Best Original Song is the lone Academy Award that can be untethered from its origin. By definition, categories like acting, directing, cinematography, set, and costume design are inherently anchored to the film they represent. Not so with a song. Sure, some songs can best be understood within the context of a film—and, at times, a song gains stature from its presence within a movie—but the greatest Best Original Songs exist in their own realm, inspired by the story on the screen but not needing a film to have an emotional impact. What follows are the 40 Oscar-winning songs that have made great, lasting impressions, either within their own universe or ours.
40. “Say You, Say Me” (White Nights, 1985)
Faced with writing a theme song to White Nights, a convoluted Cold War drama concerning an American dancer who defects to the Soviet Union and his quest to bring a Russian defector back home, Lionel Richie decided to chuck the plot out the window and play to his strengths. He dialed up the melodrama along with the sentiment, writing a syrupy verse that built to a show-stopping bridge—the kind of escalation destined for the silver screen.
39. “The Weary Kind” (Crazy Heart, 2009)
Jeff Bridges deservedly won an overdue Best Actor Academy Award for his
performance as an alcoholic country singer in Crazy Heart but his real
co-star was “The Weary Kind,” a broken-hearted lament penned by
Americana singer/songwriter Ryan Bingham and producer T Bone Burnett.
Bingham tapped into the sad rambling winds blowing through outlaw
country, giving Bridges’ Otis “Bad” Blake a signature song that rang
clear and true.
38. “I Just Called To Say I Love You” (The Woman In Red, 1984)
A song so lightweight it could conceivably be classified as bubblegum, “I Just Called To Say I Love You” from Gene Wilder’s The Woman In Red benefits considerably from Stevie Wonder’s guileless melody and performance. Existing on the razor’s edge of sappiness, Wonder celebrates his love by singing that there’s no special occasion for his phone call: he’s doing it only out of love. The sweetness of the sentiment verges on sticky but the lightness of his delivery keeps the song from seeming saccharine.
37. “I’m Easy” (Nashville, 1975)
Keith Carradine wrote and recorded “I’m Easy,” the gentle love song he sang in Robert Altman’s epic Nashville. Altman set his sprawling drama within the country music business and, in the right light, “I’m Easy” could pass as country: it’s a love song strummed on an acoustic guitar, after all. Its mellow vibe, though, recalls the smooth, burnished tunes of such ’70s singer/songwriters as Jim Croce and Gordon Lightfoot, which may be why it became a number-one hit on Billboard’s Easy Listening chart.
36. “Swinging On A Star” (Going My Way, 1944)
An ebullient, clever little number by composer Jimmy Van Heusen and lyricist Johnny Burke, “Swinging On A Star” was first sung by Bing Crosby in the musical comedy Going My Way. Each verse builds to a punchline, delivered with a nonchalant grin by Crosby. That playfulness is essential to the song, a quality that survives in subsequent versions by Frank Sinatra and Dave Van Ronk.
35. “Born Free” (Born Free, 1966)
Based on a true story, Born Free was a coming-of-age tale about an orphaned lion cub—a plot that is vaguely alluded to in the theme song written by John Barry and Don Black. Separated from the film, “Born Free” turns into a stirring inspirational anthem of self-realization, its drama deriving from Barry’s majestic melody, a tune that receives a grand melodramatic treatment in the original Matt Monro version, which featured arrangements by Barry.
34. “Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956)
Doris Day sang “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of his 1936 film The Man Who Knew Too Much, giving Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’ song a light, lilting quality. In the film, the arrangement is lively, almost sprightly, yet at the heart of the melody lies a reassurance, a quality that was teased out in subsequent covers, including a stoned crawl by Sly & the Family Stone.
33. “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” (Dirty Dancing, 1987)
“(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” in no way sounds like a relic from 1963, the year when Dirty Dancing takes place. With its stiff synth bass and electronic rhythms, it’s a creature of the 1980s, sung by a couple of old pros—Righteous Brother Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes—whose presence gives the song a bit of a throwback vibe that it lacks sonically. The combination provides some cultural dissonance but the melody and especially the performances are impassioned enough to make “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” a rousing bit of nostalgia.
32. “The Shadow Of Your Smile” (The Sandpiper, 1965)
Subtitled upon its initial release as “Love Theme From The Sandpiper,” “The Shadow Of Your Smile” did indeed give the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton melodrama a sense of romance. The gentle sway of its melody seems even softer in the hands of Andy Williams, a singer predisposed to understatement. Williams emphasizes how this was a love song for sophisticated adults in the 1960s, a perception underscored by the preponderance of covers of “The Shadow Of Your Smile” in the late 1960s.
