Sailing Into History Can ''titanic,'' With A Chance To Capture 14 Academy Awards, Top ''ben Hur'' And Its 11 Winners? Or Will It Drift Off Course? Tune In Tomorrow Night.

Posted: March 22, 1998

It was the the most expensive picture in the history of movies, and the delays and staggering logistical problems that beset its production were eagerly publicized in the media. But the studio that gambled everything on the epic film reaped a huge reward as it became a worldwide blockbuster.

Titanic in 1997? No, Ben-Hur in 1959.

Ben-Hur went on to win a dozen Oscar nominations and an unprecedented 11 statuettes, a record of suitably biblical proportions that stands to this day. But will it still stand after tomorrow night? Will Titanic, with 14 nominations in its hold, steam out of the 70th annual Academy Awards with an Oscar total that could endure for generations or will it hit another iceberg?

Among industry executives and seasoned Oscar watchers, the consensus is that the charioteers of Ben-Hur are in a real horse race for the first time in four decades. There have been long-shot contenders over the years - most recently, 1996's The English Patient, which went into the ceremony with 12 nominations and took home nine awards - but nothing has posed such a, well, titanic threat to Ben-Hur's towering achievement.

James Cameron's spectacular fusion of swooning romance and historic calamity has the credentials, world-wide popularity and soap opera back-story to exercise a powerful appeal on academy voters, and the political climate in Hollywood is ripe for a ringing endorsement.

Expert speculation on whether Titanic will break Ben-Hur's record ranges between ``no way'' and ``difficult, but quite possible,'' with some fence-straddlers forecasting a tie. Though many point out that it is weak in the acting fields, Titanic is a virtual lock in the technical and music categories, some of which didn't exist when Gary Cooper presented the best-picture award to the widow of Ben-Hur producer Saul Zimbalist, who died during shooting in Italy.

``I didn't think it had any kind of chance at the record until after our dinner,'' said Jack Shea, president of the Directors Guild of America (DGA), referring to the recent banquet at which Cameron won the group's director award and affirmed his place as the favorite at tomorrow's ceremony. (The event will be broadcast live on ABC [Channel 6] at 9 p.m.)

``Now, I think it might tie Ben-Hur. You could tell from the reaction in the audience that Titanic is something different and special in people's minds. It's a tidal wave. I think its prospects are very good.''

Whatever happens, the clash of Titanic and Ben-Hur is more than just another subplot on an evening known for seething rivalries and Machiavellian intrigue. In more ways than one, the competition between these behemoths is about the big picture. And the parallels between the making of the two epics offer a fascinating portrait of Hollywood then and now.

``It's strange in a way they're similar,'' suggested Damien Bona, co-author of the excellent unauthorized history of the Academy Awards, Inside Oscar. ``Ben-Hur was a make-or-break proposition for MGM. The studio was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, so they decided to go for broke and make a film with a huge budget and hope it would be incredibly successful and get them back into the black.

``The [academy] voters admire the fact that Cameron took a huge chance with Titanic and [Twentieth Century] Fox and Paramount backed him and it paid off. What's different is that with Ben-Hur, people were more inclined to vote for a studio - today, they are more sophisticated.''

When William Wyler began location shooting for Ben-Hur in Rome with Charlton Heston, who would win the best-actor Oscar in the title role, he heard many of the same snide comments that were directed at Cameron. His definitive epic cost a then-astronomical $15 million, barely enough to cover a few special effects in Titanic.

The $200-plus-million Titanic emerged from its much-documented production woes, which required the postponement of its original July opening date, and began a voyage of global vindication in December. It has earned more than $1.1 billion around the world and has supplanted Star Wars at the top of the all-time domestic box-office chart. Fox and Paramount are hauling in profits that were unimaginable when they agreed to share the risk.

