An Oral History of the Epic ‘Titanic’ Oscars at 25
Dozens of Hollywood insiders reflect on the most watched Oscars telecast of all time — including James Cameron, who speaks candidly about his pants falling down, his near-fight with Harvey Weinstein and his infamous “King of the World” speech: “What I wasn’t saying was, ‘I’m showing all y’all motherfuckers how it’s done!’”
Twenty-five years ago, both Titanic and the 70th annual Academy Awards at which it was crowned best picture made history. The film’s victory, however, was not preordained. Its Oscar campaign had to overcome naysayers who first doubted the film would be a success and then held its success against it. As for the ceremony itself, to borrow the title of an earlier British film about the ship that couldn’t sink, and then did, it was a night to remember.
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JAMES CAMERON (TITANIC WRITER/DIRECTOR/PRODUCER/EDITOR) There are parts of it that are very murky and there are parts of it that are quite vivid. The parts I remember the most are the setups themselves, the camera placement and how it was all accomplished. I remember all that quite vividly. The Academy Awards are a bit of a blur. But I’ll do my best.
TITANIC SETS SAIL AMID PREDICTIONS OF DISASTER
After hitmaker James Cameron pitched News Corp. president and COO Peter Chernin “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic,” the exec authorized his company’s subsidiary 20th Century Fox to make Titanic for $110 million, a sizable but not unprecedented budget. But after production got underway, it quickly became apparent that the film was going to cost considerably more, which became the problem of Bill Mechanic, the newly hired Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman. Both Chernin and Mechanic ultimately answered to Rupert Murdoch.
BILL MECHANIC (FOX FILMED ENTERTAINMENT CHAIRMAN) Things went off track essentially from the get-go. The film was, to me, under-budgeted and put under time pressure, because Peter didn’t really want to make the movie. It was the general rule that people didn’t want Jim to venture out of his lane, which was sci-fi, and here he was making a large-scale romantic epic. So it was to put him under pressure to try and get him to do something else by making the conditions too harsh. But that’s testing the wrong guy. Jim went off and did everything — like change way more effects into practical — to theoretically control costs. He built the ship and all that. But he just did not have enough time, and he had a release date and a budget that were both impractical. So that’s what I walked into: it was out of control, and people put their heads in the sand. Nobody wanted to deal with it.
The media caught wind of problems.
JON LANDAU (TITANIC PRODUCER) We had TIME magazine with a headline that I think was “Gulp, Gulp, Gulp.”
CAMERON There was a thing called “Titanic Watch” in Variety. Every day, they’d do a little box on the front page talking about how much we were over budget and schedule and anything negative they could find. I don’t recall another instance where a film was singled out for that kind of abuse.
MECHANIC Everyone thought we were idiots and that this was Waterworld or Cleopatra. Nobody ever said Gone With the Wind or one of those that went a little out of control but ultimately worked.
KATE WINSLET (TITANIC LEAD ACTRESS) I was aware of all that negativity, and I remember being quite upset by that, because all I had done was quite innocently gone off and done the job and worked really hard, and I was really excited about this film and all the lovely friends I’d made. It was like, “Oh. People are being mean about our film, and it hasn’t even come out yet?” I remember being quite baffled and confused by that in ways that, if I’m honest with you, I’m still baffled and confused by. Just about how sometimes the media can create a story around something before it’s even been given legs or had a chance to walk or breathe.
CAMERON I think the media had made up its mind that the film was going to be this complete failure, that it was going to be another Waterworld, and they made no bones about it.
LANDAU We just had to keep our heads down and work on what we believed was going to be something.
The film originally was slated for a July 2 release, far outside the traditional awards-season window.
CAMERON I had gone to Peter and said, “Look, we’re going to have a hard time getting the film finished in time without some compromise — it’s still doable, but there’ll be some compromises to the quality. With the media landscape the way it is, why don’t we just push out and eat the additional six months of interest? Why don’t we just push out to Christmas and step aside?” I said, “It’s what a matador does when the bull’s charging straight at him. It’s basic aikido. If the opponent is bringing their full force at you, you use the opponent’s force against them.” And actually, he got it. I’ve got to give him credit. He got what I was talking about. He said, “Give me 24 hours.” And he called back the next day and said, “We’re going to push ’til Christmas.”
MECHANIC It was not an easy movie to make, and it wasn’t an easy movie to be the head of a studio for. I was getting it internally — Rupert went after me time and time and time again. And certainly, if the movie didn’t work, I was fired the next day, even if I wasn’t fully responsible.
LANDAU We didn’t know it would ever be the success that it became — anybody who tells you they did is lying.
CAMERON I had a razor blade taped to the screen of my Avid that said, “Use this if film sucks.”
LANDAU But I remember Peter, in the middle of production, calling and saying he had just seen the best dailies he’d ever seen.
MECHANIC I couldn’t get Peter on the phone. Nobody wanted to deal with it. I used to keep the newspaper off the breakfast table so my daughter wouldn’t see I was getting fired every week. It’s the one year in my life I didn’t do a physical because I thought, “What’s the doctor going to say? ‘Your blood pressure is up and the only choice is to quit your job’?”
CAMERON In a lot of ways I’m grateful to the naysayers, because they sort of put us on notice that we had to be impeccable — every aesthetic decision, everything that we did, had to be impeccable.
MECHANIC I said to Jim at one point, and tried to get everybody else to the same point of view, “Ignore the press. You’ve just got to take it on the chin. And we can turn it in our favor. We could be the first $200 million underdog.” And that’s what happened.
To address runaway costs, Cameron gave up his directing and producing fees (reportedly totaling $8 million), though he was still paid for his screenplay. In May 1996, Fox, having already spent $135 million on the film, took the extraordinary step of giving up its domestic rights to another studio, Paramount, in return for $65 million. In the end, Titanic shot for 160 days and cost more than $200 million, breaking the record held by Waterworld, which was a massive flop. It would have to gross hundreds of millions just to recoup its production and marketing costs.