31. “Under The Sea” (The Little Mermaid, 1989)
Disney revitalized itself with the 1989 film The Little Mermaid due in no small part to the songs written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, and “Under The Sea” was the breeziest, catchiest of that batch of tunes. Propelled by steel drums and a blindingly sunny melody, “Under The Sea” conjures a whole new world: within the film, it was the underwater fantasia where Ariel resides, but on land, it became the soundtrack for endless summers filled with sandy beaches and tropical drinks.
30. “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” (Rocketman, 2019)
Elton John concluded his biopic Rocketman with “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” a rousing pop number deliberately designed to evoke the days when he was Captain Fantastic. If the song riffs upon his pop peak, it otherwise charts his emotional growth, serving as a rousing self-affirmation that, after all the troubles documented in Rocketman, feels richly earned.
29. “Lullaby Of Broadway” (Gold Diggers Of 1935, 1935)
“Lullaby Of Broadway” was heard in three separate films in 1935 but it was Gold Diggers Of 1935 where it made an indelible impression thanks to the spectacle staged by Busby Berkeley. Staged as a 13-minute sequence within the film, “Lullaby Of Broadway” was the place where Berkeley pulled out all his choreographed tricks; it’s a short film that still dazzles. The song outlasted its staging, garnering covers by the likes of the Andrews Sisters, Tony Bennett, and Bette Midler.
28. “The Windmills Of Your Mind” (The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968)
“The Windmills Of Your Mind” provided a sepia-toned counterpart within the crime caper The Thomas Crown Affair, adding a certain sense of bittersweet ennui to the antics of Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. Much of its melancholy lies in the melody composed by French songwriter Michel Legrand, which gives the music an ebb and flow that mimics the anxious thoughts sketched out in the lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Popularized by Noel Harrison, the single also had notable covers by Dusty Springfield and Jose Feliciano, both arriving not long after the song won the Oscar.
27. “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” (Hustle & Flow, 2005)
Dramas set within the realm of modern popular music always are at risk of having their central songs not read as authentic. That’s especially true of hip-hop, where it’s entirely too easy to write something corny for the screen. Three 6 Mafia managed to avoid these perilous pitfalls with “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp,” a song that not only seemed like it was genuine Southern rap but played into the themes within the hip-hop drama Hustle & Flow. That’s a difficult trick to pull off but Three 6 Mafia made it seem easy.
26. “Never On A Sunday” (Never On A Sunday, 1960)
The first song from a foreign-language picture to win the Best Original Song Academy Award, “Never On Sunday” quickly transcended its origins as a central part of the Jules Dassin-directed romantic comedy of the same name to become part of the cultural wallpaper of the 1960s. Cover versions proliferated in every corner of the globe but they flourished in America, where it was covered by crooners like Big Crosby and Andy Williams, folk groups like the New Christy Minstrels, jazz musicians like Herb Alpert and even surf-rockers the Ventures. Each artist was attracted to the sing-song melody, a tune that swiftly—and permanently—lodges into the subconscious.
25. “Streets Of Philadelphia” (Philadelphia, 1993)
Bruce Springsteen sings in little more than an understated murmur on “Streets Of Philadelphia,” the song he wrote for Jonathan Demme’s AIDS drama Philadelphia. The subject was somber and so is the song. Long, sustained synthesizers conjure a spectral spell that never breaks, not even when Springsteen opens up the arrangement to contain the vaguest hint of harmony. It’s a song—and record—that conveys an enormous sense of loss, an emotion that rhymes with the sentiments offered by Demme’s movie.
24. “Fame” (Fame, 1980)
Set at a performing arts high school in New York, Fame concerned adolescents who were hungry for stardom—a sentiment captured by Irene Cara on the movie’s title song. Produced and co-composed by Michael Gore—the younger brother of 1960s teen idol Lesley Gore—“Fame” is gilded in synthesizers, diluted disco beats, and arena rock guitars, all signifiers of the early 1980s that blend into a surging, inspirational anthem of self-belief.
23. “Call Me Irresponsible” (Papa’s Delicate Condition, 1963)
Papa’s Delicate Condition, a 1963 comedy starring Jackie Gleason, has largely been forgotten but its Oscar-winning original song “Call Me Irresponsible” has not. Sung by Gleason in the movie, “Call Me Irresponsible” became an instant standard thanks to its lilting melody and clever words, qualities teased out by Frank Sinatra in the rendition he cut in 1963 that became the song’s definitive reading.
22. “Last Dance” (Thank God It’s Friday, 1978)
The theme song to the disco comedy Thank God It’s Friday, “Last Dance” contains an inherent sense of drama. It opens with an extended slow crawl, building tension over the course of a minute, before the melody soars as the disco rhythms kick in. Donna Summer calibrates her performance to match these shifts, helping to give “Last Dance” a heart in addition to a big beat.
