THE TENACIOUS ALEX NORTH
Self-promotion is hardly part of Alex North’s vocabulary: the 75-year-old composer of scores for such films as “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Spartacus” and “Prizzi’s Honor” is the first to politely decline an interview and the last to praise his own work.
His music, he believes, is a better spokesman.
Although North is widely considered one of the finest composers to work in film, he’s never received an Oscar. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is rectifying the oversight somewhat Monday, when North will receive the first special Oscar ever given to a composer. (This year he’s also receiving lifetime achievement awards from ASCAP and from the National Society for the Preservation of Film Music.)
Despite some health problems--most recently a back disorder--North has kept active in recent months, writing deliciously varied scores for “Prizzi’s Honor” (not nominated) and new music (with his original score) for the stage/TV version of “Death of a Salesman” that starred Dustin Hoffman. Working under stress seems a prerequisite of sorts for the composer.
“There have been some crazy situations,” North said from his Pacific Palisades home. “I scored ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’ (for which he won an Emmy) at Palo Alto, being treated for cancer for seven weeks. They’d send me the script, I hired a Fender Rhodes keyboard and worked on it after radiation treatments.”
His tenacity seems to come from both music and his collaborators. “When I see John Huston running around despite his condition, it gives me a spiritual lift. And Dustin (Hoffman) was marvelous, a fantastic human being as well as an artist. He made suggestions on ‘Death of a Salesman’ which were wonderful. During one break he sat down at the piano and played the Gershwin Preludes. You’re more apt to listen to musical suggestions from a guy like that.”
With “Salesman,” North’s Hollywood career has come full circle. After studies at Juilliard and the Curtis Institute and many concert works, North moved to Broadway in 1949, composing original music for the premiere of Arthur Miller’s “Salesman.”
Critic Brooks Atkinson’s description of that score remains North’s own favorite description of his work: “Alex North has composed a witch’s chorus that is pithy, practical and terrifying. Give Mr. North a theme and he goes straight to the heart of it without any musical pretensions.”
The success of “Salesman” enabled director Elia Kazan to bring North to Hollywood in 1951 for the film version of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” at a time when studios were wary of using non-staff and non-Hollywood composers.
Despite his prolific work, North remains something of an outsider in the Hollywood community; even if his health were better, he’s hardly the type to actively campaign for work or join the town’s social circuit.
“I ran back and forth to New York for five years in the ‘50s,” he recalled. “In those days I especially missed the stimulus of the East Coast, the people. In New York I’d go to Broadway late at night to take a walk. In Beverly Hills I got stopped twice by cops when I was out buying a paper.”
There was also the political climate of the ‘50s to reckon with. Like many composers and artists from the WPA-era ‘30s, North found himself “suspect,” and was unable to work in Hollywood for several years.
The fact that North had studied at Moscow Conservatory in 1934-36 also didn’t help matters: “I knew students were subsidized in Moscow,” he recalled, “so I worked as a telegraph operator there while I studied at the Conservatory.”
It was Elia Kazan’s 1952 testimony as a “friendly witness” before the House Un-American Activities Committee that ended North’s fruitful series of collaborations with that director, which included “Streetcar,” “Viva Zapata,” and “Salesman” on stage.
“We were brothers, until he went to the committee, and got a lot of my dear friends into trouble. That’s my stand, right or wrong. It was a tough period politically, and I don’t know how close we are to going back to it.”
If North was a revolutionary, it was strictly on the sound track. One film music innovation he can take considerable credit for is his frequent use of “transparent,” chamber-size ensembles--as in the jazz music of “Streetcar,” or the quasi-baroque intimacy of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In the ‘50s, when full-sized orchestras were still the norm, it was often an uphill battle to persuade studio music chiefs to trust him.
“The tradition was usually wall-to-wall music, and I couldn’t see that. When I came out to do ‘Streetcar,’ (Warner Bros.) music director Ray Heindorf said, ‘We’ve got 50 men under contract. What are you using eight for?’ But the composer Hugo Friedhofer said to me, ‘Thank God, maybe we can do what we want to now!’ ”
Ironically, North finds many of today’s young directors more conservative in their scoring attitudes than their predecessors. “Fear is a problem with film music and films; people want to be conventional, and there’s more commercialism today. If you’re not daring in your art, you’re bankrupt.”
Yet some maverick directors survive. North is particularly proud of his work with John Huston on “The Misfits,” “Wise Blood,” “Under the Volcano” and their latest, “Prizzi’s Honor.”
“ ‘Prizzi’s Honor’ was a joy. I’ve been stereotyped as doing heavy pictures--'Streetcar,’ ‘Virginia Woolf'--so this was terrific. After I saw the film, I stayed up two nights thinking, how am I going to do this one? Finally, I saw it with John, and I said, ‘Before you say anything, I’d like to say something: “opera.” ’ John screamed across the room, ‘Puccini! Alex, you can go home now.’ It was telepathy; it’s possible to score a film many ways, but we had the same concept.”
The pattern for his relationship with Huston was basically set in 1961 on “The Misfits”: “John said to me, ‘Listen, just do what you think is right, Alex.’ I had maybe four weeks to do the score--Gable had just died, and they wanted to get the picture out for the Oscars. Huston said to the producers, ‘You can’t treat an artist like that.’ So they gave me more time.”
Despite his preference for intimate, small-scale scores, North found himself in the 1960s scoring plenty of “intermission films” like “Cleopatra,” “The Agony and the Ecstasy” and “Spartacus.” But spectacle films, he noted, have their rewards.
“I had a year, I think, to write them, to be more critical, to do more contrapuntal, complex things. Producers like to bring a composer onto a film after the final cut so they don’t have to pay for as many weeks. But the ideal is to be in on the beginning; I’ve done my best work that way.”
North hopes to complete another concert work in the future, a Third Symphony (to incorporate some of his music originally written for “2001" but not used), but admits his experiences in concert music have been disappointing. “I sent my first symphony to various conductors and learned you get one performance if you get any. I decided to get into functional music, writing ballet music for Martha Graham at City Center.
“Copland once said it was unfortunate I came out to Hollywood to work; but my so-called ‘sellout’ isn’t really. In ballet and film your music is performed, and heard by thousands.”
North doesn’t seem the least bothered by the lack of Oscars lining his mantel. “I’m grateful for my 15 nominations, which are done by my peers in the music branch. (All Academy members vote for the winners.) But in Hollywood there’s always been more emphasis on success over achievement. It’s a business.
“I’m not for the whole competition thing; there’s no such thing as the ‘best.’ If five guys played the same part, that’s one thing. Scores should be judged by people who know what music’s all about.”
And when it comes to self-judging, North is unmatched. “I’m too self-critical. I hate that part of me. In school I’d criticize myself before the teacher did, and that still prevails.”
Fortunately, there are many who have taken a contrary position. That most critical dean of screen composers Bernard Herrmann may have said it best: “Compassion informs his soul.”