CAMERON We didn’t have a world premiere in Los Angeles, we premiered in Tokyo. I literally said, “I don’t care where as long as it’s not L.A. Any place that’s got a credible film festival, let’s do it there.” Paramount was against it, but Fox hauled off and did it anyway because they had international rights.
Then it was time to bring the film to Hollywood.
MECHANIC I’ve never had another movie where every other studio head and every important person was at the premiere. They weren’t coming to enjoy the movie. They’d come to bury us.
The film opened Dec. 19 in the U.S. to mostly rave reviews (The New York Times called it “the first spectacle in decades that honestly invites comparison to Gone With the Wind“) and historic box office grosses (opposite the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, Home Alone 3 and Mousehunt, it won its opening weekend with $28.6 million). It crossed the $100 million mark in only 12 days and spent an unprecedented 15 consecutive weekends at No. 1. It also set a new box office record in all 57 overseas markets in which it was released.
CAMERON The second weekend — when the film went up instead of going down — gave everybody pause.
ROB FRIEDMAN (PARAMOUNT MOTION PICTURE GROUP VICE CHAIRMAN) It just kept going and going and going.
FRANCES FISHER (TITANIC SUPPORTING ACTRESS) We were number one for 15 weeks [14 prior to the Oscars]. That is never going to happen again.
BRUCE VILANCH (70TH OSCARS WRITER) One of the things I remember from the AOL chatrooms is people saying, “Cameron is making all this money — these people [many who had been aboard the Titanic] died!” And I thought, “This is the ‘too soon’ of all time — it sank in 1912!”
CAMPAIGNING FOR A GIANT
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences then comprised 5,371 voting members, about half its current membership.
CYNTHIA SWARTZ (MIRAMAX SENIOR VP SPECIAL PROJECTS) There weren’t that many awards consultants in those days. Campaigns were run by whatever marketing or PR person was at a studio.
TERRY PRESS (DREAMWORKS MARKETING CHIEF) It was not yet an entire cottage industry.
FRIEDMAN We were obviously the 800-pound gorilla in the game. The whole idea with the movie, from both Fox’s perspective and ours, was to conduct ourselves with dignity and not forget the event [the sinking of the Titanic] itself. Jim was always very focused on that. There was always a reverential tone to the campaign, both the direct marketing and the distribution campaign.
MECHANIC When you’re that big and successful, you have to dial it back. You have to rely on the picture.
LANDAU It was a small print advertising campaign that encouraged people to go see the movie in a theater. And a shoutout for each of the different categories.
FRIEDMAN We spent a good deal of our campaign energy on screenings. The movie was in theaters, and we made it available for Academy members to see for free.
LANDAU We didn’t do Q&As. We didn’t do tastemaker events. We didn’t do that at that time. It just didn’t happen.
MECHANIC I got into a pretty big fight — not a fight, but an argument — with Jim and Jon about screeners. I didn’t want to send out screeners, my arguments being: We had the biggest movie in history, or we were on our way to that; we spent all this money to make the movie; we released it in 70mm; we did everything you could to make people see it in its best form — and then you’re going to send it out on a screener, and they’re going to watch it on TV sets, and they’re going to be talking and taking telephone calls and eating and doing all sorts of stuff? To me, that was the wrong way to do it, and Jim agreed. Then he called back an hour later, saying, “Well, but if you’re wrong and we don’t get nominated, then you have a problem on your hands.” So we sent it. [The film was so long that it required two VHS tapes.]
FRIEDMAN We held it back for a long time.
CAMERON There are a few more wrinkles to it now, with digital media and social media and so on. But back then, you just spammed the entire industry media with as much square footage of print ads as you could. It was also a bit more unruly — you could send letters and special film clips, you could do a lot of things that are ruled out now. But, look, politics is politics, and it’s always been politics.
Miramax was coming off a best picture Oscar win for The English Patient the previous year, which only made co-chair Harvey Weinstein hungrier. He told The New York Times, “It’s a battle. Titanic has great special effects, but in Good Will Hunting, the special effects are the words”; to CNN, he said, “If Jim Cameron is saying size matters, then we at Miramax are saying less is more”; and he told just about anyone who would listen that Hunting would emerge an unexpected best picture winner, like Chariots of Fire.
SWARTZ We knew we’d win other things that year, but he thought we could win the whole thing and made us aggressively campaign against fucking Titanic!
LISA TABACK (MIRAMAX DIRECTOR OF SPECIAL EVENTS AND PUBLICITY) Harvey seemed to think he had a chance every year. Good Will Hunting was an incredible film that made people feel good and that launched the careers of two of the biggest actors and filmmakers. But that was never going to happen.
SWARTZ He really believed it! He made us work like dogs. That’s my recollection of the year, being like, “This is such a fucking pain in the ass.”
LOTS OF NOMS, BUT NO LEO?!
On Feb. 10, 1998, Titanic landed 14 Oscar nominations, equaling the record that had been held for 37 years by All About Eve. And unlike All About Eve‘s noms, Titanic‘s came in 14 different categories.
CAMERON We were on a flight back from Europe, it was midmorning, and the pilot came back and told us that we got all these nominations. I said, “Did you get the list?” He said, “Yeah.” He stood there in the aisle and read the list of what we were nominated for, and it just went on and on and on. I’m like, “You’re kidding me — is this really happening?” But here’s the kicker: I looked out the window and was sort of daydreaming after that, and I looked down, and the first thing I saw was icebergs. I was never on a transatlantic flight where I saw icebergs before or since.
