James Cameron proclaims himself ‘The King of the World’ after winning the Best Director Oscar

by Jason Koenigsberg

Twenty years ago an iceberg and a doomed ship were about all that the Academy Awards cared about. James Cameron’s mega blockbuster Titanic set all sorts of records at the box office, some that still remain two decades later dominated the 70th Academy Awards winning 11 out of it’s 14 nominations tying records for most wins and nominations of any film. Was it really that great of a film? Possibly but it did follow the Oscar formula and even earned comparisons to the 1939 Civil War epic Gone With the Wind during its record breaking run at the box office. For better or worse there will never be another Titanic type of hit. It dominated the Oscars that year despite being shut out of the screenplay category, and going home empty handed in the acting categories, both of which are very rare for a Best Picture winner.

The big winners that night (from left to right) Kim Basinger, Robin Williams, Helen Hunt, and Jack Nicholson.

With the 90th Academy Awards upon us let’s take a look back at the Oscar winners from twenty years ago and how they hold up today. This was a very special Academy Awards not just for the motion pictures nominated but it was one of the best outings for Billy Crystal as host of the ceremony after taking a few years off with Whoopi Goldberg and David Letterman with his now infamous hosting duties (Uma and Oprah) filling in. The Academy members and audiences watching at home all rejoiced at seeing Crystal back as the MC for Hollywood’s biggest night. 


As Good as It Gets – James L. Brooks, Bridget Johnson, Kristi Zea
The Full Monty – Uberto Pasolini
Good Will Hunting – Lawrence Bender
L.A. Confidential – Arnon Milchan, Curtis Hanson, Michael Nathanson
Titanic – James Cameron, Jon Landau*

Did the Academy get it right?
Not really compared to Good Will Hunting and L.A. Confidential which are two of the best films of the 1990’s however anyone who was alive and remembers the cultural phenomenon that was Titanic, if anything else won, it would have been arguably the biggest upset in Oscar history. A riot may have broken out if Sean Connery opened the envelope and named one of the other four films. If anything else had won it would have been a surprise ending on par with last years best picture flub of Moonlight over La La Land. Twenty years later Titanic is safe as a solid Best Picture winner and is still referenced today since its two leading stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet both have had extremely successful careers since the success of this film launched them into the spotlight, both winning Acting Oscars of their own which many believed to be long overdue. 
What should have won?
Personally, I think Good Will Hunting was the best movie of 1997 for being such an emotional powerhouse of a picture. On the other hand L.A. Confidential was probably the most expertly crafted film with its taut script, outstanding ensemble cast delivering electrifying performances and riveting direction making L.A. Confidential one of the best movie mysteries of all time. I would say Titanic was the third best of the five nominated films. Fully Monty and As Good As It Gets are both fine films but I would have much preferred to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakout film Boogie Nights earn its way into the Best Picture category along with Spielberg’s Amistad which has sort of become lost in the list of great films Spielberg has directed. 


The Full Monty – Peter Cattaneo
Good Will Hunting – Gus Van Sant
L.A. Confidential – Curtis Hanson
The Sweet Hereafter – Atom Egoyan
Titanic – James Cameron*

Did the Academy get it right?

Not in my opinion. Yes Titanic was a huge undertaking, costing over $200 million and making it back and then some. It was at the time the highest budget for any motion picture and James Cameron delivered and showed that he knows what to do with an immense budget and still earn a profit, he proved this again twelve years later with his next film Avatar (2009) which was also a big Oscar favorite and earned back its budget of over $400 million on its way to breaking the box office records James Cameron set himself with Titanic. There was a number of years where the two highest grossing films of all time not adjusted for inflation were Avatar and Titanic, both directed by James Cameron. That is an unbelievable feat. Since winning the Oscar and declaring himself the King of the World, Cameron sort of walked away from Hollywood for a while as previously mentioned in mylandmark films nobody talks about article. Titanic was his follow up to the massively successful summer blockbuster True Lies (1994). Nobody could have predicted was the path his career would take after winning the Best Director Oscar for Titanic . James Cameron has only directed one feature film in the twenty years since Titanic, which was Avatar. He also has spent a lot of time advancing special effects and inventing new CGI technology for motion pictures, exploring the deep sea floor, creating foundations for restoring history, archaeological expeditions dealing with everything from the Titanic to the lost tomb of Jesus Christ, to directing documentaries about life thousands of miles beneath the sea. He obviously felt that he reached his peak as a filmmaker and wanted to focus on other endeavors. This would be like if Spielberg chose to walk away from directing movies after winning big for Schindler’s List (1993) and become a historian. We cannot fault James Cameron, but we may be deprived of some some epic blockbusters that might be better than the onslaught of superhero movies we are seeing in cinemas today. 

What should have won?
I would have loved to have seen Gus Van Sant take home the statue for his work on Good Will Hunting, and would not have argued if the late great Curtis Hanson had won for L.A. Confidential, the film we now know was his best achievement as a director. Van Sant, Hanson and Atom Egoyan got minor boosts to their careers directing some bigger budgeted films with bigger name actors cast, but they did not have many huge hits at the box office so eventually the clout they earned from their Oscar nominations would fade. Van Sant being the only one to earn another nomination for Milk (2008) which won Sean Penn his second Best Actor Academy Award. 


