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February 21, 2018 at 12:03 PM EST

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Many things happened between December 1997 and March 1998. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke. A massive ice storm swept the Northeast. Dawson’s Creek premiered. Victoria and David Beckham got engaged. But nothing — nothing — captured the nation’s attention as much as Titanic.

When James Cameron’s film about an 85-year-old maritime tragedy hit theaters on Dec. 19, newspapers everywhere were already preparing their “Titanic sinks” headlines. With its unprecedented $200 million budget — the most expensive movie ever made at the time — numerous delays, and rumors of trouble on set (including an incident where the cast and crew accidentally ate chowder spiked with PCP), Titanic was expected to be a disaster. Instead, the Leonardo DiCaprio-and-Kate Winslet-starring romance hit No. 1 at the box office — and stayed there for a whopping 15 weeks. After debuting to a respectable but muted $28.6 million, Titanic actually grew in its second weekend, propelled by stellar reviews and positive word of mouth. It would go on to become the highest-grossing film of all time, at $2.2 billion worldwide, and hold that record for more than a decade.

Suddenly, Titanic was everywhere. Fans weren’t just obsessing over the film but diving into the ship’s history and trading theories about its sinking. Teenagers held “Titanic parties” and visited the burial sites of the boat’s victims. Men around the world requested “the Leo” haircut — including in Afghanistan, where the Taliban later cracked down on the style and arrested 22 barbers. And everywhere you went, you heard Celine Dion informing you that, yes, her heart will go on. For Cameron, who had weathered articles predicting that Titanic would end his career, the film’s popularity was surreal. “It was like being in a kind of dream state,” he says now. “I kept expecting somebody to wake us up and say, ‘No, that didn’t really happen. You just dreamed that.'”

Merie W. Wallace

Titanic turned Winslet into an international star, but it catapulted DiCaprio to a level of idolatry on par with Elvis Presley or Harry Styles. He was already an Oscar nominee for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and a teen icon thanks to Romeo + Juliet, but after Titanic, there was a Leo poster in practically every teenager’s bedroom in America. “In Japan, it was like Beatlemania,” Cameron says. “I was in the middle of a riot, or like a crush — the kind of crush you would associate with the Beatles. People were getting stepped on, and it was almost like a stampede. It was just this hysteria.”

As for the film, its popularity culminated with the Academy Awards, earning 14 nominations to tie the record set by All About Eve. (La La Land has since earned the same number, but no film has ever surpassed it.) Not only did it clean up in the technical categories, but it scored nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Winslet), and Best Supporting Actress (Gloria Stuart). Cameron and Stuart were flying from England to New York when the nominations were announced, and the pilot got a message over the radio with the list of nominees. “We were passing over the coast of Greenland, and I was looking out the window,” Cameron recalls. “I literally was seeing the first iceberg I had ever seen in my life. You could see these little dots in the water below.”

Seemingly the only person who wasn’t nominated was DiCaprio, causing more than 200 angry fans to call and email the Academy — this was before social media existed — asking for a recount. “The calls did not just come from teenagers,” an Academy spokesman told EW in 1998. “One older woman called and said the whole state of Florida was upset.”

Today, the 1998 Oscars stand as the most watched ceremony of all time, with an estimated 87 million viewers. Billy Crystal hosted, and Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won for writing Good Will Hunting, but it was Titanic’s night from start to finish. It raked in 11 awards, tying Ben-Hur for the most wins by a single film. Dion performed “My Heart Will Go On,” and when Titanic won Best Picture, Cameron asked for a moment of silence to honor the more than 1,500 victims of the disaster. But it was Cameron’s Best Director speech that went down in Oscar history, and the exuberant auteur closed out his speech by declaring, “There is no way that I can express to you what I’m feeling right now. My heart is full to bursting, except to say, ‘I’m the king of the world!'”

“I remember walking backstage after winning and the baffled expression on [presenter] Warren Beatty’s face, which was basically like, ‘Kid, what did you just do?'” Cameron recalls with a laugh. “The big mistake was quoting my own movie. That was the cringer. It implies that everyone in the audience there at the [Shrine Auditorium] voted for your movie because they all loved it.”

“In my mind, at the time, I was saying I feel like Jack felt,” he continues. “Jack who had nothing, Jack who had not a dime in his pocket but felt on top of the world because of the elation in his heart. That was what I was trying to express. It wasn’t ‘F— you, I’m the king of the world, all you a–holes can just f— off and die now. We were right, you were wrong, na-na-na-na-na-na.’ Which is how it was interpreted.”

Still, there’s a silver lining. “Me and Sally Field, we can go on the road together with a little act,” Cameron jokes. “We can do our epic-Oscar-fails duet.”

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Movie
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PG-13
runtime
194 minutes
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