But Titanic‘s leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio, wasn’t nominated for best actor. At a time before social media and the widespread use of email, fans took their displeasure directly to the Academy’s switchboards. An Academy spokesperson told Entertainment Weekly, “They’re asking if anything can be done to get Leonardo nominated. The calls did not just come from teenagers. One older woman called and said the whole state of Florida was upset.”
LESLIE UNGER (ACADEMY COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR) There were a lot of Titanic fans peeved that Leonardo DiCaprio wasn’t nominated.
LANDAU I was disappointed. I think oftentimes the perception of a performance requires the character to have a fatal flaw, and he didn’t in that character, but that actually made the character harder to play. Even when we were casting Leo, it was something that Jim had to convince him of, that this part was an acting challenge, just like the other characters he had played.
CAMERON It was unusual at that time, and probably still, for very young actors who were relatively new to the game to get nominations — certainly not wins — because the general attitude is, “If they’re that good, we’ll catch them later.”
MECHANIC When a movie’s that good, it’s because the actors are also perfect in their roles. They carried the movie. Certainly the sinking of the ship and all that was done in a spectacular way. But ultimately, why did the movie work? Because people identified with those two characters.
The film also missed out on a screenplay nom, without which no film had won best picture since The Sound of Music 32 years earlier.
SWARTZ That’s where Harvey’s “We have a chance” thing came from.
Meanwhile, L.A. Confidential swept the major critics’ awards. Titanic was shut out, though it continued to enjoy massive commercial success.
KIM BASINGER (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL SUPPORTING ACTRESS) The real truth is in the tale of a tiny hand purse that I had made. Judith Leiber makes these beautiful crystal handbags. I had them make me one for the Oscars, and on the back, do you know what there was? A dinghy, because I knew what we were up against.
CAMERON Look, we had a lot of nominations, but that didn’t mean anything to the final outcome. I thought L.A. Confidential was a very strong film. It was 50-50 at best. I didn’t believe the others had a chance against L.A. Confidential or Titanic.
MECHANIC Success is both admired and hated.
OSCAR NIGHT ARRIVES
The ceremony took place at the Shrine Auditorium on March 23, 1998. DiCaprio did not attend. But the nominees and many other notables — including civil rights icon Rosa Parks, a guest of Spike Lee, whose 4 Little Girls was nominated for best documentary feature — made their way down the red carpet. Titanic, at that time, had been atop the box office for 14 weeks and had grossed $495 million domestically and $1.2 billion worldwide.
LANDAU I was sitting with my mother [Edie] one row in front of Jim. It was a thrill to be able to share the evening with her. My mother, in her own right, was a producer, and had actually been nominated [27 years earlier] with my dad [Ely] for a [Martin Luther King Jr.] documentary they had done called King: A Filmed Record … Montgomery to Memphis.
CAMERON I’d been to the Oscars three times before because my films had garnered a number of nominations for sound, visual effects, art direction, things like that, and I’d always gone in support of the nominees. I had never been nominated myself. Now there was a whole other layer. I was like, “Shit, I might have to make a speech. I might have to make more than one speech. Oh, fuck.”
BEN AFFLECK (GOOD WILL HUNTING SCREENWRITER, WITH MATT DAMON) We took our moms. Everyone’s like, “It’s so nice you took your moms.” And we’re like, “Who the fuck else were we going to take? You think our moms were going to let us take somebody else?”
CAMERON The strap on [my then-wife] Linda [Hamilton’s] dress broke, so I’m trying to hold up the back where the strap broke. And my tux came together at the very last second. The tailor was supposed to meet us at the Four Seasons before we went over to the Oscars. The guy never showed up, and my pants are three inches too big. So with one hand, I’m holding up my pants, and with the other, I’m holding up Linda’s dress. That was our entire fricking evening.
The telecast’s producer was Gil Cates, director was Louis J. Horvitz and host was Billy Crystal (who had previously emceed 1990–1993, 1997), supported by a team of writers.
BRUCE VILANCH 1989 was the first Oscars that I did. It was produced by a man named Allan Carr, who was Mr. Showmanship, and it became a legendary show for all the wrong reasons. After they cleared the debris, Gil Cates came in to produce his first of 17 shows, and he got Billy Crystal, who was coming off of four Grammy shows. And that began a whole new chapter.
BILLY CRYSTAL (70TH OSCARS HOST) Gil Cates was a great producer. Gil and I did six together, and I loved him dearly.
MARC SHAIMAN (70TH OSCARS WRITER) No one has done a better job hosting the Oscars than Billy. People have done as great, of course — Johnny Carson, Bob Hope and some who have done it in the past 25 years — but no one’s ever done it better than Billy. I don’t think anyone ever could. He was born to do that.
ROBERT REHME (ACADEMY PRESIDENT) He was this lovable guy. He was very well liked by the public.
LOUIS J. HORVITZ (70TH OSCARS DIRECTOR) You felt like you were coming home when you saw Billy on Oscar night.
SHAIMAN They would always say, “A billion people are watching!” I don’t know if it was a billion or 800 million, but whatever it was, it was a very bizarre thing to work on something that you knew so many people are going to watch.
VILANCH The audiences are bigger when there are big movies in the race, and Titanic was the biggest movie of all time until Avatar, so we knew it was going to be a big turnout.
REHME Frankly, I expected it to be big, because the movie had done so well.
The show began with Rehme welcoming everyone, then tossing to a montage of best picture clips into which Crystal had been inserted.
VILANCH The year before Titanic, we started doing that because that was the year that nobody knew who any of the nominees were. One of our jokes was, “It’s Tom Cruise [star of Jerry Maguire, the only studio movie up for best picture] and a lot of other guys!” Nobody knew those movies, so we thought it’d be funny to insert Billy into them.
CRYSTAL It gets a huge laugh before I even hit the stage, and it just starts things off and makes it easier for me to enter. They’re already warmed up.