Matt Damon – Good Will Hunting
Robert Duvall – The Apostle
Peter Fonda – Ulee’s Gold
Dustin Hoffman – Wag the Dog
Jack Nicholson – As Good as It Gets*

Did the Academy get it right?
No way. Even Jack Nicholson himself said that this was one of the easier roles for him. When asked why he accepted the part in As Good As It Gets he said that after he read the script he thought he would win the Oscar for it, and he did. It also reunited him with his friend writer/director James L. Brooks who directed Jack to his Best Supporting Actor Oscar in Terms of Endearment (1983) and directed him again in Broadcast News (1987) and How Do You Know? (2010) which is his final onscreen appearance to date until the announced American remake of Toni Erdmann. His career could have gotten a boost from his win, but it did not need one, Nicholson was already the one of the biggest and most iconic stars of all time. He took a few years off before returning to acting in the outstanding but very depressing drama The Pledge (2001) directed by Sean Penn. The only actor that really saw an improvement in his career was Matt Damon for his breakthrough role   in Good Will Hunting. Everyone else was already secure in their spots as Hollywood elite, and Damon has in the twenty years since his first nomination created a very successful career for himself in motion pictures. 
What should have won?
Matt Damon must have felt like a little kid surrounded by a bunch of old men. He was young enough to be the son or grandson of the four other nominees he was up against. This would have been the equivalent of Tiger Woods who broke out around the same time going up against Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino at the Masters. But regardless of age, Matt Damon should have won for Good Will Hunting and it remains his best performance to date, but he would walk away with a bald gold man on Oscar night as you will see further down in this article. 


Helena Bonham Carter – The Wings of the Dove
Julie Christie – Afterglow
Judi Dench – Mrs. Brown
Helen Hunt – As Good as It Gets*
Kate Winslet – Titanic

Did the Academy get it right?
Nope. Not here either. Helen Hunt was a well known star on the small screen for Mad About You and had won Emmy’s and Golden Globes for her work there. Somehow in her biggest movie role to date she won over the Academy’s hearts for her performance as a waitress with an ill son who falls for a callous writer. The Oscar hype machine was big for As Good As It Gets which definitely had the biggest awards season campaign other than Titanic and Harvey Weinstein’s baby Good Will Hunting. Well it paid off with seven nominations and winning two big ones for Best Actor and Best Actress. Her film career did not exactly take off after winning the highest achievement most actresses dream of. She did not appear in another movie until 2000 when she starred in four major motion pictures released in the span of three months; Dr. T and the Women, Pay It Forward, What Women Want and Cast Away. The last two were fairly big hits that still did not translate to bigger or better roles, Pay It Forward was a big bomb that hoped to be an awards bait picture that never panned out, and Dr. T and the Women was a typical indie sized hit from Robert Altman. Of the other actresses nominated Kate Winslet, Helena Bonham Carter and Dame Judi Dench all saw big boosts to their careers with some of their biggest roles and paychecks in subsequent years. Only Julie Chistie did not benefit much for her nomination for the little seen film Afterglow, although if you read this I do not think she really cared, plus she would earn another Best Actress nomination ten years later.
What should have won?
In what was easily the weakest of all the acting categories from that night. Kate Winslet is the only performance that really shined as being something special out of the five women nominated. It was an emotional performance and the audience saw her character change over the course of the three plus hours she was on screen in Titanic. Winslet’s performance was not ostentatious enough to win especially when Titanic was considered an achievement of special effects and not hailed for its acting. Her excellent performance was literally drowned out by a lot of water and loud noises. Judi Dench was the critical favorite for Mrs. Brown that year. I did not think it was anything very special but she won the following year for her very brief role as Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love and has earned seven career nominations since her acclaimed turn in Mrs. Brown


Robert Forster – Jackie Brown
Anthony Hopkins – Amistad
Greg Kinnear – As Good as It Gets
Burt Reynolds – Boogie Nights
Robin Williams – Good Will Hunting*

Did the Academy get it right?
Yes! Yes! Yes! This was the best moment of the night. Seeing the great Robin Williams finally earn an Academy Award on his fourth nomination and make no mistake about it, his dramatic turn in Good Will Hunting is the best performance of his career. I already praised his work for this immensely in my Robin Williams tribute after his untimely passing. I also embedded his Oscar win and acceptance speech where he embraced his friend the host Billy Crystal, and you hear the loudest applause from the crowd that night for a man receiving what would be the crowning achievement of his professional career. His nomination for Good Will Hunting would be his fourth and final nomination. His career choices after that would be questionable with a lot of duds and few solid comedic performances and even fewer dramatic roles. Only 2002 when Robin Williams had his ‘dark trilogy’ of films released with Death to Smoochy, Insomnia and One Hour Photo were really the only times audiences saw a glimpse of the great actor Robin Williams was since Good Will Hunting. Burt Reynolds was his stiffest competition that night and he was the sentimental favorite to win with a lot of prognosticators picking him to win on his first and thus far only Oscar nomination. You can see his sore loser clap when Mira Sorvino announces Robin Williams’ name after she opens the envelope. Everyone else nominated were great actors that deserved to be nominated, there is not one lemon among the five men and their performances. Although Greg Kinnear, Anthony Hopkins and Robert Forster all have not received an Oscar nomination since, they have all received some outstanding roles in the years since and have delivered some terrific work in very high profile movies. Their nominations raised their profiles and invigorated their careers allowing them to continue to work with some of the best actors, directors and producers in the business for years to come. 


