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Oscars '98

Surprise! Cameron Subdued

Analysis: 'Titanic's' big night brought out a moment of reflection in its Oscar-winning director.

March 24, 1998|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"Titanic" has accomplished many things, but nothing so surprising as what it pulled off Monday night when it made a humble and gracious man out of director James Cameron. Sort of.

This, after all, is a writerdirector-editor not known for working and playing well with others, a situation underlined by the comments of a pair of "Titanic's" Oscar winners. Composer James Horner thanked Cameron for "being in a good mood the day I brought you the song," and one of the picture's quartet of soundmen cracked that he hoped the picture's success would help the filmmaker "attain the self-confidence you need to succeed in this business."

Maybe it was the combined force of all those bearhugs he received as the winners of the film's record-tying 11 Oscars went past him to accept their awards, but Cameron smiled through it all with the geniality of an old-style politician on a Sunday visit to his favorite ward. When Billy Crystal commented, "That cost $15 million," after a tiny "Titanic" clip, the camera caught Cameron saying, "That's about right."

The director maintained his decorum through his victory in the editing category, letting his two co-winners speak first and then talking about his daughter. And when he won for directing, he tried hard to be on his best behavior, thanking his parents, "my original producers," and saying, "My heart is full to bursting." Then, out of nowhere, came a bellowing, "I'm the king of the world," followed by a full-throated roar.

Cameron returned to humility when he accepted the best picture Oscar for "Titanic," asking for a moment of silence for the 1,500 who died when that great ship went down. But, if only for a moment, he'd allowed all who cared to look a glimpse of the kind of unfettered ego necessary to push a film's budget to a record $200 million and to spend every last penny of it exactly his way.

While on most Oscar nights people are busy adding up how many categories the top film is going to take, on this night everyone was subtracting. "Titanic" had 14 nominations and it couldn't lose more than two if it was going to beat "Ben-Hur's" decades-old record. Since most Oscar prognosticators had predicted (correctly, as it turned out) losses in the actress and makeup races, the loss that in effect kept "Titanic" from the record was Gloria Stuart's in the supporting actress battle.

The victory for "L.A. Confidential's" Kim Basinger not only led to one of the most moving of the night's acceptance speeches, it also provided an early key to how the voting would go. Basinger won not only because she gave the best and most affecting performance of her 20-something film career, not only because her film was deservedly popular with the academy, but also because this year the voters were apparently in the mood to take care of their own. So Helen Hunt, who gave the best speech of the night, defeated four British actresses. So Robin Williams, as well-liked a figure as today's Hollywood has, defeated comeback kid Burt Reynolds. And even though Jack Nicholson was competing against an industry veteran like Robert Duvall, no one represents Inside Hollywood as much as this man.

For those who admire Williams' unequaled genius as a comedian and are frustrated by the middle-of-the-road, tree-hugger roles he invariably takes in film, his victory Monday in the best supporting actor category was an occasion for mixed emotions.

On the one hand, it was impossible not to appreciate and share in the pleasure Williams took in winning the Oscar, as well as the pleasure the film community felt in finally giving him one after three previous losses. But seeing the moments of manic comic brilliance, like the Groucho Marx duck walk he morphed into as he moved offstage, reinforced how unfortunate it is that that side of his ability rarely makes it on screen.

While almost everyone--even best foreign-language film director Mike van Diem, who called one of his stars "the Titanic of Dutch actors"--felt compelled to make a reference to the evening's big winner, many of the evening's most memorable snapshots had little to do with that film. Moments from the fresh-faced exuberance of youngsters Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as they tried to remember who to thank after their "Good Will Hunting" screenplay victory to the tap-dancing grace of special Oscar winner Stanley Donen, just weeks shy of his 74th birthday, showed why this program, its enormous length notwithstanding, gives live television a good name.

On a personal note, it was satisfying to see Bart the bear, who this paper promoted for an ursine Academy Award for his work in "The Edge," at least get to make an appearance on the Oscar telecast. No, he didn't get to take a statuette home. Maybe next year, big guy.

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