HORVITZ Billy had his own people that made those films with him. He never showed them to anyone until the day of the show. He didn’t want it to leak.
VILANCH We were putting together the opening movie. As we were pitching ideas for Titanic, I don’t remember who said this, but we were talking about Billy being the guy in white on the stern of the ship who looks over at Kate Winslet. Someone said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if it was Kevin Costner and off-camera someone says, ‘Have you ever been involved in a disaster this big?’ and he says, ‘The Postman?’ ” So Billy called him and Costner said yes, which stunned us. He decided to own his failure.
CAMERON It was clear that the producers were having fun — they were spoofing, but it wasn’t nasty. It was a celebration of the film. I thought, “Well, maybe we don’t win, but at least we’re winning in that our peers are celebrating us and the success.”
VILANCH We knew that there was Titanic fever.
CAMERON I’ve noticed in the years since it’s become more of a roast. There’s a bit of snark in it. I can’t imagine what those filmmakers are thinking. I remember what I was thinking with Avatar when they were making fun of blue people and doing stuff like that. It didn’t have the same vibe.
Crystal then appeared onstage aboard a set that was made to look like a sinking ship; did a monologue (cracking about the still-unfolding Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, “There’s a billion people watching the show tonight; Linda Tripp is taping it”); and, per tradition, started singing a medley about the best picture nominees (“L.A. Confidential, you could be the iceberg tonight!”).
SHAIMAN The first year that Billy hosted the Oscars, he had this idea of spoofing the musical numbers that used to always take place, where they would somehow sing about the movies. And that became our own tradition, doing those medleys at the top of the show.
VILANCH The first half-hour was a Billy Crystal special. It was fabulous.
SHAIMAN It was always just a lot of laughter putting them together. Billy would have his team of writers, but little by little over the years, I did kind of piss on it and make it more my territory, because I was a Broadway lyricist, so I would start coming in and saying, “Hey, guys, it has to rhyme. It can’t be ‘sort of rhymes.’ It has to really rhyme.” It became a bit more just me and Billy, with the rest of the guys or girls pitching ideas.
Crystal also engaged with the nominees seated closest to the stage.
CRYSTAL You had Jack [Nicholson, a best actor nominee for As Good as It Gets] in the front row who was always sort of my partner, and I remember coming off the stage to sing to him. I had planted a little camera, an insta-camera — this was when we actually used cameras instead of phones — by a speaker in the front, and I came down, and Helen [Hunt, a best actress nominee for As Good as It Gets] took a picture. I think I was sitting on Jack’s lap or something. And then you had Matt and Ben.
AFFLECK That’s exactly the moment that I remember the most. I was 25 — I was like an assistant — and it hadn’t hit me. I remember talking to Matt, and we’re like, “We’re not going to win, and this is all going to blow over.” We never really believed. We didn’t understand, we didn’t have the ability to contextualize what it meant. Literally the year before, in Somerville, Massachusetts, we had watched the show from a shitty little apartment and done an Oscar pool and watched Billy Crystal. And there he was, and he starts singing, “Matt and Ben! Ben and Matt!” I thought, “This is one of those weird dreams.”
Crystal popped onstage and off throughout the rest of the night.
VILANCH We established for the host a little room right off stage left. It was a little curtain enclosure where we had a monitor so you could see what was going on, what was going out, and what some other cameras were looking at. And we had food, of course, because there were also a lot of Jewish people back there.
CRYSTAL Within the first hour, there’s a lot of losers in the audience. Four out of every five loses. So towards a certain point in the evening, all the winners are backstage in a press room or in the green room. Very rarely do they go back to their seats. So you have a room mostly full of seat-fillers and hungry losers. That’s when you have to hope you can make light of something and just keep it moving.
HELEN HUNT (AS GOOD AS IT GETS LEAD ACTRESS) In the middle of the thing, there was a very solemn moment, but it was also a little strange. Billy was right off stage, and I was in the front row, and he looked at me like the character that he played in the movie that we did together [1992’s Mr. Saturday Night], and I was terrified that I was going to start laughing. I was like, “You cannot put me in the front row of the Oscars to make me the jerk that laughs at the solemn moment!”
There were musical performances by Aaliyah, Michael Bolton and, of course, Celine Dion (“My Heart Will Go On” while wearing the necklace central to Titanic). Presenters included Madonna and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The leading lady of the 1933 classic King Kong, Fay Wray, received a special introduction. Martin Scorsese presented an honorary Oscar to Stanley Donen, who sang and danced. And there was a segment where 70 past acting Oscar winners were convened for a “class photo” that the telecast teased as “the greatest collection of Oscar winners ever assembled.”
VILANCH It was Gil’s idea. He thought it gave the thing more of a sense of occasion. I think it was a wonderful thing to do, especially since some of these actors hadn’t gone on to great glory.
CRYSTAL I recall being backstage with all of them and greeting all of them, everybody from Shirley Temple to Red Buttons and on and on. All the greats. Denzel, Dustin, Sean Connery. It was really the majesty of what the Oscars were and what movies meant to people.
VILANCH Backstage, everybody wanted to meet Luise Rainer, who’d been living in Europe since she quit the business decades before. She was kind of legendary — she won two Oscars back to back, and all these actors who know all this stuff were desperate to meet her because she was old Hollywood, and they had so many things they wanted to ask her about. It was beautiful.
HORVITZ It was a very difficult sequence to do because they’re all sitting in a row, so I have a camera and I’m panning it, and we’re rolling back multiple clips at a time, and pan and roll and pan and roll, and then you go down again. I recently went back and looked at that and, after about the fifth or sixth person, I’m going, “There’s no way we could put that on today. It’s too long.” But in 1998, we didn’t have the cyber-plague-menace that we have in social media today, or the 10-frame attention-span.
