Written exclusively for CapedWonder™.com by Bill Williams

Updated 09 April 2021

At the 2017 Academy Awards, we certainly saw our share of surprises. Among them was the win for Best Makeup, which went to Giorgio Gregorini, Alessandro Bertolazzi, and Christopher Allen Nelson for their work on Suicide Squad, the surprise blockbuster film that was the latest installment in the DC Comics cinematic universe. The film had beaten out the two other equally worthy candidates in A Man Called Ove and Star Trek Beyond. It would mark the latest achievement for fantasy films as a force to be reckoned with at the Academy Awards.

In February 2004, the fantasy and science fiction genre finally established itself as a dominant force, as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King dominated at the Academy Awards, winning all of its eleven Oscars and earning its rightful place as the crowning achievement for Peter Jackson and all of his crew. But the groundwork had been laid twenty-six years before, with the seven Academy Awards that Star Wars rightfully earned, continuing into the following year with Superman.

Superman-The Movie would be nominated for three Academy Awards in January 1979. John Williams would receive a nomination for his score with the London Symphony Orchestra, which has since gone on to become a classic score in its own right in the Williams repertoire and the defining score for the character and its star Christopher Reeve. But at the time it had serious competition from Jerry Goldsmith’s score to The Boys from Brazil, Ennio Morricone’s score to Days of Heaven, Dave Grusin’s score to Heaven Can Wait, and Giorgio Moroder’s score to Midnight Express.

(It is interesting to note the Williams-Goldsmith-Moroder connection here. Originally, Richard Donner had asked Goldsmith, who had previously scored The Omen, to score Superman-The Movie, but his scheduling forced him to bow out. This led Donner to bring Williams aboard for a brief period. His scheduling didn’t work out, and according to Donner, Goldsmith’s schedule opened up, then he lost Goldsmith again. Donner and Ilya Salkind clinched Williams a second time, and the rest is music history. Goldsmith would eventually go on to score the 1984 spinoff Supergirl. At one point, in his track “The Superman Poster”, he references Williams’ original Superman march very briefly. Moroder, meanwhile, would come aboard in the spring of 1983 and compose four original songs for Superman III. His synthesizer adaptation of Williams’ main Superman march, however, is best left forgotten.)

Stuart Baird would also be nominated for his lightning-quick editing on Superman-The Movie. He and Dick Donner enjoyed a solid love-hate relationship on the film to the point where Donner “fired” Baird on at least two occasions, only to have Baird return and continue editing the film. Much of the film’s editing success is due to Baird, who made careful editing choices in cutting the complex visual sequences together to make everything seamless, while selecting long, continuous takes culled from Geoffrey Unsworth’s skilled photography in slower moments of the film to give it a proper balance. Baird’s competition that year came from Robert E. Swink’s work on The Boys from Brazil, Don Zimmerman’s work on Coming Home, Peter Zinner’s work on The Deer Hunter, and Gerry Hambling’s work on Midnight Express.

Superman-The Movie would also receive a third nomination for its then-excellent sound effects, supervised by Gordon McCallum and mixed by Roy Charman, Graham Hartstone, and Nicholas Le Messurier, among others. The complex sound effects included the sound for the Phantom Zone, Krypton’s explosion, the flight of the starship to Earth, explosions, the delicate background sounds in the Fortress of Solitude, the madcap daily traffic of Metropolis during rush hour, numerous explosions, and, of course, Superman in flight. While the film would receive a sonic facelift for its DVD release in 2001, the original mix still holds up extremely well after all these years. McCallum and company would face some equally tough competition from The Buddy Holly Story, Days of Heaven, The Deer Hunter, and Hooper at the Academy Awards.

On the evening of Thursday, April 6, 1979, the fifty-first edition of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Scientific or Technical Awards ceremonies were held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. It was hosted by film veteran Gregory Peck, who had starred a few years earlier in Richard Donner’s suspenseful thriller The Omen, along with someone who had just made his name in the Hollywood community because of a little film project he had just completed that had gone on to earn overwhelming critical and commercial acclaim. It may have been Peck’s third appearance at the Scientific and Technical Awards, but it would be the first taste of Oscar celebrity for one Christopher Reeve. Together they presented Academy Awards for Merit, a Scientific and Engineering Award, and Technical Achievement Awards to numerous individuals and companies for their contribution to the growing art of cinema.

Three nights later, on April 9, 1979, the fifty-first Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Music Center of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Hollywood, California, and broadcast on ABC-TV. It was a star-studded event, hosted for the first time by long-time nighttime Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, with many of the cinema’s top stars, directors, and producers present for the event. Three of the stars from Superman-The Movie were present that night — Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, and Valerie Perrine — among the many others. Reeve arrived that night with his then-girlfriend Gae Exton. He and Margot Kidder looked like they were ready for the high school prom that night instead of the Oscars; they both looked that stunning. Perrine herself looked just as stunning as well, a definition of class both on screen and off. Given her penchant for comedy, she and Dom DeLuise hit it off fabulously that night. (As a side note, Valerie and Dom would later be seen in The Cannonball Run, which premiered in theaters on June 19, 1981, the same day as the U.S. premiere of Superman II.)

