'L.A. Confidential' was clear frontrunner in '97 Oscar race until 'Titanic' set sail

“L.A. Confidential’s” long road to the Academy Awards began at Cannes in May 1997, almost ten months before one of the most critically acclaimed films in more than two decades was sunk by the heft and weight of “Titanic” in the Oscar race.

From the very beginning, “L.A. Confidential’s” Academy campaign – like the marketing of the picture itself – was review-driven. “Oscar had always been the intent,” says Nancy Kirkpatrick, the film’s project coordinator at Warner Bros., which distributed the Regency Enterprises production before Regency chief Arnon Milchan’s pact with the studio gave way to a stint with Fox. “We did Cannes to get people on board and showcase the movie in a very serious, film-festival way.”

“L.A. Confidential,” a postwar tale of police and political corruption set in early-’50s Los Angeles, was faithfully adapted by scripter Brian Helgeland and director Curtis Hanson from the novel of the same name by James Ellroy.

At Cannes, Variety’s Todd McCarthy called the hardboiled mystery “an irresistible treat with enough narrative twists and memorable characters for a half dozen films,” and went on to describe the $35 million pic as “the best film of its type since ‘Chinatown.’ ” In September at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film shared the Metro Media Award with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights.” “We did our junket at Toronto … again in a festival situation where the critics would take it very seriously,” says Kirkpatrick.

Excellent Reviews

As early as August, the Warner’s marketing machine had fashioned a one-sheet filled with glowing quotes. When “L.A. Confidential” opened in 769 theaters on Sept. 19, it had all the positive notices a film could hope for. What it didn’t have was a readily identifiable cast to attract audiences in droves. Hanson cast two relatively unknown Australians – Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce – in the leads. “It was kind of a word-of-mouth picture,” says Warners domestic distribution chief Barry Reardon. But it didn’t pick up a lot of steam.”

By the time Reardon doubled the number of screens two weeks later, it still hadn’t caught on – especially not in Middle and small-town America, he recalls. During week three, with 1,625 screens, the film barely exceeded its previous weekend’s gross of $4.4 million. At the end of October/early November, Reardon shrunk the film’s run to around 200 theaters in the top 15-20 markets. “I figured, I’m going to sit there until the Golden Globes and Academy Awards because I thought the picture would have another life at that time,” he says. To hedge its bets in the Oscar derby, Warner Bros. sent videos of the film to Academy members prior to Thanksgiving, hoping to beat the avalanch of cassettes that usually get mailed in December.

What Reardon, Warner Bros. and the folks at Regency hadn’t factored in was just how big of a commercial juggernaut “Titanic” would become. Initially hampered by negative press surrounding the picture’s budget overruns and director James Cameron’s reportedly autocratic behavior on the set, the picture opened Dec. 19 as a $200 million underdog that quickly proved everybody wrong at the box office, exceeding $50 million in its first week of release, and reaching the $100 million benchmark by week three. Suddenly, Cameron had gone from an obsessive risk taker to a perfectionist laboring under adversity who had relinquished his salary for his personal passion.

In the meantime, “L.A. Confidential” had swept both best pic and best director honors from the four major critics organizations – the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the National Society of Film Critics – the only pic to do so since LAFCA was founded in 1976. (In 1993 “Schindler’s List” had garnered all four of the orgs’ best pic wins, while Quentin Tarantino swept the critics’ directorial honors the following year for “Pulp Fiction.” But in both cases, wins for pic and director were not in alignment.)

In mid January, the Hollywood Foreign Press – perhaps the best barometer of Academy voting patterns – awarded the Golden Globe for best pic and director to “Titanic” and Cameron, respectively. But while momentum for the top awards was swinging in “Titanic’s” favor, it didn’t stop Curtis Hanson or the film’s other key players from stumping heavily for the movie.

