Get the Stories Behind 15 of the Most Memorable Oscar-Winning Best Original Songs
We're telling the stories behind songs from Adele, Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand and more.
The Oscar winners for Best Picture, Actor or Actress may make headlines, but the award for Best Original Song often makes history. The earliest winner, “Lullaby of Broadway” from 1935, has generated scores of indelible covers in the decades since, by stars from Bing Crosby to Bette Midler.
This year’s candidates will likely set records of their own. Should Diane Warren’s song “Applause” from the film Tell It Like a Woman take the prize, she’ll break a curse of 13 straight losses. If Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand,” from Top Gun: Maverick, triumphs, she’ll grab the title for the second time in four years. And if the viral sensation “Naatu Naatu” from the Indian drama RRR wins, it will represent the first time an entry from India has ever done so.
Here are 15 of the most dramatic stories behind Oscar’s Best Songs.
Related: Everything You Need To Know About the 2023 Oscars
Best Oscars Songs
“Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz (1940)
One of the most hopeful songs ever written almost didn’t make the movie that put it over the top. The producers of The Wizard of Oz asked the dream team of Harold Arlen (music) and Yip Harburg (lyrics) to write a song to appear towards the start of film that would express the deep yearning their lead character, Dorothy Gale, felt for a land beyond her family’s bleak Kansas farm. When executives at MGM saw an early cut of the film, however, they thought the song slowed down the plot too soon. So, they proposed axing it, much to the horror of the composers who had labored over their piece.
Arlen’s first attempt at the music struck Harburg as too slow and he wasn’t thrilled with his initial run at the lyrics. In testing stages, he started with “I’ll go over the rainbow” or “Someday over the rainbow.” Eventually, Harburg convinced Arlen to pick up the pace and settled on the classic verbiage that was delivered beautifully enough by a 16-year-old Judy Garland to help the film win its sole Oscar. Though nominated in many other categories, it lost all those to another classic released the same year: Gone With The Wind.
“White Christmas” from Holiday Inn (1943)
Savvy songwriters know, if you want your piece to last forever, hitch it to a holiday. Probably no song in history has made more of that maxim than Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” As crooned by Bing Crosby, it’s often credited as not just the top-selling Christmas anthem ever but, likely, the biggest seller in any musical category.
While exact sales weren’t tallied until the introduction of SoundScan in 1991, Guinness estimates its sales at over 50 million. The song’s initial emotional tug has often been credited to the fact that it was released during the first holiday season American military men spent away from home during World War II. It hit No. 1 that year, going on to enjoy chart comebacks every winter since. Even the announcement of the win made history: It’s the only time that the person who presented the Song award (Berlin) also won it.
“Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany's (1962)
“Moon River” has a melody anybody can sing—for a reason. Composer Henry Mancini designed it to suit the charming, but modest, vocal range of the actress who introduced it to the world: Audrey Hepburn. While her version of “Moon River” helped establish the vulnerability of her iconic character, Holly Golightly, it became a hit for two other artists—Jerry Butler and Andy Williams. Interestingly, each version earned the same chart position (No. 11), but Williams’ take had a longer life, serving as the theme song for his hit TV show (1962-1971). Hepburn suffered another blow to her vocal talents in 1964 when Marni Nixon was brought in to dub her singing parts in My Fair Lady.
“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1970)
Before the powerhouse songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David nabbed their Oscar for the insouciant “Raindrops” theme, they suffered three losses—for “What’s New Pussycat?” in 1966, “Alfie” in 1967, and “The Look of Love” in 1968. Initially, they also had trouble finding a singer for “Raindrops.” They were turned down by Bob Dylan and Ray Stevens before turning to B.J. Thomas at the suggestion of Bacharach’s vocal muse, Dionne Warwick. The day Thomas recorded the song, he had laryngitis, giving him a rasp the songwriters liked. He then cut a different version for the single which, aided by an extra horn solo, soared to No. 1.
“Theme from Shaft” from Shaft (1972)
When Isaac Hayes got the Best Song prize, he became the first African American to take that award, as well as the first to win in any non-acting category. And he was the first Best Song champ to both write and perform the winning piece. The song’s lyrics—about a “private dick” (slang for detective) who’s “a sex machine to all the chicks”—became just as well-known as its distinct rhythm. Even the backup vocals became iconic, especially when Telma Hopkins stops Hayes from completing the sentence “he’s a bad mother…” by singing “Shut your mouth!”