TITANIC BEGINS DOMINATING
The film’s first nine wins came for art direction, cinematography, costume design, film editing, original dramatic score, original song, sound, sound effects editing and visual effects.
CAMERON When they called my name for the first time, which was for editing, I’m like, “Oh, shit. I’ve got to get up in front of whatever, a billion people, and I’m holding my pants up.” Try to remember your speech in the middle of that!
BILLY ZANE (TITANIC SUPPORTING ACTOR) As it just kept ratcheting up, we thought, “Wow, this is amazing. We’re making history.”
Oh, and a fight almost broke out between Cameron and Weinstein.
CAMERON I didn’t know Harvey from Adam. I didn’t know anything about him other than what I had learned from Guillermo del Toro. Guillermo and I had been close friends since 1991. He had told me the horrible shit that Miramax pulled on him when he made his first American commercial film, Mimic, and they fired him. The actors, led by Mira Sorvino, kind of revolted and wouldn’t work until they brought him back. Then, when the film was successful and well regarded, Harvey sort of jumped up to take praise for the movie. And so I’m on my way back to my seat with my editing Oscar, and this guy’s jumping up to introduce himself, saying, “If you want to come to work at a place that’s a friend of the artist, a friend of the filmmaker” — he’s holding his hand out, and I just blew him off. It was just an ugly little moment. But, yeah, I did defend Guillermo and I called Harvey on his bullshit, and then he got very loud and verbally abusive and almost potentially physically violent. And he was about to get clocked by an Oscar — which would’ve been highly appropriate, I think. But I wasn’t thinking about it in those terms; it was just the weapon at hand. The hysterical thing about the whole moment was people around us were saying, “Not here! Not here!” It was kind of like, “It’s OK if you boys fight out in the alley, but don’t do it here at the Academy Awards!”
NON-TITANIC WINNERS TAKE THE STAGE
Basinger won best supporting actress for L.A. Confidential.
BASINGER I kept saying, “The lady from Titanic [Gloria Stuart, whose film career had begun in the 1930s and who was then, at 87, the oldest Oscar nominee ever], that lady’s going to win it. It’s just the way it is.” She had seniority! In fact, I looked over there when they called my name and thought, “What’s she doing? She’s not walking to the podium.” Then I remember [L.A. Confidential director] Curtis [Hanson] poking me in the back. [Basinger’s then-husband] Alec Baldwin’s mouth was moving, saying, “Get up, get up, get up. You won!” I thought, “OK,” and I tried to get up. It was a heavy dress. I thought I was going to faint because my legs were gone by then. Actually, it was Jack Nicholson who helped me up the stairs. I’ll never forget that as long as I live.
Robin Williams won best supporting actor for Good Will Hunting, thanked Affleck and Damon (“I still want to see some ID”) and said “mazel tov” to “the mishpucha Weinstein.”
VILANCH Billy and Robin were very close. They and Whoopi [Goldberg] did Comic Relief — like, 15 of those shows.
CRYSTAL Robin won, and that was very emotional for me because we were like brothers. He was incredible in the film, but right up until the SAG Awards, everyone thought that Burt Reynolds was going to win — he was fantastic in Boogie Nights, and there was a lot of sentiment for him at that point in his career. But then Robin won at the SAG Awards, and I was like, “OK, I think he’s going to win this.” I remember being onstage — stage left — when he won and walking out after he finished his speech, and we had this wonderful embrace.
Helen Hunt won best actress for As Good as It Gets.
HUNT I had never been in that world at all. I had won for this movie a couple of times [at other awards shows], so I didn’t feel like, “Oh my God, this couldn’t possibly happen!” But at the same time, you’re sitting next to Judi Dench [a best actress nominee for Mrs. Brown] and Julie Christie [a best actress nominee for Afterglow], some of the greatest actors ever. You certainly aren’t polishing your bookshelf to put your Oscar on it. The whole thing’s a bit of a blur. I don’t blackout drink, but that’s probably what it’s like. It was, for me, pretty out-of-body.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and head of West L.A.’s Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance, and his colleague Richard Trank were nominated for The Long Way Home, a Holocaust documentary made at the center.
RICHARD TRANK (THE LONG WAY HOME PRODUCER) We were sitting in the section with everybody from Titanic. The night before, I couldn’t sleep, so I went into the den at 1 o’clock in the morning and turned on the TV to try and tire myself. And what comes on? The Godfather Part II, one of my all-time favorite movies. So when Robert De Niro walked out onstage to present the Oscar for best documentary feature, I remember turning to the rabbi and saying, “I think we’re going to win.”
De Niro announced that the winner was The Long Way Home. It was Hier’s second Oscar win and Trank’s first.
TRANK After, I remember walking off stage and in the most inarticulate way telling Robert De Niro, “Last night I was watching The Godfather, Part II. It was like—” And him kind of looking at me with that Robert De Niro look, like, “Okay, anyway, I need to be somewhere else.”
RABBI MARVIN HIER (THE LONG WAY HOME PRODUCER) When I walked offstage, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were standing there. Jack said, “You know, if I had any idea that I could have won one of those just going to yeshiva, I could have saved a fortune on acting school!”
Crystal exclaimed, “What a night when your rabbi wins an Oscar! First my best friend, now my rabbi! Who’s next?”
Nicholson won best actor for As Good as It Gets and cracked, “I’ve had a sinking feeling all night.”
Then Lemmon and Matthau announced Good Will Hunting as the winner for best original screenplay. Affleck and Damon gave a spirited acceptance speech that they acknowledged was inspired by Cuba Gooding Jr.’s from the year before.
HORVITZ You had the Golden Age introducing the New Age.
AFFLECK They brought out Lemmon and Matthau to present screenplay, and I thought, “Huh. Maybe they [the people behind the telecast] think we’re going to win.” And when they read our names, it was shocking. It’s sort of like — did you ever like spin out in a car on the freeway or something? You know that feeling of being out of your body and kind of disconnected? I remember Alec Baldwin grabbed us offstage and he was like, “Remember this! Remember this!” And I was just like, “I’ll remember you grabbing me.”