Making the extra effort

“Every single actor in this movie worked their butts off,” says Kirkpatrick. “We had Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe over here from Australia for two weeks in May. Then they came back for three weeks in September. Then they each worked in December and again in February (when the Oscar nominations are announced).

“(‘L.A. Confidential’ supporting actress nominee) Kim Basinger, who’s not a publicity creature, stepped up to the plate, as did Kevin Spacey, and did everything we asked.”

Hanson became heavily involved as well, even helping to design the movie’s print ads. “In the spirit of having the campaign reflect the movie, I pulled frames from the film,” he says. “And I came up with the notion of having a line of dialogue run with the stills so that it would kind of call back the scenes. Oscar campaigns are such a blizzard of trade ads. The question is, How do you stand out?”

One person close to the situation says Hanson’s involvement was unusually hands on. He even came up with the notion of creating a trade cover ad that emulated fictional pulp magazine Hush Hush, the tabloid associated with Danny DeVito’s muckraking reporter in the film.

But faced with a blockbuster fueled by a record-setting B.O. pace and backed by two studios (Fox and Paramount) who could afford to spend heavily on advertising in trade and consumer newspapers, Warners and New Regency found themselves out of their league: “You have to look at what’s at stake for each studio,” says one person close to the situation. “(Paramount president of worldwide marketing) Arthur Cohen I’m sure was saying, ‘we can potentially get 15 wins here. We have to go for broke.’ And they were breaking all types of records. So they were also on a faster-moving train.”

When the Oscar nominations were announced on Feb. 10, 1998, “Titanic” tied the 1950 pic “All About Eve” with a record 14 nominations, while “L.A. Confidential” picked up nine – no small feat, in any other year.

“L.A.” boasted uniformly strong performances, but it proved difficult to single out any one actor for Oscar consideration. “It was a tricky movie in this regard because its primary strength is in the ensemble acting,” says Hanson. “And the perception was that this would work against the individual actors. Kim (Basinger) ended up with the nomination and the victory – and nothing could have made me happier – but she ended up in a sense carrying the torch for the whole cast.”

Improving boxo office

Reardon says the nominations represent the first of “two bites of the apple” in terms of a potential B.O. boost, the second being the awards themselves. At this time the film’s run ballooned from 242 playdates to more than 800. The result was a gross that jumped to almost $4 million from a previous week’s take of $560,000. “Titanic,” however, was a whole other animal.

With the disaster epic enjoying unprecedented success, Academy members – who don’t traditionally get behind blockbusters -might have been conscious of past charges of elitism. Though previous B.O. extravaganzas like “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “Around the World in 80 Days” had won best picture honors, they were exceptions to the rule. “Oscar voters faced getting roundly criticized if they spurned a picture that the public loved,” says one veteran Oscar prognosticator and Academy member. “Everybody seemed to be voting with their pocketbook, and that’s the way they went, too.”

On March 23, “Titanic” waltzed off with 11 Oscars, tying 1951’s “Ben Hur” with the most statuettes awarded one film. In the aftermath, Curtis Hanson commented, “As Frank Capra said, don’t make your best movie the year somebody else makes ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ” referring to the insurmountable odds faced by Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in 1939.

Falls short on biggie

“L.A. Confidential’s” wins for screenplay adaptation and supporting actress barely helped the film commercially, as it had been in theaters for six months and was about to be released on video. “You really need best picture,” says Reardon. “That’s what I call ‘the money award.’ You get best picture, and you got another whole shot at grossing.”

When all was said and done, Hanson felt – despite Paramount and Fox’s superior spending power – that “L.A. Confidential” gave “Titanic” a valiant run for the money, but that Oscar campaigns, not unlike political campaigns, might benefit from reform. “I wish movies just spoke for themselves and that was that,” says the writer/ director, who’s currently in pre-production on “Wonder Boys,” with Michael Douglas. “You shouldn’t have to buy trade ads, because it works against the pictures that can’t compete on the same level.”

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