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Oscars 1997: Titanic Sinks the Competition

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In retrospect, it seemed like an unsinkable formula for Oscar success: Pack a famous historic ship with handsome young actors facing disaster at sea. Slip in a love story and an Academy-friendly Brit speaking in an American accent. Then give a master director a megamillion-dollar budget and watch Oscar come crawling, right?

Well, not exactly. When the nominations for the 70th Annual Academy Awards were announced Feb. 10, Steven Spielberg’s slave-ship epic, Amistad, received just one major nomination — Anthony Hopkins for Best Supporting Actor — and three minor nods (cinematography, score, costume). That cleared the way for landlocked vehicles like Good Will Hunting and The Full Monty to do battle with that greatest of all cinematic ocean liners, Titanic.

“We all thought we were home free,” says an executive at DreamWorks, Amistad‘s studio. Adds another: “We expected Steven to get it, and we also thought that Djimon Hounsou was in [for Best Actor]. We really don’t know what happened.” The blow is just another in a string for Amistad, which has already weathered charges of plagiarism from author Barbara Chase-Riboud, whose $10 million suit was abruptly settled out of court the night before the nominations. (Asked whether she thought her suit had affected Amistad‘s Oscar chances, Chase-Riboud says: “I think the public was confused about the picture’s origins. All that played into it.”)

Passing by the good ship Amistad was the most notable Academy snub, but not the only one. Apparent shoo-ins like My Best Friend’s Wedding scene-stealer Rupert Everett and As Good as It Gets director James L. Brooks were also ignored, not to mention everyone involved with critical darlings The Ice Storm and The Boxer. Even Titanic, already the clear front-runner for Best Picture, hit some choppy waters. Box office phenom Leonardo DiCaprio wasn’t called; nor was director James Cameron’s original script, an oddity, considering that every Best Picture winner since 1966’s A Man for All Seasons has also been nominated for Best Screenplay.

Still, Titanic‘s misses were notable primarily because of its wealth of hits. Cameron’s epic scored 14 nods, tying a record set by 1950’s All About Eve. And given the unstoppable wave of Titanic mania at the box office these days, the big Oscar payday seemed predestined. “Expectations were high,” says Rae Sanchini, president of Lightstorm Entertainment, Cameron’s production company, “but not this high. Fourteen nominations was a little overwhelming.”

The intense jockeying all points to one fact: Hollywood’s thriving. Studios released more movies than ever this year, helping set a record box office take of $6.24 billion. So what did Oscar teach us about standing out in this very competitive field?

Write big characters. So big, in fact, that two actors need to play them. The tag-team nomination for Titanic‘s Kate Winslet as the young Rose DeWitt Bukater and Gloria Stuart as the old Rose marked the first time one role yielded two nods in a film. Stuart, 87, plans to ride the Oscar wave in style: “A perk I didn’t know about is that great designers dress the nominees. I’ve already had offers. I can’t wait to go shopping for diamonds.”

Write big, white characters. Continuing a disappointing Oscar tradition, all 20 acting nominees are white, despite such stellar performances as Hounsou’s in Amistad, and Samuel L. Jackson’s and Pam Grier’s in Jackie Brown. “Didn’t you get the bulletin that African Americans can’t act?” asks Spike Lee, whose 4 Little Girls was nominated for Best Documentary. “It’s only going to change when there’s more diversity and the voting body becomes younger.”

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