21. “My Heart Will Go On” (Titanic, 1997)
James Cameron’s Titanic was an oversized blockbuster, so it needed an oversized song. It got one with “My Heart Will Go On,” a song written by composer James Horner and lyricist Will Jennings. Stripped to its lyric and melody, “My Heart Will Go On” conveys a sense of yearning, but in the hands of Celine Dion, it turns into an epic of longing—a song whose emotions can echo throughout the ages.
20. “All The Way” (The Joker Is Wild, 1957)
Released during the thick of Frank Sinatra’s 1950s comeback, The Joker Is Wild—a musical crime melodrama concerning a Prohibition-era singer caught up with the mob—introduced one of the Chairman of the Board’s enduring standards with “All The Way.” Boasting an exquisite arrangement from Nelson Riddle, “All The Way” soars upon its declarations of devotion. Jimmy Van Heusen composed the melody to highlight Sinatra’s bold range but it’s graceful enough that it also shines in the hands of such wildly different singers as Ray Price, Sam Cooke, Glen Campbell, and Celine Dion.
19. “Falling Slowly” (Once, 2007)
“Falling Slowly” puts into perspective that harmonizing can be one of the most intimate acts a couple can do. The central song in the romantic film Once, “Falling Slowly” is the sound of a couple falling in love, its plaintive melody conveying their rapidly deepening affection and their harmonies serving as their romantic bond. If Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova couldn’t convey these tender emotions, Once would’ve collapsed upon its own ambitions, but they appear for all the world to be a couple in love, and their connection shines brightest in “Falling Slowly.”
18. “Flashdance…What A Feeling” (Flashdance, 1983)
A couple of years after singing the Oscar-winning theme to Fame, Irene Cara took home the gold again with “Flashdance … What A Feeling” from 1983’s Flashdance. Cara isn’t the auteur of the piece. Giorgio Moroder, the king of Eurodisco, is, and he streamlines his synths into a cool, steely machine that propels the film and dance floors in equal measure.
17. “Chim Chim Cher-ee” (Mary Poppins, 1964)
Mary Poppins is the musical that turned the Sherman Brothers into stars and helped establish Walt Disney Studios as a major player outside of animation. Their songs for Mary Poppins are filled with wonders, but “Chim Chim Cher-ee” won the Oscar, probably because its lilting melody—written to fit Dick Van Dyke’s mock Cockney accent—helps conjure another space and time, one filled with everyday magic.
16. “Take My Breath Away” (Top Gun, 1986)
Three years after winning the Oscar for “Flashdance … What a Feeling,” Giorgio Moroder took home another trophy for “Take My Breath Away,” a crawling power ballad from Top Gun performed by the Los Angeles new wave band Berlin. All gleaming synths and electro beats, “Take My Breath Away” captures the sound of the Big ’80s: everything in its production is heightened so it could play best on MTV, so bold and stylized it tends to camouflage the essential grace of the melody.
15. “Up Where We Belong” (An Officer And A Gentleman, 1982)
It’s possible to view “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer And A Gentleman as the last testament to the values that powered Southern Californian soft-rock: the songwriters, session musicians, producer, and hired singers all teamed in service of the composition. Joe Cocker is a distinctive singer but he’s not showboating here; he’s offering the right amount of grit on a song that is otherwise sweet and supple.
14. “Let It Go” (Frozen, 2013)
“Let It Go” helped turn Disney’s Frozen into a surprise blockbuster. In the film, the song propelled a pivotal dramatic moment, but heard apart from the movie, “Let It Go” could be read as a galvanizing anthem of self-empowerment. That duality of meaning not only helped the song take home the Oscar but turned “Let It Go” into an enduring modern classic.
13. “The Way We Were” (The Way We Were, 1973)
Babra Streisand and songwriter Marvin Hamlisch reportedly tussled about the direction to take “The Way We Were,” the theme song to Sydney Pollack’s melodrama of the same name. Hamlisch wound up with something exquisite, a melody that sways from a romantic yearning to bittersweet regret. Streisand masterfully conveys these feelings, taking the early verses with understated ease before building to an emotional crescendo that feels like the culmination of a decades-long love affair.
12. “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do)“ (Arthur, 1981)
Hot on the heels of his smash debut, Texan troubadour Christopher Cross hooked up with Burt Bacharach and Bacharach’s wife and collaborator, Carole Bayer Sager, along with Peter Allen to write “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do)” for the Dudley Moore comedy Arthur. Caught between ’70s soft rock and ’80s adult contemporary, it’s an exquisite piece of craft as a song and record: it offers soft-focus comfort.
11. “Moon River” (Breakfast At Tiffany’s, 1961)
Henry Mancini’s gorgeous melody for “Moon River” helped give Breakfast At Tiffany’s an undercurrent of sophisticated longing—a quality that existed in Mancini’s original, sung by Audrey Hepburn in the film. “Moon River” had such a distinct gossamer shimmer that it attracted scores of singers, including Andy Williams, who cut the definitive version the same year that Breakfast At Tiffany’s was released.
