John Williams Saluted on His 88th Birthday at Pre-Oscars Music Reception

There’s nothing like being honored for your 52nd Oscar nomination on your 88th birthday and finding yourself serenaded by 350 of the town’s top composers and songwriters. But that was Saturday afternoon for composer John Williams at the Society of Composers & Lyricists’ annual Oscar music reception, which was attended by nearly all of the original-score and original-song nominees on the day before the Academy Awards ceremony.

Williams — nominated this year for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” — responded by pulling out the ceremonial baton he had just been awarded by SCL and conducting the last few bars of “Happy Birthday” being sung by the appreciative crowd.

The famous composer of “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “E.T.” and many other classics said that receiving Oscar nominations “rather late in life, mean more all the time, the opposite of what you might think.” Williams’ 52 nominations are more than any other living individual (he has five Oscars already).

Noting that he had worked with such Golden Age giants as Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman and Dimitri Tiomkin, Williams said “the art and craft of doing music for film is still being developed. New approaches, new sound sources, new ways of managing the orchestra, are a very healthy thing. We have a lot to look forward to, and I’d like to be here 50 years from now to see what happens.”

SCL Oscar Reception 2020
CREDIT: Jon Burlingame

Williams earned the biggest cheers of the event, which is the hottest ticket in town for a composer or songwriter, and as Academy governor Charles Bernstein pointed out in his introduction, it’s the one pre-Oscar event that “brings the voter and the recipient together… people who know what makes a score great, or a song in a film great. We know what you do, we love what you do, and we care about it.”

All five best-score nominees attended. “Joker” composer Hildur Guðnadóttir referred to herself as “the new girl in town,” as the only person in the category not previously nominated. She admitted that the multiple honors she’s received (an Emmy, a Grammy, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA in the past five months) has “been overwhelming at times” but said she has felt “a sense of camaraderie and love and passion for music” from the Los Angeles community.

French composer Alexandre Desplat raved about the New York City musicians who recorded his “Little Women” score, which prompted “Marriage Story” composer Randy Newman to quip “I hope there are no L.A. musicians here,” eliciting the event’s biggest laugh. “Alexandre knows that they’re very good as well. And they can get pretty nasty if someone crosses them,” Newman added to further laughter.

Randy’s cousin, “1917” composer Thomas Newman, thanked the L.A. musicians who contributed to his score (which was completed in London).

All five song nominees were also represented, although “Harriet” actress and songwriter Cynthia Erivo and “Rocketman” songwriter Elton John, both of whom are performing Sunday, did not attend.

John’s longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin (with John, nominated for “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again”) said he was “happy to be standing on the shoulders of giants, these people I’m nominated with.” Erivo’s cowriter Joshuah Brian Campbell noted that he was from South Carolina “and the hospitality has felt quite Southern.”

Kristen Anderson-Lopez, nominated for “Into the Unknown” from “Frozen II,” said that her husband and co-nominee Robert Lopez couldn’t attend because he was “wrangling 10 Elsas and one mysterious Scandinavian voice” – a reference to Sunday’s planned Oscar performance featuring Aurora and performers in “Frozen” shows from around the world, all backing Idina Menzel’s lead vocal.

Veteran movie songwriter Diane Warren — whose “I’m Standing With You” from “Breakthrough” marks her 11th nomination without a win — quipped that “people are saying ‘break a leg’ and I broke my hand,” displaying her right hand in a brace. On a more serious note, he said “this movie is about faith, and we need faith in ourselves, just to be musicians. We get to make music — how f–ing cool is that,” she said, her occasional profanity familiar to her friends in the music community.

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