The 2013 Oscar ceremonies showcased some ironic moments for James Bond. First, by featuring Shirley Bassey singing “Goldfinger” and Adele her winning “Skyfall,” we saw how the formula for a hot 007 title song hasn’t changed much in 50 years. Viewers were also reminded just how long it’s been since Mr. Bond took home a statuette. At the same time, we also were seeing the coronation of a new Bond queen.
Before Skyfall, Bond movies had been nominated for only seven Oscars and won only twice. In 1964, Goldfinger won for Best Sound Effects. In 1965, Thunderball won for Best Special Visual Effects. That was it. Over the decades, most subsequent Oscar nominations were for the musical contributions beginning with “Live and Let Die” (1973) for Best Song by Wings (Paul and Linda McCartney). The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) earned two nominations for Marvin Hamlisch for Best Score and Best Song (which he shared with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager). In 1981, Bill Conti and Mick Leeson got a nomination for the title song to For Your Eyes Only. Then a very, very long Oscar drought kicked in.
Finally, Skyfall broke the mold with a record five nominations, nearly as many as all the previous 22 Bond films combined. This time, EON Productions were acknowledged for Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Cinematography, Original Score, and, of course, Best Original Song. Beyond cinematography, if nothing else, Hollywood thinks EON has gotten the sound right.
On top of all that, probably few viewers were aware last night that the short tribute to the Bond franchise also honored one of the most significant Bond girls of all time. Not only did Shirley Bassey give us a new rendition of the most iconic Bond song of them all, she stood there as the living template for every 007 song that followed “Goldfinger.” For one matter, Bassey remains the only performer to sing the themes to three Bond films: Goldfinger (1964), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), and Moonraker (1979).
Before Bassey, the Bond formula didn’t include such songs. Both Dr. No (1962) and From Russia With Love (1963) opened with John Barry arranging instrumentals. (The Matt Munro version of the title song for the second film wasn’t heard in full until the closing credits.) But Goldfinger changed all the rules. Thereafter, producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman saw Bassey as the singer who set the bar very high and all subsequent performers had to shoot for what she had done.
In Bassey’s case, she thought “Goldfinger” pretty much gave her ownership of all future Bond songs. She was surprised to hear Welsh belter Tom Jones got the nod for the next 007 epic, Thunderball. Then, for You Only Live Twice (1967), Nancy Sinatra wouldn’t be the last singer intimidated by the shadow of Bassey. When Lulu took her turn for The Man With the Golden Gun (1975), she reportedly asked, “Don’t you want Shirley Bassey?” Harry Saltzman had indeed wanted Bassey, or someone like her, for Live and Let Die. He didn’t think a former Beatle had the voice to sell a Bond song.
As the years went by, some singers did evoke the power of Bassey, notably Gladys Knight (License to Kill, 1989) and Tina Turner (GoldenEye, 1995). Others were sad reminders Bassey wasn’t the voice on screen, as with the miscast Sheryl Crow (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997) and Madonna (Die Another Day, 2002). Throughout it all, there was no question one queen ruled in Bondland, and her name was Bassey, Shirley Bassey.
Last night, in many ways, Dame Bassey was passing on the crown. As she sang “Goldfinger,” she was the embodiment of Bond past, whether Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, or Brosnan. When Adele took her turn, she was not only there as a singer, but as a songwriter as well and that’s what she took the statue for. She represented where 007 is now, and whoever pens or performs the next Bond songs may be, they now have a new standard to be measured by. And it’s a worthy standard indeed—the Oscar folks, after all this time, got it right.
So wherever you are, I say ye join me in wishing: Long live the queens, and may they all live at least twice! Would you ask for less from a good Bond girl?