HORVITZ It literally started their careers. They were young kids in 1998.
CAMERON CROWNS HIMSELF “KING”
Warren Beatty presented the best director Oscar to Cameron, who closed his acceptance speech by declaring, “Mom, Dad, there’s 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!’ ” Not since Sally Field declared, “You like me!” did an Oscar acceptance speech trigger so much backlash.
HORVITZ Cameron’s out there and he’s going on, “I’m the king of the world!” I’m going, “You’re an asshole!”
MECHANIC If he had done that before voting closed, we would have lost. That’s the sort of thing that would cost you winning.
ZANE We were like, “Oof, that was…” “Huh…” “Yeah, that was…” I got it, but, yeah…
LANDAU I took it exactly the way Jack [Dawson, the character played by DiCaprio in Titanic] meant it in the movie: “This is the best day of my life!” Jim was quoting his own movie. I just thought, “OK, what a great way to tie it to the film.” I think people missed the part, “I feel like …”
REHME It was a theatrical move.
TRANK He was happy. I got it. I’d give him a pass. I mean, it’s certainly not something I would’ve done.
CRYSTAL I think it’s something that he regrets to this day. I haven’t won an Oscar, but I’ve won Emmys and things like that, and you get lost in the moment. You think you’re prepared, but you’re not.
BASINGER You have to give people a little bit of a break, because you’re half nuts when you’re up there. You really aren’t in your own body.
CAMERON I’ll tell you exactly when I first realized it [was going to be a problem]: when I walked backstage and Warren Beatty had this look on his face like, “What the fuck did you just do?” He was just looking at me like, “You poor boob, what the fuck did you just do?” And I went, “Oh, was that not cool? Okay.” I mean, obviously I’ve analyzed that. My wife at the time, Linda, had said, “Well, if you’re going to quote a line from the movie, then quote it with gusto.” I’m like, “Well, I can do that.” And what I realized is, the problem with it is that it’s too self-referential and seen as hubristic — not just the actual sort of semiotics of, “I’m the king of the world,” but the scenario of quoting your own movie as if every single person in the audience is a big fan, because there were a lot of people in that audience that did not vote for Titanic. You can’t make the assumption that because you’re winning, you’ve won by some vast landslide. In my mind, it was celebratory — I was just stating how I felt. In fact, that’s exactly what I said. I was talking to my parents. If you actually look at a transcript of it, I say, “Mom, Dad, I know you’re back there,” because they were in the back of the house. I said, “I can’t tell you how I feel right now except to say that I’m the king of the world!” Meaning talking to my parents saying, “I feel pretty great right now.” And that was it. What I specifically wasn’t saying is, “I’m showing all y’all motherfuckers how it’s done, and yes, I’m the king of the world! I’m all that!” That’s not what I was saying. But, of course, that’s what they heard. And, of course, as a director, I’m supposed to be better than that. I’m supposed to know what the audience hears — how the line actually lands is actually part of the art form.
Something lesser known about Cameron’s speech: he also used it to honor a bet.
ROD LURIE (KABC radio host) Years before I was a filmmaker, I was a journalist who was obsessed with the Oscars, and when I got my own show on KABC, I was talking Oscars all year long. Because of that, my show became an almost ritual stopover for Oscar hopefuls. When Marty Landau was promoting Ed Wood, he came on and I said on the air that he would not just be nominated for an Oscar, but would win. “No, no,” he said. “Sam Jackson for Pulp Fiction.” I said, “Okay, I’ll make you a bet. If you don’t win, then I’ll devote an hour to the injustice on my show.” He rubbed his chin suspiciously and said, “And if I do somehow get lucky and win?” “Well, you need to thank me in your acceptance speech.” He didn’t give a moment’s hesitation: “You’re on.” And sure enough, on Oscar night, Marty won and said, “I want to thank the members of the press, especially Rod Lurie.” The same thing happened with Mel Gibson and Braveheart. Then, on opening weekend of Titanic, James Cameron came on my show, and I said, “Jim, I’ll make you a bet—” He cut me off. “I was told to expect this. You have yourself a bet.” So, on Oscar night, I held a massive party with 500 guests, and waited to see if Cameron would keep his word. Sure enough, he did. When I arrived at another Oscar party later on, Cameron waved me over. “I paid off my debt!” Indeed he had. And a few years later, when I applied for membership to the Academy, he was also one of my three signatories. So whether or not he’s the king of the world, he’s a prince in my book.
TITANIC GETS THE LAST LAUGH
The telecast was running long — Russell Carpenter, accepting the best cinematography Oscar for Titanic, said, “We’re running so late, this is becoming kind of a Depends moment for me” — and it ended up being the longest show to date, at three hours and 46 minutes. To close the ceremony, Sean Connery announced that the best picture winner was Titanic, bringing its total to 11 Oscars, tying the record held by Ben-Hur for 38 years. Landau and Cameron went onstage; Landau spoke first, then Cameron.
HORVITZ What does Cameron do? He goes out there and he goes, “Let’s have 15 seconds of silence for the victims.” We’re going, “Jesus Christ! We don’t have time!” Gil’s going, “You motherfucker!” The network’s screaming, “You can’t play him off!” I’m just trying to get off the air because of the restrictions of running into the East Coast news, so you’re going, “Jesus Christ, get off the air!” If I run into the news, we owe money.
VILANCH It was still a great lead-in for the news that followed it on the ABC stations.
RIC ROBERTSON (ACADEMY EXECUTIVE ADMINISTRATOR) Our big concern was always losing viewers on the east coast as it got later and later.