``They print all this stuff when we're shooting,'' shrugged Cameron days before he launched his epic. ``Then the movie comes out and they say, `Oh. OK.' ''

But those travails and Cameron's hard-won triumph may prove to be potent factors when the envelopes are opened at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium. Titanic is perceived as a shot in the arm for mainstream Hollywood, which a year ago was humiliated by an Oscar ballot overrun by indie and quasi-indie nominees, including Breaking the Waves, Shine, The English Patient, Fargo and Secrets & Lies. It is surely the first disaster movie that's a feel-good film for the entire industry.

One man who ought to be feeling better than just about anybody is Jon Landau, who co-produced Titanic with Cameron. But he's loath to talk of his film's Oscar chances for fear it might be a jinx.

``I'm not getting into that,'' he said with a nervous laugh. ``Obviously, we're just extremely happy with the nominations. What really pleased me was the recognition of so many people in different categories who worked so hard to make the movie a success.''

``Everyone was so relieved when Titanic started to make a lot of money,'' said DGA president Shea. ``It changed a lot of attitudes. It's the opposite of something like Waterworld, which was seen as dragging the entire industry down. This is a movie that's doing so well it's making everybody optimistic about the business in general. It's going to make changes at the studios and their thinking about what they do, and it's going to loosen the purse strings for other people.''

As a result, Shea doesn't see Titanic suffering the backlash from Oscar voters that has stung the blockbusters of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas on more than one occasion.

``I think the reaction with Titanic has been different,'' noted Charles Matthews, whose Oscar A to Z offers an encyclopedic assessment of every film ever nominated. ``When it comes to this voting, the industry tends to straddle . . . the popular and the critical favorites. While they wouldn't go for a popular movie like E.T., I don't see the same thing happening to Titanic.

``People are very impressed with the way they got the movie to work and how it wound up performing at the box office. You can knock the screenplay, and a lot of critics did, but this is still a very impressive piece of filmmaking. I think the voters will be impressed by the fact that people are going back to see it over and over again. I can see them saying to themselves, `Hey, this is a billion-dollar movie. It really is a big deal.' ''

Matthews thinks that if everything goes right for Cameron, Titanic will sink the competition and take at least 11 Oscars.

``I don't see Kate Winslet winning [for best actress], and I think Men in Black will take makeup,'' he predicted. ``But I would say a tie is a good possibility and 12 is an outside possibility.''

``It has a good shot for at least a tie when you factor in the technical awards, the sound effects and that huge-selling score,'' agrees Kevin Lally, managing editor of Film Journal International, which charts box-office trends for exhibitors. ``The craft of the film is so strong it just seems unbeatable in those areas.''

But Lally doesn't fancy Winslet's chances over As Good as It Gets' Helen Hunt or Mrs. Brown's Judi Dench, and he, too, expects makeup to go to Men in Black. As for cinematography, he predicts that statuette will go to Martin Scorsese's visually stunning Kundun.

``For a movie to have a big sweep at the Oscars, you need those nominations in the acting category,'' he explained, noting Leonardo DiCaprio's absence from the best-actor field and the film's shutout in the supporting-actor race. ``But with that said, it still has a chance to tie.''

Michael Medved, film critic for the New York Post and author of Hollywood vs. America, is less convinced that a tie is possible. ``I think Oscar voters today are like political voters who pride themselves on their independence and like to split the ticket. . . . I can see Titanic winning nine or 10, but not more, although I suppose it's in the realm of possibility. You'll know early in the evening: If Gloria Stuart doesn't win [for supporting actress], there's no way.''

Titanic's race with the charioteers and its chance for a seemingly unattainable record should make for a more tantalizing evening than usual. But there's no suspense about one aspect of the ceremonies: Billy Crystal, who returns tomorrow night for his sixth turn as the Oscars' master of ceremonies, has made a vow about his always-memorable entrance.

The Titanic tidal wave will not engulf him, he solemnly pledged in a recent interview. And, under no circumstances, will he come out on stage in a life jacket.

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