Angela Morley: The Story Behind the Two-Time Oscar-Nominated Trans Composer

Oscar nominations always bring with them the added excitement of records broken and history made. And so, it was with much glee that many reported that Antony Hegarty, co-writer of the song “Manta Ray,” from documentary Racing Extinction, had become the first trans person to be nominated for an Academy Award — a distinction many were hoping would be accomplished by one of the delightful leads of this year’s breakout comedy Tangerine. Alas, further digging by Oscar aficionados proved that this wasn’t the case. In fact, composer Angela Morley (née Walter “Wally” Stott), had already broken that record. Back in 1974.

Morley received two Oscar nominations: her first for the score of Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner’s music for The Little Prince (1974) and the second a mere four years later for the Sherman brothers (of Mary Poppins fame) musical version of Cinderella, The Slipper and the Rose (1978). Lest we think her association with the Oscars was a thing of the past, she was actually responsible for the arrangements for the nominated score medleys performed by violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo Yo Ma at the 73rd Academy Awards. In case you need a reminder, that’s the year Gladiator took the big prize.

Having won two of her three Emmys for Julie Andrews specials — Julie Andrews in Concert (1987) and The Sound of Christmas (1990) — as well as having scored iconic series like Dallas, Dynasty, Wonder Woman, Cagney & Lacey and Falcon Crest, you’d think her name would be better known, at least within the LGBT community.

The Guardian’s obituary noted that Morley had suffered “a lifelong mental struggle with gender identity, a fact that, for all those years, he had kept sealed tightly inside himself.” Eventually, Morley underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1972, only two years after marrying her second wife, Christine Parker. It was through her that she’d been able to cross that “terrifying” gender border.

Growing up, Morley had always felt a kinship with music. At age 10 she learnt to play the violin. At age 11 the accordion. Later that year she’d take lessons for the clarinet and would eventually learn to play the saxophone. By the time Morley turned 20 in 1944, she joined the Geraldo Orchestra a gig that led her to becoming a composer (and a ‘ghost writer’) for many films and television shows in the UK before moving in the late 1970s to Los Angeles to work in Hollywood.

What many don’t know is the crucial role Morley played in the composition of one of the most iconic scores of all time: Star Wars. John Williams, who just picked up his 50th Oscar nomination for scoring J.J. Abrams’ latest foray into that galaxy far far away, often turned to Morley for help with his compositions and his score for the 1977 George Lucas classic was no exception. It’s a fact that’s been hiding in plain sight for years.

“Do you know the scene in Star Wars where Luke goes down into the Death Star trench and the voice says ‘Use the Force, Luke?'” Morley asked journalist Kenneth LaFave ahead of a 1997 concert appearance alongside Patti Lupone and Yo-Yo Ma, “That’s my orchestration.” Her work with Williams, which went largely uncredited, also included work on Superman, E.T., The Empire Strikes Back, The Right Stuff, Karate Kid and The Verdict. Her orchestrations and “source music” can also be heard in Schindler’s List and in Home Alone.

It’s perhaps fitting than in a year when Antony Hegarty nabbed a Best Original Song nomination and Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander were recognized for their work on The Danish Girl we’ve been prompted to revisit Morley’s story and return her, perhaps, to the place in LGBT history she’d always earned.