Kim Basinger – L.A. Confidential*
Joan Cusack – In & Out
Minnie Driver – Good Will Hunting
Julianne Moore – Boogie Nights
Gloria Stuart – Titanic

Did the Academy get it right?
This is a tough one to determine. Kim Basinger won and it is very tough to argue with that decision, she was outstanding as a femme fatale in a murder mystery with a performance that evoked classic actresses from the Golden age of Hollywood like Barbara Stanwyck and Grace Kelly. She was the perfect actress for this role and it would be tough to imagine L.A. Confidential working as well with another actress in that part. So I say, sure, why not give it to Kim Basinger and I am glad she won and have no problem with her taking home the Oscar…
What should have won?
But that does not mean I would have voted for her. Good Will Hunting moved me in a way that few films do and I am partial to Minnie Driver and her terrific performance in that film. Then again I loved Joan Cusack’s work in the Capra-esque fable In & Out which dealt with prevalent 90’s themes in the style of a classic comedy. So much so that I would have loved to have seen Kevin Kline nominated for Best Actor that year for In & Out. Plus Julianne Moore gave an exceptional heartbreaking performance in Boogie Nights and that remains one of her finest roles, so I would not have any problem if she won that night. Much like the Best Supporting Actor category, this was a very strong group with some very talented women delivering some of their best work. I may have just given my vote to Minnie Driver since I felt Good Will Hunting was such a masterpiece and L.A. Confidential worked more because of its expertly complex screenplay and its skillful direction, but I may have chosen wrong. Four of the five women nominated easily could have come on stage that night and accepted the award and I would have been just as happy to see any of them win a well deserved Oscar. The only performance that I was not enthralled with of the nominees was Gloria Stewart who was 87 years old at the time of her nomination for Titanic and would have been about the same age as Barbara Stanwyck who starred in the original 1953 Titanic which was the basis for James Cameron’s screenplay. 

WRITING (Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published)

Donnie Brasco – Paul Attanasio
L.A. Confidential – Brian Helgeland, Curtis Hanson*
The Sweet Hereafter – Atom Egoyan
Wag the Dog – Hilary Henkin, David Mamet
The Wings of the Dove – Hossein Amini

Did the Academy get it right?
Absolutely. L.A. Confidential is one of the most accomplished virtuoso screenplays ever written. It is on par with Robert Towne’s beloved screenplay for Chinatown (1974), another outstanding mystery that takes place in the Los Angeles. Chinatown even starred Jack Nicholson who was more deserving of a Best Actor for that film than he was As Good As It Gets. The other nominated scripts are all varying degrees of good, but L.A. Confidential is head and shoulders the best of the nominees here and the Academy made the right call and the right screenplay won. 

WRITING (Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen)

As Good as It Gets – Mark Andrus, James L. Brooks
Boogie Nights – Paul Thomas Anderson
Deconstructing Harry – Woody Allen
The Full Monty – Simon Beaufoy
Good Will Hunting – Ben Affleck, Matt Damon*

Did the Academy get it right?
We can bicker and moan the winners of the acting trophies, but I highly doubt any would debate the merits of the screenplay for Good Will Hunting. It is tough to argue that the breakout film for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck did not deserve this. It was the sentimental favorite to win since they were the up-and-coming stars at the Oscars twenty years ago surrounded a lot by actors, writers and filmmakers from their parents generation. Affleck and Damon were heavy favorites to win and they deserved it. Since their win, they both have been A-list Hollywood elite for the last twenty years and despite a lot of big flops, they have had enough big hits to sustain very successful careers in front of and behind the camera. This screenplay was so good and some of their films were so inept that rumors began to circulate that Oscar winning screenwriter William Goldman wrote the script and they got the credit for it. The truth was they had the script and showed it to William Goldman and Rob Reiner who both looked it over and gave some suggestions about removing a subplot involving the FBI trying to use Matt Damon’s character to work as a spy. They listened and the rest is Oscar history. All the nominees here are terrific scripts especially Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay for Boogie Nights, but none deliver the emotional impact that Good Will Hunting does. Once again I cannot argue with the Academy’s choice, they got it right. 
Matt Damon, Robin Williams, and Ben Affleck showing off their Oscar Gold
The rest of the night was all Titanic, winning nine Oscars in the technical categories as well as Best Song for the Celine Dion hit ‘My Heart Will Go On’ which was dominating the airwaves at the time. I would have liked to have seen Good Will Hunting or L.A. Confidential win the top prize as well their directors taking home a trophy, but both of those films as well as Titanic still hold up two decades later. Since they have stood the test of time over two decades we can look back and say for the most part The Academy got it right. 

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