This story about Diane Warren first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
When she landed a nomination this year for writing the song “Io sì (Seen)” from “The Life Ahead,” Diane Warren extended her own record for Oscar success: She’s now been nominated for songwriting 12 times over five different decades, from 1987 to 2021, albeit without ever winning.
“How cool is it that the greatest composers and songwriters on the planet choose my songs to be in the top five, you know?” she said. “It’s a big deal, and I don’t take it for granted for a second.”
A pause. “Would I like to win? Yeah, that would be really nice.”
Warren gave TheWrap a guided tour to all 12 of her Oscar nominations.
1987: “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” from “Mannequin”
Written with: Albert Hammond
Performed by: Starship
Lost to: “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from “Dirty Dancing”
Warren had a few pop hits before writing this theme for the comedy about a young man (Andrew McCarthy) who falls for a department-store mannequin that comes to life. It became her first No. 1 hit.
“My first nominated song is basically about a guy who f—s a mannequin. How about that? But he does marry her, so he makes an honest mannequin out of her. I wrote it with my friend Albert Hammond, and the idea was to write a big wedding anthem for the end of the movie. So we went to some department stores, and I left Albert alone with the mannequins… No, just kidding.
“But the movie became kind of a guilty pleasure, and the song lived on, too. I wonder how many mannequins have gotten married to it by now.”
1996: “Because You Loved Me” from “Up Close and Personal”
Performed by: Céline Dion
Lost to: “You Must Love Me” from “Evita”
Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer have a May-December romance in Jon Avnet’s drama set in the world of TV journalism.
“At the end of the movie he dies and she’s talking about what he meant to her. And I thought, ‘Let me write a song about somebody who saw something in you that nobody else saw and really lifted you up.’ It was a chance for me to thank my dad, because he really believed in me when I decided to be a songwriter. My mom was like, ‘What are you doing? Can you take your songs to Ralphs and get groceries?’ But my dad was more of a dreamer, and he always believed — he got me a subscription to Billboard and would take me to publishers and encourage me. It’s become a big wedding song for a lot of father-daughter dances, and also a big funeral song.
“It was one of the two times I went to the Oscars thinking I was going to win, and I remember being bummed out when I didn’t.”
1997: “How Do I Live” from “Con Air”
Performed by: Trisha Yearwood (and LeAnn Rimes)
Lost to: “My Heart Will Go On” from “Titanic”
The Simon West movie produced by Jerry Bruckheimer was Warren’s first time working with the producer. It was not a smooth experience.
“I guess there were a lot of people writing songs for ‘Con Air,’ and I had written ‘How Do I Live.’ I ran into LeAnn Rimes at a restaurant when she was 14 and had just won Best New Artist at the Grammys. I said, ‘Hey, I wrote a song — do you want to hear it and demo it? She loved the song and recorded it and did a big expensive video. And then I played it for Jerry Bruckheimer, and he didn’t like the production. It was too country, I guess, for the movie. But LeAnn’s dad, Wilbur, was like, ‘I’m not changing nothing for them Hollywood people!’ He wouldn’t budge.
“So Jerry took the song to Trisha Yearwood and asked me if that was OK. I said, ‘Yeah, as long as LeAnn can put the record out, too.’ He said yeah, but then he suddenly said, ‘No, you have to pull it from LeAnn.’ I couldn’t do that, and everybody kind of hated me. Jerry Bruckheimer hated me and Trisha hated me and the LeAnn record wasn’t even going to come out.
“I called Curb Records and talked them into putting it out, and the two records came out at exactly the same time. And people stopped hating me because they both became hits. Trisha had a No. 1 country record and won a Grammy, and LeAnn’s was the biggest record ever by a female artist. Jerry Bruckheimer told me, ‘I’m never going to work with you again.’ And then he worked with me again the next year.”
1998: “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” from ‘Armageddon’
Performed by: Aerosmith
Lost to: “When You Believe” from ‘The Prince of Egypt’
Bruckheimer turned to Warren once again for the love theme to a global-disaster epic directed by Michael Bay and starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler, whose rock-star dad, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, handled the vocals.
“The music supervisor on the movie, Kathy Nelson, said, ‘I’m going to get Aerosmith to do this.’ I was like, ‘No, you’re not — there’s no way they’ll want to do a song I wrote.’ I thought I was writing it for a female artist. But Steven loved the movie and loved the song.
“I remember sitting at the piano next to him when he was singing the song, and what an amazing feeling that was. I could never have imagined it, but there was just something about a guy singing those lyrics (“I could stay awake just to hear you breathing…”). If a girl sings it, it almost sounds too needy. But guys aren’t usually that vulnerable, and to have macho rock star Steven Tyler singing those words was just perfect.”
1999: “Music of My Heart” from “Music of the Heart”
Performed by: Gloria Estefan and N Sync
Lost to: “You’ll Be in My Heart” from “Tarzan”
Horror director Wes Craven changed course for this drama about a real-life music teacher who founded a school of music in Harlem; Meryl Streep played the teacher, with Gloria Estefan playing another teacher and singing the title song with a hot boy bad.
“I wanted to write a song that was about these kids thinking about a teacher who changed their lives. It’s a good thing if you can tap into something personal when you write a song like that — but I thought back on my life, and there weren’t a lot of teachers like that for me, because I was a horrible student and got kicked out of school all the time.
“But I did remember a counselor from a camp who was really kind to me. So I tapped into that when I wrote the song, kind of like I did with my dad before. The movie originally had a different title, but they changed it to match the title of the song.”
2001: “There You’ll Be” from “Pearl Harbor”
Performed by: Faith Hill
Lost to: “If I Didn’t Have You” from “Monsters, Inc.”
