In a country with a population of just 364,000, many of them cheered loudly when Hildur Gudnadóttir won her first Oscar for Best Original Score, marking a first for her home country of Iceland. It was also just the fourth Oscar for all females in this category since its conception in 1935.
Gudnadóttir was nominated alongside all-time great composers John Williams, Randy Newman, Thomas Newman and Alexandre Desplat. While her win might have come as an initial surprise, she was greeted with an exceedingly loud ovation as she took the stage to mark her place in history.
Her work in Joker has been described by many as a musical masterpiece, and although just her first Oscar, she has found success in all levels of musical performance. She was trained as a cellist from a very young age, and after collaborating with several well-known artists, including Animal Collective and the Knife, she began her solo career in 2006.
After several soundtracks, Gudnadóttir finally had a breakthrough for her score in popular HBO series Chernobyl, the much-acclaimed five-part mini-series about the infamous 1986 nuclear catastrophe. This performance would earn her an Emmy and a reputation as a musical oddity, one that could combine the rawest emotions of pain and darkness into something much greater.
“A lot of my music is kind of contemplative, and somehow that always tends to tilt on the darker side. My inner conversation is apparently quite dark.” – Hildur Gudnadóttir
When director Todd Philips came to Gudnadóttir with the prospect of composing for Joker, she knew instantly that it was a role she did not have to prepare for. The psychological twisting of a man who had been tormented by society was something she could relate to, and rather than let the character seeth in its own darkness and inner turmoil, Philips turned to someone who could develop sensibility and reason in a character who was anything but conventional.
Every movie has its villain, but very few are able to find a true sense of tragedy from a troubled man’s fall from grace. For Gudnadóttir, it was about tapping into her own mind, being able to develop an emotional and spiritual bond to the chaos within man, and reign it in, with each note rendering the audience all the more susceptible to feelings of sympathy and painful understanding.
It was in this measure that her work was an unprecedented masterpiece, and among others, leading actor Joaquin Phoenix cited the soundtrack as the pivotal reason for his landmark performance and the film’s overwhelming appeal to audiences everywhere. With the film’s giant sales and blockbuster success, Gudnadóttir has been firmly thrust in the spotlight as one of the next great composers in Hollywood.
On the stage, overwhelmed by emotion, her first reaction was to thank all of the people who had supported her throughout the role. Among these, she thanked Joker director Todd Phillips; her husband, Sam; her mother and her son. And to end her speech, she issued a powerful call-to-arms to women all over the world who had something greater to share.
“To the girls, to the women, to the mothers, to the daughters who hear the music bubbling within, please speak up,” Gudnadóttir said in her acceptance speech. “We need to hear your voices.”
With her awe-inspiring soundtrack, her place in history had been firmly marked, and rather than just set her place among an industry historically defined by men, she gave rise to millions more, all in a rising crescendo of voices through which she was composing, one note at a time.
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