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The Boston Phoenix Ship of Fools?

"Titanic" sets its course for the Oscars.

By Peter Keough

MARCH 23, 1998:  The hype surrounding Titanic's apparently inevitable Oscar sweep ominously echoes the White Star liner's claim to be unsinkable. On its self-congratulatory display night, Hollywood tends to reward humility, not hubris -- which would count out the megalomaniacal, budget-busting ways of director James Cameron. But can the industry afford to rebuke a film that has restored it to the glory and box-office bounty of Gone with the Wind, that has singlehandedly wrested filmwatching demographics from the ghetto of adolescent boys and handed it over to that of adolescent girls?

Probably not. Huge grosses ordinarily discredit a film at Oscar time, but at a trillion dollars and counting, Titanic passes from the merely mercenary to the mythic. It also resoundingly vindicates the heavy-spending, formulaic studio system that was usurped by "independent" filmmaking at last year's ceremony. Titanic is a lock for Best Picture; the man who made it is expendable. It's enough to congratulate the industry for this endorsement of its wicked ways, but why encourage other directors to emulate Cameron's $200 million mania, especially since reports have proved that last year the highest profits were posted by films with lower budgets?

If not Cameron, then who? Well, there's Peter Cattaneo, director of The Full Monty, a minutely endowed movie that may boast the highest gross-to-budget ratio of all time. After last year's The English Patient sweep, though, a British film is an unlikely choice, and Sheffield blue-collar chic isn't up to the standards of Oscar glitz. Curtis Hanson for L.A. Confidential? The director and film most honored by critics' societies, it will be snubbed by the Academy for that very reason. And Atom Egoyan should automatically be disqualified because his The Sweet Hereafter was the best film of the year.

Which leaves Gus Van Sant. The big story in film this year, besides Titanic, has been Matt and Ben in Good Will Hunting (look for them to win for Best Original Screenplay). Damon can't win for Best Actor against the grizzled lot that's his competition (unless the four veterans cancel one another out in the voting), so this is the next best thing. Besides, Van Sant is a contrite outsider, a former Gay New Wave indie who has, in a manner of speaking, gone straight (to get the job he told the producers his favorite movie was Ordinary People). What better way to celebrate the studio assimilation of independent filmmaking that was 1997?

As for the acting categories, collectively they might be described as The Men Who Are Assholes and The Women Who Are Their Reward. Matt Damon is an asshole in Good Will Hunting who's rewarded with Minnie Driver (in real life they broke up), but Hollywood will probably wait for him to develop some facial hair before bestowing its highest honor. Jack Nicholson is an asshole in As Good As It Gets, but he's been there before, and his failure to promote himself suggests complacency and, well, hubris.

Dustin Hoffman is an asshole in Wag the Dog, but his performance will seem too true to life, both in politics and in Hollywood. And Robert Duvall is an asshole in The Apostle, the best performance in the group, but one so ambiguous about the taboo subject of religion it's bound to scare voters off. Which leaves Peter Fonda in Ulee's Gold, the most overrated film of the year; voters blinded with nostalgia for his father, Henry, will overlook Peter's woodenness.

The Best Actress category is a challenge: four Brits and a sit-com actress. Kate Winslet has a shot: her victory would let the Academy affirm that the cheesy human drama as well as the special effects propelled Titanic -- and it would make up for the non-nomination of Leonardo DiCaprio, the charming asshole who wins her heart in the film. Also in with a chance is Julie Christie, victim of asshole Nick Nolte in Afterglow, as she rediscovers the panache that made her an icon of the '60s -- a plus in a year in which the Academy is going retro.

As the sole American, Helen Hunt has a shot, but her television credentials may count against her, and anyway it's really Verdell the dog that reforms Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. As for Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown, I think we've had our fill of British royalty with the death of Princess Di. So -- and this may be wishful thinking, since hers is also the best performance of the lot -- why not the eminently classy Helena Bonham Carter in Wings of the Dove? Especially since her fate as a tainted woman who gets hers evokes memories of such Oscar divas as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

As for the Supporting Oscars, the most debased categories next to Foreign Language Film and Documentary, does anyone care? Burt Reynolds should, as the nostalgia factor will give him the nod, not to mention his deserving performance. And though Kim Basinger's stint as a Veronica Lake look-alike in L.A. Confidential will call to mind The Good Old Days (perhaps to her detriment), what could beat octogenarian actress Gloria Stuart winning for Titanic as an Oscar moment? Only the improbable spectacle of some other picture's capsizing the juggernaut she starred in. Don't forget, icebergs always make for good show business.


Should win

Will win

Best Picture L.A. Confidential Titanic
Best Director Atom Egoyan
The Sweet Hereafter
Gus Van Sant
Good Will Hunting
Best Actor Robert Duvall
The Apostle
Peter Fonda
Ulee's Gold
Best Actress Helena Bonham Carter Helena Bonham Carter
The Wings of the Dove
Best Supporting Actor Robert Forster
Jackie Brown
Burt Reynolds
Boogie Nights
Best Supporting Actress Julianne Moore
Boogie Nights
Gloria Stuart

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