Technically, 'Titanic' is a big winner But top awards to Basinger, Hunt, Williams put a chill on thoughts of the big ship sailing off with a record number

March 24, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Taste, restraint and a few warm surprises were the order of the day at the 70th Academy Awards last night.

The first award announced was also the evening's first upset, when a visibly stunned Kim Basinger took the Oscar for best supporting actress for her performance in "L.A. Confidential." Gloria Stuart, the 87-year-old actress who played a Titanic survivor in James Cameron's "Titanic," was expected by most odds-makers to win.

Although "Titanic" had managed to sweep the awards in most technical categories, in artistic categories, the winners were sprinkled throughout the nominees. Every film that was nominated went home with something in its pocket.

Helen Hunt won best actress for "As Good As It Gets," beating a line-up that included British veterans Julie Christie and Judi Dench. Jack Nicholson also won best actor for his performance as an obsessive-compulsive author in that film. Nicholson has been nominated a record 11 times and has won twice before, for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Terms of Endearment."

The best supporting actor Oscar went to Robin Williams, who had been nominated three times, for his performance as a perseverant psychologist in the coming-of-age drama "Good Will Hunting." That film's writing team, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, also won for best original screenplay.

Even "The Full Monty," the British working-class comedy that was this year's dark horse, won an Oscar, for best musical or comedy score.

Still, it was a night to remember for the cast and crew of "Titanic." James Cameron won for best director. In addition to Oscars for costume design, film editing, visual effects, sound, cinematography and sound effects, "Titanic" also won for best original score for James Horner's musical score and best original song for "My Heart Will Go On."

Last year's Oscars, which went to such non-major-studio fare as "Shine," "Fargo" and "The English Patient," led to 1996 being dubbed the "Year of the Independents." This year Hollywood came back with a vengeance: Such major players as Warner Brothers, Paramount, 20th Century Fox and Sony were represented in the field of nominees, all of which shared a penchant for such modest -- but enduring -- values as story, character and strong emotion. "As Good As It Gets," "The Full Monty," "Good Will Hunting" and "L.A. Confidential" all shared smaller canvases and attention to detail and story that have been missing from Hollywood productions in recent years.

But, as a film featuring clips from the 69 previous best films amply demonstrated, Hollywood has always been at its best when it sold the story with spectacle. And it was that tradition that James Cameron's "Titanic," the $200 million behemoth that naysayers were prematurely burying last summer, so grandly evoked. Besides being the sort of big-budget extravaganza that defines Hollywood's more explosive side, "Titanic" was just as much a product of Cameron's personal vision and determination as the scrappiest independent film: When the film went $100 million over budget, Cameron gave up his own percentage of the box office rather than compromise.

The Academy Awards ceremony got off to what is fast becoming a traditional and beloved start: host Billy Crystal's hilarious montage of clips from films nominated for best motion picture, wherein he inserts himself in key scenes. Whether he was being dunked into a toilet in the middle of "L.A. Confidential" or performing as Sammy Davis Jr. in the hold of the Titanic, he never missed a beat.

The ceremony was held at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and every living winner of supporting and lead acting awards was invited. In addition to lively montages featuring great animals in films, visual-effects tricks and memorable Oscar moments, Crystal waded into the glittering audience to introduce some of Hollywood's most venerable stars. Fay Wray looked befuddled as Crystal picked her out of the audience, urging her to help him introduce screenplay nominees Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

For a cultural event that has been marked in years past by outrageous costumes, memorable gaffes and political agitprop, the 70th anniversary was tasteful to the point of being lackluster.

Presenting teams have been eliminated, as well as painful patter. The winners stuck to their allotted 30-second time for acceptance speeches, gowns were pared down and accessorized with simple jewelry, and production numbers were blessedly kept to a minimum. (One exception was an ill-advised ballet set to music from Oscar-nominated musical or comedy scores, which featured robotic choreography and a graceless bungee-like contraption.)

One of the evening's high points was Stanley Donen, the visionary director of such MGM musicals as "Singin' in the Rain" and "Funny Face," singing "Cheek to Cheek" and hoofing with his honorary Oscar, presented to him by director Martin Scorsese.

"Ben-Hur" holds the record for most Oscars, having won 11 in 1959. "Titanic's" 14 nominations tied the record set by 1950's "All About Eve."

Pub Date: 3/24/98

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