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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Randy Newman on playing at the Oscars: 'It's not, ahem, a great audience'

February 15, 2011 |  8:07 am

Randy_newman Randy Newman made himself famous writing pungent, often hilarious songs about oddballs, fat boys, short people, Huey Long and anyone else he thought was worthy of a satiric jab in the ribs. When he saw the fiery racist Lester Maddox on "The Dick Cavett Show," he wrote a song about him. When the Cuyahoga River once caught fire because it was so polluted, Newman celebrated the occasion with the song "Burn On." His songs were always full of irony, even if the millions of fans who've sung "I Love L.A." at Lakers games might not be thinking about the lyrics when they're crooning the infectious chorus. Newman says he wrote "Lonely at the Top" for Frank Sinatra, but he didn't want to do it. It was Sinatra's loss, not ours. 

Newman has also been writing movie music for nearly 30 years, which has earned him an amazing 20 Oscar nominations and one win, for the "Monsters Inc." song, "If I Didn't Have You." It was long-overdue recognition, even if it still leaves him 25 nominations and eight wins short of his uncle Alfred, the film composer and longtime 20th Century Fox music director who won nine Oscars and was nominated 45 times during a 40-year career. This year, Newman is nominated for his song "We Belong Together," from "Toy Story 3," and will perform on the show.

Newman was as sardonic as ever when he sat down to talk with me the other day, offering anecdotes about the ups and downs of his 20 Oscar nominations. He remembers watching the Oscar telecast on TV as a kid, seeing his uncles Alfred and Lionel conducting the live orchestra. "Lionel did it once when Jerry Lewis was hosting and the show ran short, if you can imagine that," Newman recalled. "So Jerry, looking for things to do, yelled at him in his Jerry Lewis voice, 'Liiiiionelllll! Liiiionelllll!' And Lionel yelled back, 'Jeeeeerrry! Jeeeerrry!' "

Newman shakes his head. "Lionel was very funny, but very vulgar too. When he won an Oscar in the late '60s for 'Hello, Dolly,' the guy he won with had two Oscars in his hand, so Lionel sort of leered, 'Well, I'm glad I didn't do 'Portnoy's Complaint.'  Orchestras were always complaining about him cursing, even under the most sacred of circumstances."

Newman has performed his songs at the Oscars a number of times, which he views as something of an underwhelming experience -- except for when he won: He received a spontaneous standing ovation from the musicians in the orchestra, which nearly brought him to tears. "It's a long show and it's hot in there and if you're playing, you're playing to a crowd where the majority of people haven't won anything, so they don't even want to be there. I mean, it's not, ahem, a great audience."

He waves his arm, as if pushing someone offstage. "To be truthful, they have me on too often. I can't imagine why they'd rather have me than Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. The whole experience is so strange that I guess it's fun. I don't get nervous too often when I perform, but I do at the Oscars. If you make a mistake, everyone knows it. I did the show once with Lyle Lovett and I guess I was trying to help him relax, so I told him, 'Don't worry, it's like a fourth-rate vaudeville show.' And then I screwed up and came in too early on 'You've Got a Friend.' So I wasn't much help."

Read on for this week's first installment in Newman's reminiscences about his Oscar nominations:

"Ragtime" (nominated in 1982), score and song ("One More Hour"): Dino De Laurentiis hired me to do the score. I remember he had the best suit I'd ever seen anyone in. I'm talking about a $1,000 suit at a time when a good suit cost $60. He was on the phone, complaining about the casting. He didn't want Patti LuPone, because he thought she was too short, which I thought was funny, because she was maybe 5-1 and Dino was what -- maybe 4-11? When they had the Oscars, they did a medley of the nominated songs, performed by Liberace. My song was sung by John Schneider from "The Dukes of Hazzard," which I guess is what I mean when I say the whole experience is pretty strange.

"The Natural" (1985), score: Barry Levinson, the director, was really good about music. He had the Fine Young Cannibals in the movie, way before they made it big. There was absolutely nothing to indicate that I could do the kind of heroic music he wanted in the film, but he believed in me. Of course, I always remember the slights. They were blowing up a big light standard in the film and I couldn't get a second flute player for the orchestra and I'm going, ''You're going to spend $1 million on a light standard and I can't get another flute player. What kind of world is this, anyway?''

"Parenthood" (1990), song ("I Love to See You Smile"): I thought we should do an instrumental to open the picture, but [director] Ron Howard wanted a song. I loved Mary Steenburgen's smile, so I thought, well, there's a good lyric. I was actually inspired by something real to write that.

"Avalon" (1991), score: I just wrote from what I saw in the movie. Even then, directors were a little more hesitant to be specific about what they wanted. It was clearly a Jewish family, based on Barry Levinson's family. After the movie came out, I remember "Saturday Night Live's" Lorne Michaels saying to me, ''Do you realize that not one of those actors is Jewish?'' I mean, Aidan Quinn as a Jewish dad? That's really wishful thinking.

-- Patrick Goldstein

Coming Next: Newman goes to work writing music for animation films and learns what a challenge it can be to pen songs about bugs.  

Photo: Randy Newman at work on the music for the film, "The Princess and the Frog." Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Disney Enterprises