Marvin Hamlisch's shelves are cluttered with Tonys, Emmys, Grammys, Golden Globes. He even has a Pulitzer Prize for A Chorus Line. But he's most familiar with the Oscars. In 1974 he made Academy Award history as the first person to win three golden statues on the same night, for his work on The Way We Were and The Sting. He's been nominated for another nine Oscars for musical scores and songs that didn't win. As a lead-in to Hamlisch's concert Sunday at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center, we gave him a call and asked how it feels to win and lose an Oscar.
"Losing has almost no effect," says Hamlisch. "You don't all of a sudden wear a scarlet 'L' around your neck. No one says, 'Wow, what a loser.' If you thought you had a shot at it, you might feel a little low for a moment. But it doesn't affect your career. I think most people know by now that Oscars often go to the movie that has the best publicity campaign. Especially in the category of film score, the score that wins is the one that benefits from a hit picture.
"This year I will be surprised if John Williams doesn't win for Memoirs of a Geisha. I'm not saying it's a good score or a bad score; that's just the way things get done. I'm not complaining, because I was on the receiving end of that with The Way We Were. My score may or may not have been the best of that year, but the film was on a roll and we had the number-one hit song in America during the weeks that the Academy voters were casting their ballots. On the other hand, the last time I was nominated, for The Mirror Has Two Faces, there was not a prayer that I could win that Oscar. For just a moment you try to delude yourself that some miracle is going to happen. But I'd rather have miracles in other things, like when people are near death and then they live. For the Oscars, we don't need to use up the miracles. But you don't want to look like a bad sport, so you show up. When I know I'm going to lose, I usually take the first flight home to New York. I lose at 9:30; by 11 I'm at the airport waiting for the redeye."
Practically the only trophy Hamlisch hasn't won is the Kevin Kline Award. Nobody has yet; the first trophies won't be given out till next month. But Hamlisch has an affinity with Kline, having written the score for the St. Louis native's debut feature film, Sophie's Choice. Although he lost that Oscar to John Williams' (for E.T. ), Hamlisch is inordinately proud of the score.
"I tend to be very honest about my work," he says. "If something is lousy, I'll tell you. But as a score, Sophie's Choice is a really good piece of work. It's a very sad film, so my challenge was to keep the music from becoming too syrupy. I think I succeeded in bringing out a certain dignity to the characters that enhanced the movie. To me that score adds a kind of psychological layer that can be not only heard, but also felt. Had the film been more successful, I believe that score would have been widely recognized."
What advice does Hamlisch have for the Kevin Kline nominees as they prepare their acceptance speeches?
"I don't love the idea of taking out a piece of paper and starting to read," he says. "I much prefer letting the moment whisk you away. If you've been devoted to a project, you don't forget anybody. But what's happened in our society is that things that should be a lot of fun are becoming too planned. My advice to the nominees would be not to prepare a speech, but rather prepare to enjoy the moment. That's what life should be: a series of great moments. Don't spoil this one with too much planning."