Leading films in contention for the top awards that year included the romantic comedy Heaven Can Wait, the Vietnam War-era films Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, a dark film in Midnight Express, the dramatic Jill Clayburgh film An Unmarried Woman, and the biopic The Buddy Holly Story, among others. You would have thought that a blockbuster epic like Superman-The Movie would have garnered top awards because of its overwhelming critical and commercial box-office success, not to mention lots of nominations like Star Wars had received the year before. But it was simply a different time back then. The mentality of Hollywood was biased against visual effects-laden spectaculars that delved into the realm of science fiction and/or fantasy, and despite its grounded sense of reality that Dick Donner and company had brought to the film, Superman-The Movie nevertheless fell into that same category. It would be another twenty-plus years before that mentality changed.

Steve Martin presented the Oscar for Special Achievement in Visual Effects to their film, Superman-The Movie, which had been unanimously selected by the Academy Board of Governors. A number of clips were shown; Les Bowie, Colin Chilvers, Roy Field, Denys Coop, Derek Meddings, and Zoran Perisic went up to accept the award (Les Bowie had already passed away); and the accolade had been rightfully deserved. In the eyes of the Academy Award board, what they achieved in Superman-The Movie had never been before achieved in both the history of the character and the history of the Oscars. They had pulled it off in such convincing manner and believability. Richard Donner’s insistence upon working to achieve that sense of verisimilitude, that state of grounded reality within the framework of fiction, had paid off.

Superman-The Movie never received any nominations beyond the visual effects, music, editing, and sound effects, nor did it receive any other awards that night, though all had been rightfully deserved. Valerie Perrine and Dom DeLuise presented the Oscar for film editing to Peter Zinner for his work on The Deer Hunter. Reeve and Kidder also presented the Oscar for sound mixing to Richard Portman, William McCaughey, Aaron Rochin, and Darin Knight for their work on The Deer Hunter.

Meanwhile, at the thirty-second annual British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTA), Gene Hackman would receive a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his portrayal of Lex Luthor in Superman-The Movie. His would be the only BAFTA acting nomination the film would receive, as he would lose out to John Hurt’s performance in Midnight Express. The BAFTAs were much kinder to Superman-The Movie in terms of other achievements. The film would also be nominated for sound mixing and editing but would lose out to Star Wars. John Barry received a nomination for his incredible and varied production design for the film, but the award would go to Joe Alves for his work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (It would be the last awards appearance for Barry. Less than two months later he would pass away while serving as a second unit director on The Empire Strikes Back.) As with the Oscars, Les Bowie, Colin Chilvers, Denys Coop, Derek Meddings, Zoran Perisic, and Wally Veevers would win the BAFTA for best visual effects. The late Geoffrey Unsworth, who sadly passed away prior to the release of Superman-The Movie, received a posthumous BAFTA nomination for best cinematography, but the award would go to Douglas Slocombe for his work on Julia. However, Christopher Reeve would win one of the more prominent awards that night as the Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles in 1979. His dual portrayal of Clark Kent and Superman was a complete winner in the eyes of the British film community.

As far as the music alone, while the other scores have long since faded into people’s memory, John Williams’ score to Superman-The Movie still holds up in terms of recognition and popularity alongside other memorable scores to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series, E.T., JFK, Schindler’s List, and so many others. His score should have netted him the Oscar in my opinion. Instead, Giorgio Moroder walked away with the Oscar that night for his score to Midnight Express, which he would also clinch at the 36th annual Golden Globe Awards, which was held a few months before, on January 27, 1979.

The Superman sequels that would follow throughout the 1980’s would not receive any further Oscar considerations, although Christopher Reeve had once stated in an interview prior to the release of Superman III he would reject such nominations. Reeve would make only one more memorable appearance at the Academy Awards, in 1996, as he, now bound to his wheelchair by his paralysis, spoke on the importance of social themes in Hollywood films. The audience that night had not forgotten that, once upon a time, he had been “our new man”, as John Wayne and Cary Grant had commented, that he had been their Superman.

The critical and commercial success of Superman-The Movie was not just limited to the Oscars and the BAFTA awards, however. At the 1979 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, Superman-The Movie was nominated for nine Saturn Awards and won five for Best Science Fiction Film, Margot Kidder for Best Actress, John Williams for Best Music, Colin Chilvers for Best Special Effects, and John Barry for Best Production Design. Its nominations were equally worthy, as Christopher Reeve was nominated for Best Actor, Valerie Perrine for Best Supporting Actress, Richard Donner for Best Director, and Yvonne Blake and Richard Bruno for Best Costume Design. Clearly, the Saturn Awards were much kinder to the last son of Krypton.

