Sailing full-steam toward the Oscars, “Titanic” helmer James Cameron won the award for features Saturday night from the Directors Guild of America.
The nod makes Cameron the front-runner to take home the helming nod at the Academy Awards on March 23. Only four times in 50 years has the winner of the DGA award not also received the best director Oscar.
” ‘Titanic’ was a labor of love or, some might say, a crime of passion,” Cameron said from the stage at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. “Some nights I’d look up at that enormous set and say to myself, ‘I must be out of my frigging mind.’ ”
Television prizes included Barbara Kopple’s award for “The Documentary,” a “Homicide: Life on the Street” episode, in the category of nighttime dramatic series; John Herzfeld, in dramatic specials, for “Don King: Only in America”; Andy Ackerman for the “Seinfeld” episode “The Betrayal” for comedy series; Louis J. Horvitz, musical variety, for “The Kennedy Center Honors”; and Scott McKinsey, soaps, for a “General Hospital” episode.
“Say hi to my mom, everybody,” said McKinsey, holding up a cellular phone as he took the podium. “She couldn’t be here but obviously she’s a big reason why I’m here.”
Candice Bergen presented the Frank Capra Achievement Award to Bob Jeffords, unit production manager, she said, “for the entire 10-year run of ‘Murphy Brown,’ which ends next week — so, in a word, I’m available.”
Al Pacino gave the D.W. Griffith Award for lifetime achievement to Francis Ford Coppola, who directed him in the three “Godfather” movies and who is renowned for other films like “Apocalypse Now,” “The Cotton Club” and “John Grisham’s The Rainmaker.”
Pacino’s most memorable comments about Coppola were that he does a “bizarre imitation of John Wayne” and that, on location in a cemetery for “The Godfather,” Pacino had come upon Coppola sobbing on a tombstone because, he told Pacino, “They won’t give me another set-up.”
Perennial funny man Hal Kanter said all the nominees were “people with a unique ability to find work.” He praised “Amistad” for having “the courage to say slavery isn’t nice” and described “Titanic” as “the story of Romeo and Juliet getting wet.”
Cameron’s competitors for the award were James L. Brooks (“As Good As It Gets”), Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”), Steven Spielberg (“Amistad”) and Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”), and, as is DGA custom, all made appearances on stage to acknowledge their nominations.
Host Carl Reiner said the DGA nom for Spielberg — who was not nominated for an Oscar this year — “proves that the membership of the Directors Guild knows more than the membership of the Academy.” Spielberg stepped up and said the DGA nominations “make all of us feel like winners.”
In his first appearance on stage, to acknowledge his nomination, Cameron mentioned the “huge cost overruns” that bedeviled the picture, a factor that persuaded the director to give up his fee. He profusely thanked executives at Fox and Paramount “for not blinking.”
Reiner joked that he wasn’t convinced Cameron was all that grateful, and teased the director’s nervous habit of brushing the side of his nose with his index finger. “It’s a good character thing, but you overdid it,” Reiner said. “Maybe you were checking to see if you were lying.”
Reiner went on to encourage Cameron to pursue his share of the film’s huge grosses from executives such as Fox’s Peter Chernin. “Talk to your lawyers and make sure you get it — you deserve it,” Reiner said. “You can do anything you want in this town — you don’t need Chernin!”
Kathleen Turner emceed a simultaneous DGA ceremony in New York, at Windows on the World. Those presenting awards included Soupy Sales, Anne Meara and Danny Aiello in an evening that included performances by members of the cast of “Forbidden Broadway.”
The audience atop the World Trade Center included the event’s honorary chairman Arthur Penn; Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell, co-directors of “Riding the Rails,” winners for outstanding documentary achievement; “Kundun” producer Barbara DeFina; New York State Film Commissioner Pat Kaufman and her husband, Troma Films partner Lloyd Kaufman; and IATSE East Coast Council co-chairwoman Christina Lomolino.
A complete list of winners follows.
James Cameron, “Titanic”; Grant Hill, Anna Roth, Sharon Mann, Jon Landau, unit production managers; Josh McLaglen, first assistant director; Sebastian Silva, Kathleen (Bo) Bobak, second assistant directors.
John Herzfeld, “Don King: Only in America” (HBO); Charles Skouras, unit production manager; James Freitag, first assistant director; Martin Jedlicka, second assistant director.
Barbara Kopple, “Homicide: Life on the Street” (“The Documentary”) (NBC); James Finnerty, unit production manager; Frank Ferro, first assistant director; Ivan Fonseca, second assistant director.
Andy Ackerman, “Seinfeld” (“The Betrayal”) (NBC); Randy Carter, unit production manager/first assistant director; Cherie Hankal, second assistant director; John Witmer, technical coordinator.
Louis J. Horvitz, “The Kennedy Center Honors” (CBS); James Tanker, associate director; Garry W. Hood, Dency Nelson, Doug Smith, Arthur Lewis, Edward Ray, stage managers.
DOCUMENTARY (FILM OR TV)
Michael Uys, Lexy Lovell, “Riding the Rails,” theatrical release (Out of Blue Prods.).
Scott McKinsey, “General Hospital” (Episode No. 8,883) (ABC); Ron Cates, Christine Magarian, associate directors; Dick Amos, Kathy Ladd, Craig McManus, Doug Hayden, stage managers; Brooke Eaton, Jeff Rabin, Chris Mullen, production associates.
Brian Robbins, “First Time” (“Nickelodeon’s Sports Theater With Shaquille O’Neal”) (Nickelodeon); Brad Uecker, unit production manager; Alexander Ellis, first assistant director; Cynthia Riddle, second assistant director.
Bruce Dowad, Isuzu’s “Giant,” Goodby Silverstein & Partners; Mercedes-Benz’s “Don’t Fence Me In,” Lowe & Partners; and Coca-Cola’s “World Dance,” Edge Creative.
D.W. GRIFFITH AWARD
Francis Ford Coppola
ROBERT B. ALDRICH AWARD
(For extraordinary service to the DGA and its membership)
(For leadership and extraordinary efforts in enhancing the welfare and image of the DGA and motion picture industry)
FRANK CAPRA AWARD
(For an assistant director or unit production manager in recognition of career achievement and service to the DGA)
FRANKLIN J. SCHAFFNER AWARD
(For an associate director or stage manager in recognition of service to the industry and the DGA)
C.J. Rapp Pittman
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT IN NEWS DIRECTION
Robert E. Vitarelli
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT IN SPORTS DIRECTION
(Monica Roman in New York contributed to this story.)