10. “Mona Lisa” (Captain Carey U.S.A., 1950)
In the 1949 noir Captain Carey, U.S.A., “Mona Lisa” was performed by Charlie Spivak and Tommy Lynn, but that’s not the version that made the Jay Livingston & Ray Evans song into the standard. Nat “King” Cole covered it the following year in a version sporting an arrangement by Nelson Riddle, a combination that crystalized the smooth, pretty melody. Within this version, plenty of other artists discovered their own rendition, whether it was country singer Moon Mullican, rockabilly cat Carl Mann or crooner Andy Williams.
9. “Shallow” (A Star Is Born, 2018)
“Shallow” performs a difficult task: it seems as if it could be a hit on its own. Within Bradley Cooper’s version of A Star Is Born, “Shallow” is the ticket for Lady Gaga’s character Ally to rise from obscurity to fame, but as it is heard repeatedly throughout the film, it gains depth, serving as a commentary on the relation between Ally and Cooper’s Jackson. Gaga overpowers Cooper by design: she’s the singer whose talent overshadows her mentor, the singer whose emotions are too grand to be restrained.
8. “Lose Yourself” (8 Mile, 2002)
Designed as a moment of triumph for Eminem’s 8 Mile character Rabbit, “Lose Yourself” wound up serving as a triumph for the rapper himself. At the apex of his stardom, he constructed a bit of self-mythology where he was the scrappy, combative underdog that only needed one big break to achieve his dreams. Through a relentless beat and urgent delivery, “Lose Yourself” justly became an Oscar-winner and a hit: it was the purest jolt of celebratory cinematic empowerment since “Eye Of The Tiger.”
7. “When You Wish Upon a Star” (Pinocchio, 1940)
The de facto theme song of the Walt Disney empire, “When You Wish Upon A Star” gave shape to the dreams and desires at the heart of Pinocchio, a film where a woodcarver wishes that his puppet would turn into a real boy. It works perfectly within the film yet the sweet undercurrents running throughout “When You Wish Upon a Star” turned it into something akin to an enduring secular prayer: it’s a song about hopes to come, not hope that has been lost.
6. “Raindrops Keep Fallin On My Head” (Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, 1969)
One of the lightest numbers Burt Bacharach and Hal David ever composed, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” serves as the soundtrack to a carefree moment in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid—a sequence where Paul Newman and Katharine Ross while away a lovely afternoon on a bicycle. The airiness of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’” strikes a discordant note with the cleverness of William Goldman’s script, a contrast that helps the sequence work and gives the song life outside of the movie.
5. “White Christmas” (Holiday Inn, 1942)
So ubiquitous it seems to belong to no particular era let alone film, “White Christmas” remains an eternal marvel, the kind of song that doesn’t seem to have ever been written: it merely exists. Irving Berlin did write it, though, for 1942’s Holiday Inn, where Bing Crosby delivered it in one of his greatest performances; it seems casual and considered in equal measure. Decades of covers haven’t diluted the impact of Crosby’s swellegant original.
4. “Things Have Changed” (Wonder Boys, 2000)
Written for Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, “Things Have Changed” won Bob Dylan his Oscar with a song that held true to the sound and sensibility of this late-career revival. Stepping away from the gloominess of Time Out Of Mind, Dylan sounds lively and somewhat cynical as he sings how he “used to care but things have changed.” The performance isn’t shrugged off, though: it’s vibrant and alive, pointing the way toward 2001’s classic Love & Theft.
3. “The Way You Look Tonight” (Swing Time, 1936)
Debuted in Swing Time, where Fred Astaire sang it to Ginger Rogers, “The Way You Look Tonight” belongs in the rarified air of songs that are perhaps better known in their cover versions. That isn’t a knock against the original; the sequence remains enchanting. Instead, it’s a testament to how elegant and alluring the song is, how it conjures sophisticated enchantment in the hands of nearly any singer.
2. “Theme From Shaft” (Shaft, 1971)
A virtual film in its own right, Issac Hayes created a masterpiece with his “Theme From Shaft.” All strings, wah wah guitars, and funk beats for its first half, it ratchets up the tension until Hayes comes in to croon an ode to the private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks. If you think of this as camp, you’re telling on yourself: this is a celebration of Black power in all its glory.
1. “Over The Rainbow” (The Wizard Of Oz, 1939)
The Wizard Of Oz is so deeply ingrained into American culture that it’s difficult to imagine a world without “Over The Rainbow.” Composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg wrote the song with the land of Oz in mind, envisioning a place where a Kansas girl could find magic, but the wonderful thing about “Over The Rainbow” is how it doesn’t seem attached to a specific film or even era. The song taps into elemental emotions of longing, wrapped in a melody so soothing it acts as a balm.