Warren’s third nomination for a Bruckheimer movie found her losing to Randy Newman, who won his first Oscar after 15 song and score nominations without a win.
“Jerry Bruckheimer made me rewrite that song 20 times. It was driving me crazy, but finally Michael Bay loved it and then Jerry couldn’t say anything else. Faith did a great job on it, and it’s another of those songs that has become a big funeral and in-memoriam song. The movie is obviously the first and most important place that a song has to work, but I’m happy that they get these other lives, too.
“And I lost to Randy Newman. I remember writing him a note, going, ‘Well, if I had to lose to somebody, congratulations.’ I was really happy for him.”
2014: “Grateful” from “Beyond the Lights”
Performed by: Rita Ora
Lost to: “Glory” from “Selma”
After a 13-year absence from the Oscar race, Warren came back with a song from the romantic drama directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker. It began a streak of six nominations in the next seven years.
“I wrote the song for what the characters were going through. I loved the message of it — that you gotta be grateful for all the bad stuff you go through because it gets you where you are and it makes you stronger. But I was really shocked that it got nominated. It was a great movie, but nobody really saw it. But the people that did see the movie really loved it, and they must have loved the song as well.”
2015: “Til It Happens to You” from “The Hunting Ground”
Written with: Lady Gaga
Performed by: Lady Gaga
Lost to: “Writing’s on the Wall” from “Spectre”
Warren went into the Oscars as the prohibitive favorite to finally win for this powerful song written from her own experience with sexual abuse — but a few minutes after co-writer Lady Gaga brought the house down at the Oscars singing it while surrounded by abuse survivors, the song inexplicably lost to Sam Smith’s forgettable James Bond ditty “Writing’s on the Wall.”
“I remember writing that song and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, this is definitely one of my best songs.’ The movie is about sexual assault on campus, but I always thought the song could be bigger than that, so in the lyrics I never said what the It was. It’s whatever you’re going through when people say, ‘It’s going to get better, just give it time.’ But when you’re in it, you’re like, ‘You don’t know how it feels until it happens to you.’
“And then I called Gaga, because I had heard that she had said something on Howard Stern that she’d been raped. I thought, ‘I’m just going to take a chance and play her the song. And if she’d gone through that, it’s going to connect with her. I played her the song and she was sobbing on the phone.
“But nobody wanted that song to come out. The label, management, nobody wanted it to come out. So I called my friend, (director) Catherine Hardwicke, she listened to the song and said she’d do a video, I put in some of my own money, she put in some of hers, the actors worked for free, she made this brilliant video and then we leaked it out and it blew up.
“At the Oscars, that performance was just stunning on every level. That was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. People were sobbing in the audience, and then there was a commercial break and they came back and said, ‘And the winner is…’ and I thought, ‘What just happened?’ That was my memory of the night: I just kept saying, ‘What just happened?'”
2017: “Stand Up for Something” from “Marshall”
Written with: Lonnie R. Lynn (a.k.a. Common)
Performed by: Andra Day and Common
Lost to: “Remember Me” from “Coco”
The second in Warren’s string of inspirational, soul-based nominated songs came from a biopic of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
“I loved the script, and I scribbled ‘It all means nothing if you don’t stand up for something’ on it. Before I wrote the song, I listened to ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ over and over again — not that I ripped it off, but I wanted it in my system as I wrote the song, to get inspired and go back to that era of soul protest anthems.
“And then I thought it’d be great to get a rapper to bring these two eras together. I went to Sundance, and Common was sitting behind me on the plane — so when he was a captive audience, I said, ‘I have something really great for you.’ He told me to send it to him, and when he heard it he was so excited that the next time I checked my phone, I had nine missed calls from him.”
2018: “I’ll Fight” from “RBG”
Performed by: Jennifer Hudson
Lost to: “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born”
Warren went back-to-back with judge movies for a song from the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary, then ran into an Oscar-night buzzsaw in the form of old pal Lady Gaga’s “Shallow.”
“I was like, ‘Cool, another Supreme Court justice!’ I just wanted to create an anthem for her. She was very soft-spoken, but she was loud because she changed the world. So I thought, ‘She needs a diva voice. Who is her avatar? How about Jennifer Hudson?’
“I played the song for Jennifer and she loved it. But I was under no illusions of winning that year, because it was going up against ‘A Star Is Born.’ I just thought, ‘Well, let’s just have a fun time.'”
2019: “I’m Standing With You” from “Breakthrough”
Performed by: Chrissy Metz
Lost to: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from “Rocketman”
The faith-based drama “Breakthrough” was one of the smallest movies Warren has written for, and she resisted the idea of letting lead actress Chrissy Metz handle the vocals until she heard Metz sing.
“Chrissy Metz on the Oscars, that was pretty cool. I loved the movie and it inspired the song. And some pretty amazing things have happened with it. Sharon Farber did a video at the beginning of lockdown where singers and musicians from every continent played and sang on it, and it raised millions of dollars for United Nations COVID relief. The song really took on a life outside the film. I even did a rewrite during the pandemic: “Whatever you go through, I’m standing six feet away from you.”
2020: “Io sì (Seen)” from “The Life Ahead”
Written with: Laura Pausini
Performed by: Laura Pausini
Her current nomination, which comes for the Sophia Loren film “The Life Ahead,” is the 10th Oscar-nominated song in a language other than English, and the first such song for Warren.
“I wrote it in English as ‘Seen,’ thinking it was going to be in the movie in English. But when they put it against the movie, it didn’t work. But (director) Edoardo Ponti loved the song, and he wanted it to work. And the way to get it to work was to translate it into Italian.
“The cool thing about the song, and what’s unusual for me, is that Edoardo actually took out dialogue from the movie to make the song be the dialogue. They literally changed the movie to fit the song.”