Marilyn Bergman’s Lyrical Legacy Memorialized in Classic Hollywood Songs

“Misty watercolor memories of the way we were…”

“Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind…”

“I could sell my soul for just a little light in the heat of the night…”

Those lyrics, just three of the hundreds written by Marilyn Bergman, along with her husband, Alan, resonate with millions of moviegoers and record-buyers. Marilyn, who died on Jan. 8, was a three-time Oscar winner, four-time Emmy winner and two-time Grammy winner for her accomplishments across six decades.

The Bergmans were poets, although she denied it (“they’re totally different disciplines,” she said in 2015), who found their calling in lyric writing, mostly for movies.

For “The Happy Ending,” director Richard Brooks asked them for a song that would work for both the beginning of a love affair and the bitter, toxic end of a marriage.

They wrote “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” to a memorable Michel Legrand melody: “…all the seasons and the times of your days, all the nickels and the dimes of your days, let the reasons and the rhymes of your days all begin and end with me.” Poetry, surely.

They applied their writing mostly to movies, and the pictures they painted with words were often inspired by the stories and images of the film themselves.

The glider sequence in “The Thomas Crown Affair” was the starting point for “The Windmills of Your Mind,” with all its circular imagery (“like a door that keeps revolving in a half-forgotten dream, or the ripples from a pebble someone tosses in a stream…”).

The bittersweet tone of “The Way We Were” (“scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind, smiles we gave to one another…”) emerged from filmmaker Sydney Pollack’s flashbacks of Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford in their characters’ college years — and Marvin Hamlisch’s heartbreaking music.

The Bergmans were notably prolific and their lyrics diverse, working closely with every great composer in Hollywood. In 1983 alone, they dominated Oscar’s song category, receiving nominations for songs from films with music by three different composers (Legrand, Dave Grusin and John Williams).

Their lyrics became inseparable from the melodies of their musical colleagues to such an extent that one cannot think of the tunes without also hearing the words that accompany them.

“You become an extension of the screenplay, ideally,” Marilyn once said. “There’s something that a song can accomplish better than a few lines of dialogue. You’re striving for the same thing that the writer, the director and the actor are striving for: the truth of the moment, the truth of the film.”

Director Norman Jewison tells the story about the Bergmans demonstrating their soulful title song for “In the Heat of the Night” to Ray Charles, who was to sing it. After they finished, Charles turned to the song’s composer Quincy Jones. “They’re brother and sister, right?” Jones replied, “No, no, they’re married, they’re white,” to which Charles countered, “No, they ain’t.”

They penned TV themes (“Maude,” “Good Times”), enjoyed a Broadway hit (“Ballroom”) and wrote for vocalists from Streisand to Sinatra. They wrote “Nice ’n’ Easy,” the title song for Sinatra’s 1960 album of lightly swinging love songs. Streisand worked out how to shoot most of the songs for “Yentl” in the Bergmans’ living room.

She was the first female president and chairman of the board of ASCAP (1994 to 2009). Longtime ASCAP board member Bruce Broughton recalls: “Marilyn was very well-connected and respected in Washington, D.C., and was always a very strong voice for creators when she was on Capitol Hill. I remember when she called Steve Jobs personally to get Apple to make a deal with ASCAP for iTunes. As charming as she was, she could be formidable in her role as ASCAP’s chairman. She was tireless when it became to the rights of music creators. She was, in many respects, a wonder.”

As the history of classic Hollywood songs is written, the incomparable lyrics of Marilyn and Alan Bergman will rank among the timeless works of Oscar Hammerstein, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn and Lorenz Hart. For us, those smiles will never be left behind.

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