Later, Hopkins used that line as her catchphrase in sitcom acting roles in both Bosom Buddies and Family Matters. Initially, the Academy tried to disqualify Hayes from the competition because he didn’t notate his song. “Quincy Jones got in there and argued my case; saying that even if I didn’t physically write it down, they were my ideas,” Hayes told Mojo magazine. Hayes further put the Academy in its place by boldly performing the song on the show in his trademark bare-chested chain-link outfit, creating one of the most striking visual presentations in Oscar history.
“The Way We Were” from The Way We Were (1974)
Barbra Streisand scored the first No. 1 single of her career with “The Way We Were.” Her second, “Evergreen,” came three years later with the theme from another film she top-lined: A Star is Born. For the latter, Streisand wrote the music for Paul Williams’ lyrics, making her the first woman to win in a composing category. She also had a hand in shaping “The Way We Were.” During the composition stage, she convinced songwriter Marvin Hamlisch to change some notes in his melody from major keys to minor to stoke more emotion. She also changed the song’s first word from “daydreams” to “memories,” or, as she had to pronounce it to fit the tune, “mem’ries.”
“Let the River Run” from Working Girl (1989)
It should come as no surprise that some of the most literary lines ever to grace an Oscar-winning song came from Carly Simon, whose father cofounded the Simon & Schuster publishing company. She found inspiration for her uplifting words from the poems of Walt Whitman (many of which celebrate the movie’s setting of New York) and William Blake (whose image of the “new Jerusalem” she borrowed).
Simon’s song became the first entry by a single artist to be honored with an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Grammy. (Bruce Springsteen’s 1993 poignant song about a man dying of AIDS, “Streets of Philadelphia” for the movie Philadelphia, was the second to make that sweep.) The lyrical connection between Simon’s uplifting song and New York City inspired the U.S. postal service to use it in an ad that ran shortly after 9/11. In 2009, Simon herself performed the piece at the World Trade Center site to honor those lost in the terrorist attack.
“My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic (1998)
Everything seemed to go against using a pop song in the movie Titanic. When the film’s producers first asked its director (James Cameron) to stick a contemporary song into the movie, he balked, believing it would violate its historical context. He relented solely to allay the producers’ fears that he was making a commercial bomb.
Likewise, when the producers approached Celine Dion to sing the song, she told Billboard she wanted “to choke” her manager/husband (René Angélil) for even suggesting it. At that point, she felt “soundtracked-out,” having recently recorded theme songs for Beauty and the Beast and the Robert Redford movie Up Close and Personal. The song’s producer (Walter Afanasieff) had just as withering an initial response, dubbing the song’s early demo “dreary.”
All that uncertainty wound up greatly benefiting the company that had the soundtrack rights. They paid just $800,000 for the privilege, thinking they were going to get an instrumental score, not a pop smash. The soundtrack album, which was otherwise comprised of instrumentals by James Horner, wound up selling over 15 million copies. One week later, the song reappeared on Celine’s album, Let’s Talk about Love, which doubled the soundtrack’s massive sales.
“Lose Yourself” from 8 Mile (2003)
Oscar voters may know quality music when they hear it, but they often have a tin ear for the cutting-edge kind. It came as welcome surprise, then, when Eminem took the prize for “Lose Yourself,” in the process making him the first rapper to earn that distinction. (Three years later, another hip-hop track won the award: “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” by Three 6 Mafia for the movie Hustle & Flow.)
The combination of Eminem’s compelling acting in the film 8 Mile and the complex lyricism in the song made his win more than worthy. It helped that he drew on his own life to create the piece. “It would sound so corny if I was just rapping as Jimmy Smith Jr. (his character in the film),” Eminem told the website Genius. “That was the trick I had to figure out—how to make the rhyme sound like him, then morph into me so you see the parallels between his struggles and mine.” The track also became Eminem’s first No. 1 single.
“Skyfall” from Skyfall (2013)
Oscar voters flirted with Bond themes for decades before finally rewarding Adele’s entry in 2013. No fewer than four such pieces had been nominated before—the slinky Burt Bacharach-Hal David number “The Look of Love” for Casino Royale in 1968, the bombastic Paul McCartney blowout “Live and Let Die” in ‘74, Carly Simon’s sexy “Nobody Does it Better” for The Spy Who Loved Me in ’78 and Sheena Easton’s anthem in For Your Eyes Only in 1982.
While Adele’s darkly sweeping melody broke the losing streak, she was initially self-conscious about taking the assignment. The film’s director Sam Mendes told Indie Wire that Adele told him, “my songs are personal, I write from the heart.” He brought her around by telling her to use Simon’s intimate love song, “Nobody Does It Better,” as her role model. The win paved the way for another Bond songwriter to clinch the award: In 2022, Billie Eilish took the prize for her “No Time to Die” theme.