Now it was time to party, especially for Team Titanic, many members of which headed to the Governors Ball, then to an afterparty in a tented parking lot in Beverly Hills and eventually to the penthouse of the Chateau Marmont.
LANDAU My role as a producer is to protect the director — but every now and then, you’ve got to look out for yourself. We’re going backstage, and I look at Jim and I look at Sean Connery, and I lean over to Jim and go, “Jim, I’m standing in the middle or I’m going to get cut out of the photo.” Backstage, there was a moment where Jim — who had won three Oscars that night — asked me to hold his Oscars, so I had his Oscars and I had my Oscar. And of course, the names are not on them at that moment [engravings are attached later], but they’re all numbered. So I took the opportunity to look at all the numbers, and I took 2929 because it was easy to remember, and I gave him back the other three when he wanted them back, but I can’t tell you what those numbers are. I have the best number. That’s all I care about.
TRANK At the Governors Ball — whenever I think of it, it makes me smile — I’m walking with my Oscar, and coming in the opposite direction are Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and they both came up and tapped their Oscar on my Oscar. Then we got invited to the Titanic party in Beverly Hills. I showed up with my invitation, but I guess there were so many people trying to get into this party — because they were king of the world — that they wouldn’t let me in. Finally, somebody inside looked and saw me standing there holding my Oscar and said, “Let the guy in! For God’s sake, he won an Oscar!” Then I remember sitting on a sofa, holding my Oscar, and I was talking to a couple of people when Kate Winslet came over and said, “Do you mind if I hold it?”
ZANE I remember the afterparty, being invited up to the terrace, tie loosened, champagne in hand, the lights of the city below. A night to remember indeed.
ROCHELLE ROSE (TITANIC SUPPORTING ACTRESS) Jack Nicholson invited me to an afterparty at his house, but I declined the offer to stay with my Titanic family. I had never met him before, and it was obviously tempting because he’s such a legend. But it was a Titanic evening.
THE TELECAST’S RATINGS COME IN
The telecast’s ratings were massive: It averaged 57.25 viewers throughout, up 29 percent from the year before, and crushing the previous record of 48.28 million from 1995, the year of Forrest Gump.
CRYSTAL When they said it was the highest of all time, I thought, “Well, great, and maybe we can break it next year.” It wasn’t like it was a fantastic feeling. But now I’m overwhelmed by it and grateful for being there that night. I happened to be hosting that night, but it was really more about the movies. I don’t think it will ever be approached. I don’t think it can be.
Crystal received another call the day after the show that was even more meaningful to him.
CRYSTAL My assistant Carol says to me, “Johnny Carson’s on the phone.” I said, “Are you sure it’s him? Is it Marty Short?” “No, it’s him. He called himself. No assistant.” I started sweating like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News, took a deep breath and said, “Hi, Johnny.” There was that voice, clear as a bell, the great Johnny Carson voice, and he went on and on about how much he loved the show and what I did. He said, “I’m watching it and I go, ‘Look at what this guy is doing!’ My wife says to me, ‘Why don’t you call him and tell him?’ So I’m doing that.” It meant everything to me.
Mechanic, however, did not get a call.
MECHANIC Rupert never said, “Congratulations.” Never said, “Good job.” I didn’t get a bonus any bigger than the year before. Sumner Redstone [the head of Viacom, owner of Paramount] was the one who came up to me and said, “You’re the one who I’ve heard is most responsible. Congratulations.” One of those oddities.
A TITANIC POSTMORTEM
Why did Titanic win?
CAMERON We had done an almost impossible thing, which is we had made ourselves an underdog in a weird way. We had created a scenario in which we appeared to fight our way back and have a triumph when the chips were down. The chips were down only because everybody made the chips down. I didn’t fricking do it.
MECHANIC We were unquestionably the best movie. I didn’t even think there was a second place that year. It towers above every movie not because it was expensive, but because it was good.
SWARTZ Titanic was the best overall achievement. Remember, in those days there were just five nominees and you could win with just 21 percent. The key was to be the best overall achievement.
TABACK If you saw one movie that year in a theater, you saw Titanic. I don’t believe everyone watched all those other movies. Plus, you had the muscle behind it of two of the biggest studios in Hollywood.
ZANE It’s enough of a machine when one studio is behind a movie, but when two are, I think it’s probably unstoppable.
FRIEDMAN It was a cultural phenomenon.
ZANE True story, costume, tears.
CAMERON Did we win by a landslide or did we win by one vote? You never know.
Over the years since, young people around the world have continued to discover and fall in love with the film.
MALALA YOUSAFZAI (Activist/2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner born in 1997) The very first movie I saw was Titanic. Titanic did reach to Pakistan. At that time, we did not even have a television. There was a computer in my dad’s school, and we all went to the computer lab and played the CD. That movie was our favorite movie for such a long time. My dad was just in love with Rose and Jack. And we always used to think about the last scene: could Jack have been saved? That has been on everyone’s mind, including us up in the north of Pakistan.
LANDAU It doesn’t play as if it’s a movie that was made 25 years ago. It’s a timeless story, and Jim shot it in a style that is not of a period.
The impact of that season on the Oscar winners and those associated with Titanic varied widely.
AFFLECK That was the day I feel like we became famous. We became famous because so many people watched us on TV win that prize, and it was such a good story, and the soap opera of our lives was interesting. This would go on to be the story of my life. [Affleck is still the youngest-ever winner of a screenwriting Oscar.]
BASINGER If you win an Oscar and think, “Oh, now I’m going to get every good part there is in town, and I’ll probably win again,” no, it doesn’t do that. You’re still always on the hunt for really good material.
WINSLET There was a sudden moment in time where I was offered a lot of work, and those films were big and they all had big paychecks right next to them, but I just wasn’t ready to be a famous person. I didn’t like that feeling. I just had this instinct after Titanic that I still had a lot to learn, and I should really only do the things I truly believed in.
