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Expect the unexpected at Oscars

Can a bunch of L.A. cops hijack the big boat? With its record-tying 14 noms, will “Titanic” cruise easily into a record number of Oscar wins?

As Lauren Bacall and Juliette Binoche proved last year, there’s no such thing as a shoo-in at the Academy Awards. But whatever happens tonight, there’s a good chance that the Oscar record books will be rewritten.

For example, “L.A. Confidential” could become the first best-picture winner — ever — that takes place in Los Angeles. Or “The Full Monty” could be the first Brit pic set in the present day to win the top prize.

If “As Good as it Gets” gets it, the pic would be only the fourth (after “Wings,” “Grand Hotel” and “Driving Miss Daisy”) to win the film trophy without its director even being nominated.

Triple-crown winner?

Curtis Hanson is up for the triple crown: writer, producer and director. If he nabs all three, he joins a group that consists only of Billy Wilder (1960), Francis Ford Coppola (1974) and James L. Brooks (1983). If he doesn’t win all three, he also joins a pretty select group that includes Elia Kazan, Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick.

On the other hand, James Cameron could create his own history: he’s up as producer, director and editor, a triple play that no one has ever won.

Julie Christie has already earned a footnote in Oscar history: In the last 30 years, four of the five best actress nominees have been foreign-born on only three occasions — and each time, Christie was in the race. She won once, and lost once (to Jane Fonda); tonight remains a question mark.

The current best-actress competition also proves one degree of separation: Hovering over this category is the presence of Kenneth Branagh, of all people. He’ll probably be on the arm of Helena Bonham Carter (his main squeeze, who was also in his “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”); Christie and Kate Winslet starred in his “Hamlet,” and Judi Dench was in his “Henry V.”

Odd connections

His connection to Helen Hunt is one degree removed: Both have worked with Billy Crystal, of all people. Hunt was in his “Mr. Saturday Night” with tonight’s Oscar host, who also appeared in Branagh’s “Hamlet.”

Many actors, from Charles Chaplin (1940) through Billy Bob Thornton (1996), have been nominated both for screenplay and performance, and some of them have won for their scripts; however, if Matt Damon wins as best actor for “Good Will Hunting,” he’d be the first to have taken home a trophy in a role he wrote.

Damon, 27, would also be the youngest best-actor winner, taking the honor from Richard Dreyfuss, who was 30 when he won for “The Goodbye Girl.”

Same time, this year

Gloria Stuart and Winslet could become the first duo to win acting awards in the same role in the same year. Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro won for playing Vito Corleone for the two “Godfather” films, but the actors took home trophies two years apart.

Blacks and other racial minorities are little seen in this year’s races, but women are making strides. Last year, Rachel Portman became the first woman nominated in 51 years in the category of film scoring. (She went on to win for “Emma.”) This year, there are two women in the musical/comedy score contest: Lynn Ahrens and Anne Dudley.

Anna Behlmer could become the first woman to win an Oscar in the sound category. In fact, she’s the only woman ever nominated there, with her third consecutive nom (this time, for “L.A. Confidential”).

But Kevin O’Connell’s record in that race is even more impressive: “Con Air” marks his fourth nomination in three years (and his 11th over 15 years.) Also in the sound race, Tom Johnson is competing against himself, as a nominee on the teams for both “Contact” and “Titanic.”

Alan Menken has eight

Dennis Muren (visual effects, “The Lost World”) and Alan Menken (song, “Hercules”) each has won eight Oscars, making them the two living people with the most trophies. Each is a nominee this year, meaning the record books could be rewritten if one of them wins — or if they both win.

Among the newcomers in the music races is David Newman, with his first Oscar bid, joining his family members of Alfred, Lionel, Emil, Thomas and Randy, who have collectively chalked up 70 nominations.

If “L.A. Confidential” or “As Good as it Gets” is named best pic, Danny De Vito or Jack Nicholson would join a small group of actors (John Cazale, Clark Gable, Shirley MacLaine, Meryl Streep) who have appeared in three best-pic winners. (DeVito and Nicholson both appeared in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Terms of Endearment.”)

“Titanic” seems the front-runner, and “L.A.” the dark horse. But in 1981, Oscar handicappers were betting it was a two-way race between a big epic movie and a small, well-crafted drama (“Reds” and “On Golden Pond,” respectively). And the top prize went to “Chariots of Fire.”

Proving once again: In the Oscars, as in life, there is no such thing as a sure bet.

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