Hollywood Flashback: Buffy Sainte-Marie was the first indigenous Oscar winner

Hollywood Flashback: Buffy Sainte-Marie was the first indigenous Oscar winner

“On Where We Belong”, from An officer and a gentlemanit may be wedding standard now, but in early 1982, it was just a gorgeous tune floating in the mind of Canadian-American singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie.

“I wrote the melody on my piano, playing music myself for fun,” says Sainte-Marie, 82 DAY. “It just popped into my head like songs do.”

When composer Jack Nitzsche approached her about collaborating on the Official score, played him “my tune, the hook and the bridge, but there were no words yet.” Director Taylor Hackford then enlisted lyricist Will Jennings, who saw a rough cut of the film. In the final scene—when Richard Gere’s naval officer picks up Debra Winger’s workman—he had formulated a ballad about love soaring to where “eagles cry upon a high mountain.”

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It was Hackford’s friend Gary George, former head of public relations at Warner Bros. Records, who suggested his client Jennifer Warnes sing it; and it was Warnes who came up with the idea of ​​making it a duet with Joe Cocker. “Jack and I weren’t invited to the recording session, but whatever they did in there was magical,” says Sainte-Marie, who notes that the producer “Stewart Levine’s perfect arrangement became a massive yet totally natural”.

Paramount bosses Michael Eisner and Don Simpson “hated the record and said it was never going to be a hit,” Hackford once said. But it spent 23 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, including three weeks at No. 1. It also won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1983, making Sainte-Marie the first Indigenous artist to win one. (She is Piapot Cree Nation.)

“It’s pretty surreal walking around Hollywood on Oscar night holding your Oscar while eating pizza,” she recalls. “It was only recently that someone said I was the first indigenous Oscar winner. It took another 38 years for Taika Waititi – Maori from New Zealand – to win Jojo Rabbit. And recently West Studi, which is Cherokee, received an honorary Oscar for his great work. While Taika, Wes, and I each come from unique and distant life experiences, all three are active supporters of other Indigenous artists who are telling our stories in film.

THR flyleaf from 1983

This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to register now.