The night was star-studded but held few surprises, as ''Titanic'' took center stage

By David Hochman
Updated April 03, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

From the outset, it was a Titanic sort of day. The morning of the 70th Annual Academy Awards dawned as blue as pale ice while workers at Taverna Tony picked up the pieces of a cataclysmic Hollywood bash from the night before. ”We just got wild and danced and threw plates and stuff,” self-proclaimed King of the World James Cameron said of the pre-Oscar celebration for fellow Titanic nominees. ”So we sort of have it out of our system.”

If only it were that easy. The day was already taking on epic proportions. The movie’s nomination-less star, Leonardo DiCaprio, was nowhere to be found, a fact not lost on the teenage girls in steerage — er, the Shrine Auditorium bleachers — who by 5:30 a.m. had already decorated their ”I Love You Leo!” signs.

Meanwhile, mere mortals were awakening with less fanfare. Nominee Robert Duvall got a 6:45 a.m. call from a radio station pestering him for an interview. L.A. Confidential writer-director Curtis Hanson took a jog on the beach, while his cowriter, Brian Helgeland, wrapped up his tax returns, then dashed to McDonald’s for lunch. Meanwhile, Best Supporting Actress nominee Julianne Moore folded laundry and took care of her baby — ”regular stuff,” she said.

But there’s nothing regular in a contest involving a budget buster-turned-record breaker — which probably explains why, by mid-afternoon, even the Titanic nominees were beginning to get superstitious. Cinematographer Russell Carpenter carried a tiny white life jacket that he eventually draped over his statuette’s shoulders. Cameron wore his lucky propeller cuff links. And producer Jon Landau had his son wear a Titanic bow tie and his wife carry a ship-shaped purse.

On the red carpet, everyone seemed nervous as they neared ”the golden dude,” as Robin Williams referred to him (no, not Cameron, Oscar). Cameron’s wife, Linda Hamilton, took a moment to adjust her periwinkle dress and reposition her right breast. Actress Anna Paquin, 15, braved the crowds in her first strapless dress, while Ashley Judd shocked them with her slit-to-we-can’t-say-where getup.

Without Leo, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck stole the screams as they entered sans their girlfriends, Winona Ryder and Gwyneth Paltrow, respectively. Instead, the boys brought their mothers. As Affleck put it, ”When Moms is asking for the ticket, you have to give it to her.” Meanwhile, Affleck’s mother worried about the $100,000 earrings she’d been loaned, while the boys’ director, Gus Van Sant, arrived in a 34-foot RV.

There were the usual mishaps. Kim Basinger’s dress wasn’t ready until an hour before she left for the show, and hubby Alec Baldwin raced to his seat at 5:58 p.m. (Billy and Stephen Baldwin weren’t so lucky; they watched their sister-in-law give her Oscar speech on the TV in their car.) ”Just holding [the statuette],” she said post-show at the Governors Ball, ”is beyond my imagination.”

Minutes before show time, Matt Dillon gallantly attended to date Cameron Diaz’s needs. ”Sir, sir,” he begged an usher while Diaz bounced up and down, ”Cameron’s gotta pee. Can you get her out and back in before the show starts?” Even veterans had the jitters. Jack Nicholson looked comfortable settling into his front-row seat, but hours later, when he won his third Oscar, he confesses, ”I dropped about three quarts of water the minute they said my name.”