HUNT Everything I’ve ever won and every poster of every project I’ve ever done is all smushed into one room that I call an office. I’m looking around my house, and it’s as if it all never happened. But I am happy that it’s in there, and I am really proud to have been a part of it.
LANDAU My Oscar has more mileage on it than any other Oscar ever. I have shared it with students in China. I have taken it to Europe and met with aspiring filmmakers there. It’s enabled me to celebrate Hollywood and instill in people that they too have the potential to achieve what they think is unimaginable. Because I certainly thought for me winning an Oscar was unimaginable.
BASINGER It was a real magical year. I thank God that I was a participant in that year, I really do.
MECHANIC It was such a painful process to get through the movie, both from making it and then, maybe worse even, the six months of finishing it — that’s when it really got savaged — that the Oscars and everything were nice, but it doesn’t take away the memory of what you went through. It doesn’t vanquish the ghosts. I didn’t see Jim again from Oscar night ’til three months later or something like that. I went to see him and talk about what was going to be next. It was going to be Avatar, but that didn’t happen for quite a while, and I was gone by then. But my wife wanted a signed poster that he was supposed to have done because she just loved the movie. And so I said at the end of the lunch, “You promised my wife this signed poster,” and he says, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah!” And he goes over and gets a gold pen and signs it, and then goes, “And you want one, right?” I went, “No, I don’t want one. Why do I want a poster of one of my own movies?” Tom Rothman was with me and he said, “Well, I want one!” So Jim signed it for Tom and then he goes, “But I know you want one.” And I went, “No, Jim, I don’t want one.” And he goes, “You’re going to get one anyways.” And he signed the poster. And it became the first poster I ever put up in my office, because it said not “We’re king of the world” or any of that shit. It said, “We survived.”
A number of winners soon split from their significant others who they had been with on Oscar night, including Cameron (from Linda Hamilton), Hunt (from Hank Azaria) and Basinger (from Alec Baldwin), continuing a long history of post-Oscar breakups.
BASINGER I don’t think it’s totally coincidental. Success is a funny thing. Fame is a funny thing. Living together with fame is a funny thing. It’s not easy. Especially when one has a more successful route than the other and a more successful time, I think it’s a very difficult thing on a human psyche. We’re just human beings, and that can be rough.
In Hollywood, there was life Before Titanic and life After Titanic.
MECHANIC It changed the business. A big bet always can win you more than it can lose you. And now the business is only making big bets.
Things have never really been the same at the Oscars, too. Only once since Titanic has the year’s highest-grossing movie again won best picture: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, in 2004. And the Oscars telecast is coming off of its two lowest-rated installments ever.
MECHANIC The only good movies, seemingly, to voters, are the pictures nobody’s heard of.
SHAIMAN It’s just a shame that we’ve kind of lost that social aspect of everyone seeing the same movies.
PRESS What’s changed is that the Academy Awards has turned into the Spirit Awards.
CRYSTAL It’s so different now. People go to the movies in their living room.
VILANCH The year of Nomadland [2020/2021, when the pandemic first hit], every single movie was available for everybody to watch at home, and it [the Oscars] got the lowest rating ever.
CAMERON The general Academy attitude, I believe — and it’s ever been thus, but it’s certainly more so now — is, “We have a job to do here on behalf of cinema, which is to acquaint people with films that are worthy that they might not otherwise consider, and to get that art out there and get it seen more broadly.” And that’s valid. If somebody had read me a description of Tár, I would not have watched the film. Well, I might have watched it for Cate Blanchett — I watch anything she’s in — but I wouldn’t have been interested. So there’s a validity to the whole critical process and to the whole Academy process. That said, it’s pretty rare that a commercially successful film is also celebrated.
In 2009, the Academy expanded its best picture category and introduced a preferential (meaning, ranked choice) ballot to determine its winner.
SWARTZ As a result, the movie that everybody can agree on becomes the winner, as opposed to the best overall achievement.
TABACK Now it’s, “What’s the most likable?” It’s all about how it makes you feel.
MECHANIC The motto today might as well be “Big is bad and small is good.” Big is not bad and small is not good. Good is good and bad is bad.
TABACK Today, with a preferential ballot, I think L.A. Confidential would have been the winner. 100%.
A number of people who were central to the 70th Oscars are no longer with us — Aaliyah and Titanic’s best original score and best original song winner James Horner were killed in plane crashes in 2001 and 2015, respectively; Gloria Stuart died in 2010 at 100; Gil Cates died in 2011; Robin Williams took his own life in 2014; Curtis Hanson died in 2016, Burt Reynolds in 2018 and two other nominees, Ulee’s Gold lead actor Peter Fonda and Jackie Brown supporting actor Robert Forster, both died in 2019.
But on March 12, several others who were nominated in 1998 will attend the Oscars as nominees yet again: costume designer Ruth E. Carter, cinematographer Roger Deakins, sound mixer Andy Nelson, sound mixer Gary Summers, songwriter Diane Warren and composer John Williams. One 2023 nominee, visual effects artist Scott R. Fisher, is the son of a 1998 nominee, visual effects artist Thomas L. Fisher.
Oh, and there’s a best picture nominee directed by Cameron, produced by Landau and starring, among others, Winslet — not that Cameron is too focused on the Oscars.
CAMERON I’m just working on Avatar 3. I’m not even thinking about Avatar 2 anymore.
But when he thinks back to his Oscars journey with Titanic, he feels it was all worth it, right?
CAMERON The trauma that you go through to get a statue to put on your bar? It ain’t worth it, baby. Trust me.
All of the aforementioned quotes come from interviews conducted in 2023 for this story except for Winslet’s and Affleck’s, which come from a 2017 interview and a 2021 interview with the reporter, respectively.
An abbreviated version of this story first appeared in the March 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.