At the 1979 American Cinema Editors Awards, Stuart Baird would be nominated for Best Edited Feature Film. The late Geoffrey Unsworth received a posthumous nomination for Best Cinematography by the British Society of Cinematographers toward the end of 1978. Superman-The Movie was also the runaway winner at the 1979 Golden Screen Awards in Germany, and the National Board of Review selected Superman-The Movie as one of the Top Ten Films of 1978. At the 1979 Hugo Awards, held at Seacon UK (the forerunner of modern-day conventions such as the San Diego Comic Con) in Brighton, England, on August 23–26, 1979, Superman-The Movie won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation of 1978. Christopher Reeve was on hand to receive the award for the film, which was presented to him by Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz. Mario Puzo, David and Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton would also go on to win the Writer’s Guild of America Award for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium.

In 1980, John Williams would be nominated for three Grammy Awards for his work on Superman-The Movie, winning for Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Special and Best Instrumental Composition (for the “Prelude and Main Title March”). It’s no wonder that to this day Williams’ score for the film has stood the test of time, not only as the definitive score for the character, but also as a major part of the composer’s extensive film repertoire. One only needs to listen to the Superman: The Music (1978-1988) box set from Screen Archives Entertainment to fully appreciate Williams’ range of musical development.

Over the decades, Superman-The Movie and its franchise would continue to receive awards, further cementing its legacy in film and popular culture. In 1998, John Debney’s re-recording of the John Williams score would receive the FMCJ Award from the International Film Music Critics for the Best New Recording of a Previously Existing Score. (Debney’s expanded re-recording would foreshadow the expanded score from Rhino Records in February 2000.) As the 20th century gave way to the 21st century, Paul Hemstreet, Jonathan Gaines, and Michael Thau would be nominated for a Video Premiere Award at the DVD Exclusive Awards for Best Overall New Extra Features, Library Title, for their work on the first DVD release of Superman-The Movie on May 1, 2001. The following year, the film was again nominated for a Saturn Award for Best DVD Classic Film Release, giving the film its tenth overall Saturn nomination.

With the release of the 14-disc Superman Ultimate Collector’s Edition box set, it would win the Sierra Award for Best DVD by the Las Vegas Film Critics Society and the Satellite Award for Best Overall DVD. In addition, the box set would win second place at the 2006 Golden Schmoes Award for Best DVD/Blu-ray of the Year. Finally, in 2012, the collection —now released on Blu-ray in the eight-disc Superman: The Motion Picture Anthology (1978-2006) — would receive yet another Saturn Award nomination, this time for Best DVD Collection.

As each Superman film’s production value increased, so did the reliance upon more exciting and spectacular visual effects, stunt work, and CGI technology to not only push the film forward but to actually tell the story. Suddenly, what seemed groundbreaking nearly forty years before with Superman-The Movie now seemed outdated. Even the original Star Wars trilogy had been given repeated CGI facelifts in its numerous theatrical, DVD, and Blu-ray releases since 1997. Nowadays, the reliance upon green screen technology, stunt work, CGI, sound editing, and now even filming in 3-D is all second nature. It’s all accepted as part of the game.

Ironically, it was Colin Chilvers who accurately predicted the future of digital filmmaking. In a 1983 interview for Screen International upon the release of Superman III, Chilvers described the practicality of visual effects employed for the Superman series and the foreshadowing of what would occur in later decades. “Computers will cut down time when they become financially viable,” Chilvers said. “But at present they’re limited in what they can do, and even when they come up with sophisticated generated pictures, as we saw last year in Los Angeles, it’s still cheaper to build a set.

“You’ve also got to think about the effect on the actors. They have to react to their environment. If you start to program sets into a computer, you’re going to end up with an actor and an actress standing alone on a blank stage, which is not a very satisfactory way for them to work. The worst thing is to see computers being used just for the sake of it…. So there’s a danger of getting into a situation where because the technology is there, you use it for everything.” Foreshadowing the future indeed.

Many of the musical scores, however, have shifted from less originality and creativity to become the equivalent of sonic wallpaper. It’s just there. And while we have skilled musicians such as Howard Shore, Michael Giacchini, and John Ottman blending beautiful themes with musical storytelling, we have lost many of the grand masters we grew up with. Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry, Elmer Bernstein, and James Horner, to name a few, are gone, though their music will live forever. As of this writing, of that generation, John Williams remains. My introduction to him had been his soundtracks to Star Wars and Superman-The Movie. Forty years later, he still has it.

Once upon a time we believed. To this day we still do. And awards or not, remake after remake, the original Superman film still holds up after all these years.

Bill Williams
April 9, 2017

Stay tuned for more about Superman’s classic visual effects in the coming months!

Oscar Photos, Article & Brochure

Posted 09 April 2021

Please enjoy these 51st Academy Awards Presentation photos, the May 1979 American Cinematographer article, and the official Oscars brochure. Click on any small photo below, which opens a larger version. Right click on the larger version to download the full size file to your computer, and then open the photo with your favorite viewer – this will make the article and brochure text easier to read.

You can also download the American Cinematographer article as a PDF file here and download the official Oscars brochure as a PDF file here.

All photos are Copyright Ron Galella and other respective photographers.