco-flavored title music for “Seems Like Old Times” (1980), with Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase.
Hamlisch’s first movie credit was “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows,” a perky, optimistic pop tune that Lesley Gore sang in the 1965 comedy “Ski Party,” which featured Frankie Avalon in drag. The song lives on in places like the family film “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and was even used ironically during a police chase in the 1993 “Simpsons” episode “Marge on the Lam.”
The last film he scored was 2009’s “The Informant!” Steven Soderbergh’s ‘70s-tinged romp about a bungling, delusional whistleblower. Once the strains of Hamlisch’s jaunty score begin — an ideal accompaniment to the faded cinematography and Matt Damon’s helmet of hair and corny sportswear — you know you’re in some vividly retro, comic parallel universe. That’s how effectively Hamlisch could create a mood.