“Shallow” from A Star Is Born (2018)
Hollywood can’t remake A Star is Born often enough, it seems. Four versions have appeared so far—a 1937 narrative take starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, followed by three musicals: a 1954 version starring Judy Garland and James Mason, a 1976 redo with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson and, in 2018, the entry with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Interestingly, both Streisand’s and Gaga’s versions earned Best Song nods. Both were also cowritten by their singers and became No. 1 hits.
Still, Gaga’s piece holds the record for the longest run on the charts for any Best Song champ. That’s even more remarkable considering that the track paired her with Bradley Cooper, who’s hardly known as a singer. Originally, “Shallow” wasn’t conceived as a duet for the stars. Only later did Gaga and cowriter Mark Ronson realize how well that format could enhance the script. Its lyrical interplay underscored an urgent topic, one which Gaga stressed in her Oscar acceptance speech. “I’m so proud to be a part of a movie that addresses mental health issues,” she said, before pointedly saying to her peers, “a lot of artists deal with that. We have to take care of each other.”
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“Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” from Song of the South (1948)
The lyrics to this well-known Disney song imagine a life of unbroken blue skies and pure bliss. But the movie it came from, Song of the South, has a dark lining. Its script both promotes racial stereotypes and whitewashes the realities of slavery. The African American star who sang the song, James Baskett, couldn’t even attend the film’s premiere in Atlanta due to segregation laws at the time. All that didn’t stop the song from becoming the second Disney ditty to win an Oscar, after “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio.
Neither did it stop Phil Spector with having a Top Ten hit with his version of it in 1962. But, by the ‘80s, changing attitudes moved Disney to refrain from releasing Song of the South on home video and, later, to ban it from their streaming platform, Disney+.
Related: Disney Removes Controversial "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah from Disneyland Parade
"Baby It’s Cold Outside” from Neptune’s Daughter (1950)
Another controversial Oscar winner took six decades to draw that ire. The issue centered on the lyrics, which feature a call and response between a host, dubbed the “Wolf” (usually voiced by a male) and a guest named “Mouse” (commonly sung by a female). “Wolf” keeps asking “Mouse” to spend the night with him, ostensibly due to the cold, but also so they can create their own heat. “Mouse” politely demurs while making it clear that the “Wolf’s” come-ons are far from unappealing to her.
Interestingly, the song, by Frank Loesser, was chosen for the film Neptune’s Daughter after censors felt that his first submission, “(I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China,” was too racy. For decades, everyone took the song as just a flirty lark. It wasn’t until the twenty-tens that listeners on social media began to view the male character’s behavior as sexual harassment. In 2018, a number of U.S. and Canadian radio stations banned the song, which wound up causing a backlash. That year, the song shot back into Billboard’s Digital Top 10.
"Last Dance” from Thank God It’s Friday (1978)
The creators of “Last Dance” should thank God that far more people remember their rousing anthem than the junky movie that contained it. The Washington Post summarized Thank God It’s Friday as “90 aimless, alienating minutes” that “don’t sustain a glimmer of human interest.”
That was one of the nicer notices for a film whose creators hoped would be their answer to Saturday Night Fever. Remarkably, “Last Dance” became the first disco-identified track to win an Oscar, a distinction you might have thought would’ve gone to The Bee Gees’ classic Fever soundtrack. The man who penned “Last Dance,” Paul Jabara, also co-wrote “Enough is Enough,” which featured a thrilling sing-off between Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer, the vocalist on “Last Dance.” The song suffered another ill-fated placement in 2010 when the fast-food chain Wendy’s included it on a CD that came with their kiddie meals. Outraged parents objected to the supposed use of word “horny” in the song, a lyric that doesn’t officially appear and Summer claimed never to have sung, forcing the chain to pull the release.
“Falling Slowly” from Once (2008)
The song that won the 2008 Oscar was nearly disqualified from the competition entirely. Academy rules stipulate that eligible nominees must have been written specifically for the film in consideration. But “Falling Slowly” had already appeared three times before its placement in the movie Once. In 2006, it was included on a joint album by its composers, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, as well as on a release by Hansard’s main band, The Frames. It also served as the main theme for another movie, Beauty in Trouble.
Luckily for the songwriters, Oscar’s overlords ruled that because the song was originally conceived to fit the plot of Once, and because relatively few people heard the earlier releases, it could be considered. The song further stood out from most Oscar nominees by its spare arrangement and intimate performances, giving it an underdog quality voters couldn’t resist.