Can Anything Stop the Raising of Titanic on March 23?

Now that the 1997 Academy Award nominations have been announced, it is as good a time as any for me

Now that the 1997 Academy Award nominations have been announced, it is as good a time as any for me to predict the winners in the major categories, along with my own choices if I were eligible to vote. To begin with, Titanic seems to be as overwhelming a favorite to win best picture as the Green Bay Packers were to beat the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, which is to say, anything can still happen on Oscar night (March 23) and probably will. As the Chariots of Fire precedent in 1981 tells us, any movie that is nominated has a chance to win. I mention Chariots of Fire because that was the only time, as far as I know, that I was the only journalist to pick the winner, and that was more than 16 years ago, so don’t bet the rent money on my hunches this year.

Not that I can reasonably expect anything to beat Titanic this year, inasmuch as its enormous grosses worldwide and its 14 Oscar nominations, which ties it with All About Eve (1950), have earned headlines in the tabloids and an editorial in The New York Times . Blue-ribbon critics Jack Matthews in Newsday and Dave Kehr in the Daily News have written eloquent tributes to explain their own enthusiasm for James Cameron’s Titanic , clearly the people’s choice as the menacing millennium approaches. Talk about portents of doomsday ahead.

What, then, can possibly go wrong with the scheduled raising of the Titanic on Oscar night? Well, there is a slight chance of backlash. Believe it or not, there are more than a few people in and out of the Academy who consider Titanic wildly overrated. Libby Gelman-Waxner, a.k.a. Paul Rudnick, has provided a hilarious put-down of Titanic in the March Premiere magazine, and just about every critics’ group around preferred L.A. Confidential , with Titanic not even in the running. But these are just a few straws in the wind, caught in the high waves of excitement that mark Titanic as a defining event, like Gone With the Wind , in motion picture history.

So the order should be Titanic, L.A. Confidential, The Full Monty, As Good as It Gets and Good Will Hunting , the most puzzling title of the year. I still prefer Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential and for much the same quality I find in Titanic , a romantic nobility that transfigures what would otherwise have been a banal love story into something beyond death and the briny depths. When an old woman drops a precious jewel down to her lost lover of so long ago, a movie about a lot of drowning people clicks into place as a spiritual adventure swimming against the current of contemporary cynicism. And yet so little could not have amounted to so much were it not for the massive spectacle accompanying the few moments of emotional communion.

James Cameron should win best director as well, though I would obviously have voted for Curtis Hanson. Atom Egoyan, Peter Cattaneo and Gus Van Sant Jr. bring up the rear, with James L. Brooks and Steven Spielberg left out in the cold, though I doubt that these two ultra-successful professionals are sobbing with disappointment.

For best actress, I predict Kate Winslet on the premise of a Titanic sweep, though I much preferred Julie Christie and Helen Hunt among the nominees, and Joey Lauren Adams for Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy , both the actress, most of all, and the film, among the non-nominees.

Best actor will go to Robert Duvall, alas, though I prefer Peter Fonda, Matt Damon, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson among the nominees, and Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey even more among the non-nominees.

Best supporting actor is the category that excites me more than any other, Burt Reynolds and Robert Forster positively, Greg Kinnear negatively, and Anthony Hopkins and Robin Williams neutrally. Mr. Reynolds is my gambling and personal pick among the nominees, Rupert Everett my overwhelming favorite among the non-nominees. Michael Medved of the New York Post has speculated that the gay community might be offended that a supporting actor nomination went to a straight actor (Mr. Kinnear) playing a gay role rather than to an avowedly gay actor (Mr. Everett) in a gay role. My quarrel with the Academy voters in this instance is not over the sexual orientation of the two actors, but of the wide disparity between the two performances and the two gay characters portrayed. Mr. Kinnear plays a vulnerable, beaten-up, pathetic, sexless, mother-obsessed victim whose only function is to assist the two straight leads to get together, a job performed in the past by best-friend types like Eve Arden and Jack Carson. By contrast, Mr. Everett sweeps into My Best Friend’s Wedding at a critical moment when the movie is threatening to descend into a depressingly downbeat bathos, and reawakens the joyous spirit of a loser in the game of love (Julia Roberts) with a mixture of charm and panache and deep, admiring friendship. No whimpering or whining here. Mr. Everett may have been too magically and seductively commanding for the closet homophobes in the Academy, whereas Mr. Kinnear’s character was just pathetic enough to arouse condescending pity. Don’t get me wrong. I admired Ms. Hunt and Mr. Nicholson in As Good as It Gets , and I thought Mr. Brooks deserved to be nominated for best director, but I was always troubled by the plot contrivances that rendered an otherwise good and strong actor like Mr. Kinnear into an inoffensive punching bag.

