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As Good As Gold

With big studios once again showing Olympian Oscar strength, this isn’t just ‘As Good as It Gets.’ For Hollywood, things couldn’t be better.

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Last year, the Hollywood studios virtually sat out the Academy Awards sweepstakes, glumly ceding the annual party to the New York-based Miramax Films, which waltzed away with 12 statuettes. But with the year of the indies behind them, the movie empire may be striking back. Like Titanic — a behemoth of a movie that against all odds actually turned out to be good — the Hollywood film industry is lumbering to life just in time for the 70th annual Oscar rites.

True, the race has just begun (and while many predict a Titanic sweep, there’s bound to be a backlash, just to keep things interesting). But as voters compare notes, the studios are clearly ruling the day. Despite a handful of critical naysayers, Titanic, which was cofinanced by Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox, has proved not just the season’s biggest hit (its 17-day, $157 million take puts it among the top 50 domestic grossers of all time) but also a contender that has a shot at breaking All About Eve’s record of 14 nominations. Critical fave L.A. Confidential — financed by New Regency and released by beleaguered Warner Bros. — displays the sort of self-assured storytelling that used to be a studio mainstay. Amistad marks not only Steven Spielberg’s first film for DreamWorks but also his first ”serious” movie since 1993’s Oscar-winning Schindler’s List. Even the therapist-meets-sensitive-boy push and pull of Miramax’s Good Will Hunting feels like a studio picture (specifically, Paramount’s 1980 Oscar winner Ordinary People) once removed.

But if any film typifies the Hollywood resurgence that could take place Oscar night, it’s the idiosyncratic grumpy-old-man-meets-struggling-waitress comedy As Good as It Gets. Its director-writer, James L. Brooks, was represented at the Oscars last year — as the producer of the sole big-studio contender for best picture, Jerry Maguire. This year, the former sitcom creator returned to the director’s chair, and his old-fashioned, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to comedy (who else could toss together an asthmatic kid, a gay bashing, and a bacon-loving pooch and escape with genuine laughs?) has put him in the thick of the race.

If you’d told Brooks a few years ago that Hollywood would be applauding him for spinning comedy out of such unlikely elements, he probably would have thought you were crazy. Back then, he was still recovering from his notorious 1994 flop, I’ll Do Anything — it started as a musical, then had its songs excised during a tortured preview process — when he first picked up Mark Andrus’ screenplay, originally titled Old Friends. ”I don’t know when I decided to direct it,” Brooks recalls, ”but I took it home for what I thought would be a three-week polish, and a year later I was still working on it.”

The project’s broad design might have seemed simple: It follows the halting beginnings of a romance between Melvin, an obsessive-compulsive romance novelist, and Carol, the only waitress at his regular breakfast joint who can tolerate his nasty tirades. The improbable mediator of their not-quite affair is Simon, a gay artist and frequent target of Melvin’s invective. But getting the tone just right — making sure Melvin didn’t become a character audiences hated to love — took the better part of two years.