ARTICLE | 16 DECEMBER 2022
As the days get shorter, and the nights get colder, we find ourselves in that time of year where the best evenings are filled with cosying up on the settee and watching a film. The soundtracks of some of these festive classics begin to spring to mind; Home Alone, It’s a Wonderful Life, Die Hard. The music of these films almost underscores the whole Christmas season, but how many of these are curated or composed by women?
One composer paving the way for future female composers is the award-winning Rachel Portman. Originally from Surrey, Portman went on to study at Oxford, gaining valuable experience and enthusiasm for film composition by working on student productions. Notably, Portman was the first female composer to win an Academy Award; this was for the charming adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, featuring Gwyneth Paltrow. She took home the award for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score. Her work on the 2000 film, Chocolat, was also nominated for Best Original Score.
Returning to our seasonal theme, among her many stellar film compositions, are two Christmas hidden gems. A personal favourite from my own childhood, Portman composed the unequivocally festive and Disney-flavoured, Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas. A follow up to the 1991 Disney hit, The Enchanted Christmas employs amazing voice talents, such as Bernadette Peters, Angela Lansbury, and Tim Curry, that lift Portman’s music off the page and onto the screen. Like many straight to VHS releases, the film is slightly lost to obscurity, having a smaller budget than its predecessor (and the lower animation quality that comes with that). However the music and voice acting are what really elevate the film to being a cosy, hidden Christmas classic.
In 2020, Portman returned to composing for festive films, with Godmothered, a wintery comedy featuring Isla Fisher and Jillian Bell. It was nominated for Best Original Score for a Comedy Film (IFMCA Awards) – a worthy nomination reflecting the compositional prowess of Portman, as well as the magical, wintery feelings expected for a light-hearted Disney yuletide film.
Lindsay Coleman attributes Portman’s success as being ‘derived from first, a natural affinity for the particularities of a film’s narrative, and second, her ability to forge a comprehensive articulation of a film’s emotional thesis via her gift for colour and storytelling.’ (Coleman, ‘Rachel Portman: Midscale Magic and Hollywood Storytelling’ in Felicity Wilcox’s Women’s Music for the Screen, 2021)
As in other areas, there is a long way to go in terms of representation – a quick search of the most popular festive films brings up almost no women composers – but the amazing work and success shown by people, such as Rachel Portman, show the artistic and even corporate strength and value that women bring to composition.
Share with us your favourite female and non-binary film composers!
Elizabeth Hardman is Soprano & PhD Researcher
Music PhD | OOC-DTP Studentship | “Confronting canonicity and promoting diversity: Gender and contemporary concert programming”
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
You can find her on Twitter @Lizzylikespie or on her website.