Best supporting actress places me in another sort of quandary, inasmuch as I admire Gloria Stuart, Kim Basinger and Julianne Moore almost equally in Titanic, L.A. Confidential and Boogie Nights , respectively. I admire the movies, too. I wish Allison Eliot had been nominated for her performance in The Wings of the Dove , but otherwise I can go along with Ms. Stuart, both for myself and as the most justifiable part of the projected Titanic sweep. My reservations about the talented and attractive Minnie Driver and Joan Cusack have to do with the sexual rejection and humiliation in their roles.

For best screenplay based on material previously produced or published, I can only hope that the Academy will agree with me that Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson deserve Oscars for their brilliant adaptation and compression of James Ellroy’s huge, Balzacian novel L. A. Confidential . The worthy runners-up are Atom Egoyan for The Sweet Hereafter , Hossein Amini for The Wings of the Dove, Paul Attanasio for Donnie Brasco , and Hilary Henkin and David Mamet for the much overrated but depressingly timely Wag the Dog .

In the cinematography category early on in the evening, if Russell Carpenter for Titanic beats out Roger Deakins for Martin Scorsese’s visual poem Kundun , then Titanic is on its way to a virtually complete sweep. I never vote for cinematography awards in the two critics’ groups to which I belong because I suspect that the wrong criteria are almost always invoked, i.e., exteriors over interiors, splashy over subtle, spectacular over intimate, etc. Also, this age of digital special effects presents problems for my classical tastes.

The foreign film category is as esoteric as ever, with all five nominees completely unknown to me. Four Days in September from Brazil has already been released, and I am told it is not bad. Character from the Netherlands, Beyond Silence from Germany, Secrets of the Heart from Spain and The Thief from Russia remain to be shown and seen, and that is not always a done deal in this category. But what has happened to France and Italy, the two mainstays of the foreign art film in America? For that matter, what happened to Asia this year? As it is, Four Days in September should win by default.

I am not going to kvetch again this year about the Academy’s not releasing the order of finish. Imagine a horse race in which only the winning horse was identified and all the other horses were listed as also-rans. I have recently discovered, however, that it was not always thus, that Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind, for example, only narrowly defeated Bette Davis in 1939 for Dark Victory ; that Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld in 1936 only narrowly defeated Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey ; and that Ms. Rainer in The Good Earth in 1937 only narrowly defeated Greta Garbo in Camille , possibly the greatest film performance of all time.

As for the Academy’s much and justly criticized documentary, or what I prefer to call nonfiction category, I will note only that my three top choices, Riding the Rails, Gray’s Anatomy and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control , were not nominated. Boo!

The original screenplay category will probably be won by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting , and I concur as far as the nominees are concerned, although Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy would have gotten my vote if it had been nominated. The other contenders are Paul Thomas Anderson for Boogie Nights , Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks for As Good as It Gets , Simon Beaufoy for The Full Monty and Woody Allen for Deconstructing Harry . With his 13th writing nomination, Mr. Allen passes the brilliant Billy Wilder with 12. Perhaps that is what Mr. Allen meant when, in a discussion of the Holocaust, he quipped that records were meant to be broken. This may explain also why I almost overlooked this category altogether. Can Anything Stop the Raising of Titanic on March 23?