Not only was the 70th Academy Awards show a time of sweet vindication for James Cameron, the man behind Best Picture winner “Titanic” and the major beneficiary of its record-tying 11 Oscar haul, but it also was a victory for mavericks, intransigents and dreamers throughout Hollywood. For all those reckless spirits from D.W. Griffith to Michael Cimino who dare too much, spend too much and often fall on their faces.
Just as much, Monday night was a time for all those cocky young actors, daredevil writers and aging vets who have to buck conventional wisdom and the star system for their moments of glory.
It was an evening that sometimes surprised (the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Kim Basinger) and sometimes went according to script (the technical awards for “Titanic”) and sometimes perplexed (the Best Original Musical or Comedy Score Oscar for “The Full Monty,” which I’m told contains about 10 minutes of original music). But from first minute to last, it was a night that belonged to “Titanic.” And for all that movie’s makers, it was a night to remember.
The 11 Oscars triumphantly climaxed Cameron’s stormy progress with his movie, ridiculed during its over-budget filming as a floating disaster. Though “maverick” status may seem to sit oddly on Cameron, it fits him and in some ways the other big winners: Best Actor designee Jack Nicholson for his decidedly non-heroic portrait of a misanthrope in love, his heart improbably melting and his soul ineluctably shifting, in “As Good As It Gets;” Best Actress co-star Helen Hunt as Nicholson’s tough-talking waitress amour in the same movie, a working mother coping with an awful life who matches this old weirdo in both nastiness and kindess; Best Supporting Actor and perennial Oscar night madcap Robin Williams for his poignantly serious change of pace as the psychiatric mentor to Matt Damon’s troubled mathematics genius in “Good Will Hunting;” and Kim Basinger also an outsider, prey to lawsuits and bad press coming back strong with her torchy performance as “L.A. Confidential’s” tough but vulnerable Veronica Lake look-alike hooker.
“Titanic’s” other Oscars, all in the production and music categories, included prizes for costume design, sound, sound effects editing, visual effects, and original dramatic score (James Horner). One movie that managed to break the big winner’s hammerlock was “Men in Black,” whose funny aliens helped win the Best Makeup award.
What does it all mean? In the inevitable, already ongoing critical backlash against “Titanic,” its Oscars may be widely interpreted as a victory for the studio system at its most lavish and old-fashioned - a revival of bad, bloated, audience-pandering old Hollywood values. But that’s just as much an over-interpretation as seeing last year’s shutout of the original major studios in the Best Picture nominations as the death knell for old studio power.
As prize after prize went “Titanic’s” way - to the cheers of an audience hardly less prestigious and splendidly attired than the one that went down with the actual big ship - you could see things in a different light. For, while “Titanic” is now Hollywood’s most expensive movie and biggest all-time box-office hit, it was not hamstrung by studio rules or committee. It was, good or bad, Cameron’s film and vision: a 3-1/2-hour epic of romance, class conflict and wild emotion that broke Hollywood’s usual special effects-action disaster blockbuster rules. It was a vision Cameron guarded so zealously that he wound up giving back an astronomical profit participation to cover budget overruns.
Seen from that angle, “Titanic’s” win said as much for personal, off-beat moviemaking as the 1997 triumph of “The English Patient,” but on a vaster scale. And, perhaps, it was also a symbolic victory for all the grand follies of movie history that weren’t rescued at the box-office: artistically ambitious flops or disappointments like “Intolerance,” “Greed,” “Citizen Kane” and that movie to which “Titanic” was so often compared, 1980’s disastrous period epic of class conflict, “Heaven’s Gate.”
“Personal” is the keynote. Consider some of the night’s other big winners. Certainly Best Actor Nicholson has been a Hollywood maverick supreme, a chance-taker, making unusual and often daring movies ever since he hit stardom. Nicholson took his third Oscar on his 11th nomination (the other two wins for 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and 1983’s “Terms of Endearment”).
Curtis Hanson, who won the Best Adapted Screenplay award for “L.A. Confidential,” with co-writer Brian Helgeland, is an ex-film critic who gradually worked his way into the system, only to take the gamble of his life with “L.A. Confidential,” a dark, complex, violently iconoclastic crime story by hard-boiled novelist James Ellroy. And what better exemplifies the idea of the outsider triumphing than the victory of the darlings of Monday night’s crowd: jubilant young “Good Will Hunting” writingacting team, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, two buddies, tired of the roles they got, who decided to write their own script?
As always with the Oscars, you can argue. This is - never forget it - the world’s biggest and most-watched popularity contest, even though the popularity is defined by the narrower community of America’s professional filmmakers. Robert Duvall lost despite his nerve-rendingly brilliant performance as devil-and-angel Pentecostalist preacher Sonny Dewey. And Jack Nicholson’s lovelorn obsessive in “As Good As It Gets” pales next to his great un-Oscared roles in “Five Easy Pieces,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “The Last Detail” and”Chinatown.”
Many would have ranked Best Actress winner Hunt, as good as her performance got, a bit behind one of the losers, Britain’s Judi Dench. How many times do we get to see anything as fine, true, poetic and subtle as Dame Judi’s sublime yet very human portrait, in “Mrs. Brown,” of the kind of part usually played as a reverent waxwork: Queen Victoria in love.
But the biggest injustice of all came, once again, in the Documentary category, where Spike Lee, outspoken against the Academy as always, lost with perhaps the most beautiful and emotional film of his career, the Birmingham Church bombing chronicle, “4 Little Girls” (defeated by a very good, but more conventional film on the Holocaust, “The Long Way Home”).
The Netherland’s “Character,” a mystery story with style, is a decent Foreign Language Film winner. But that whole selection process remains dubious, with the individual countries still submitting official entries (and often making questionable choices).
And the biggest fiasco and time-waster was still the Oscar Best Score vote, still split absurdly into “Dramatic” and “Musical or Comedy” categories. “Titanic’s” James Horner won the first; Anne Dudley’s “The Full Monty” took the second.
And you can only wonder once again: why are musical scores separated into two sections and not the acting and writing categories?
Graphic: 70th Academy Awards Winners