In Oscars and in life, there's no such thing as a sure bet

HOLLYWOOD – When “Titanic” received a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations last month, it seemed like this year’s contest was destined to be a one-boat race.

But some skeptics in Hollywood think anything that big will be easy to capsize.

Academy Award watchers can cite the scripture of Oscar history to prove why their forecasts for this year are correct. But last year, the predicted shoo-in for supporting actress, Lauren Bacall, and the eventual winner, Juliette Binoche, reminded everyone that, in the Oscars and in life, there’s no such thing as a sure bet.

Rather than being discouraged by the promise of uncertainty, everyone in Hollywood seems energized by it.

Three months after its bow, “Titanic” is provoking more conversation than El Nino: In restaurants, media screenings and parties, industryites are debating the merits of the movie and its chances on March 23. After showbizzers’ polite ennui about the races last year, Oscar talk has made a big comeback.

All the studios are admirably aggressive in their optimism that they can win. The campaigning in all the races has been animated and will be going at full force right up until the polls close March 17.

Many seers feel that “Titanic” will dominate the March 23 Oscarcast. It’s the type of film Hollywood does best: small-scale romance mixed with big-scale spectacle. In addition, it has continued to break box office records around the globe, stayed at the top of the domestic charts for a dozen weeks after debuting, and has become the first film to break the $1 billion B.O. barrier globally.

The media regularly offers breathless reports of fans’ repeated viewings, lovestruck teens celebrating Leo-palooza, and the amazing sales of the soundtrack and the souvenir-style books, which are being snapped up by people eager to take home a piece of the magic.

Some naysayers, however, predict that this won’t necessarily translate into an Oscar sweep. They point to such B.O. phenomena as “Star Wars” and “E.T. the ExtraTerrestrial,” which failed to win best pic, director, screenplay or acting prizes.

On the other hand, there were also predictions of voter backlash for such B.O. bonanzas as “Rain Man” and “Forrest Gump,” which eventually cleaned up at the Oscars.

Of course, many of “Titanic’s” most vocal detractors are publicists for the other four best-pic contenders. But there’s a lot of evidence that the big boat could hit turbulence.

“L.A. Confidential” is the only pic to ever win unanimous best film and director kudos from the National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics and the L.A. and New York critics orgs. And some say James Cameron and his crew have already been rewarded with “Titanic’s” success, so the prize should go to a film that achieved creative success by keeping everything — including budget — on a “normal” scale.

In a David-&-Goliath struggle, “Titanic” and “L.A.” seem to be the front-runners. But in 1981, Oscar handicappers were betting the top prize would either go to the big epic movie or the small, well-crafted drama (“Reds” and “On Golden Pond,” respectively). And the Oscar went to a little dark horse: “Chariots of Fire.”

Which means “As Good as It Gets,” “The Full Monty” and “Good Will Hunting” are hoping history will repeat itself.

All of those pics have ardent supporters and it’s worth remembering that, with five contenders, a film needs as little as 21% of the votes to win.

As for the other races, there are few “sure bets,” which encourages campaigning at a fever pitch. Distribs routinely schedule screenings and send out vidcassettes to members; but studios and personal publicists also take a number of subtle routes to remind voters to actually watch the films.

It doesn’t seem an accident that best-actor contender Peter Fonda graced the cover of Parade magazine on March 8, five days after the ballots went out. And is it merely fortuitous timing that the L.A. County Museum of Art is in the midst of a retrospective of Julie Christie movies?

James Cameron is being unexpectedly charming in unexpected places (e.g., on late-night talker “Vibe”). And scripters Matt Damon & Ben Affleck are even more omnipresent on TV and in magazines than Calista Flockhart (if that’s possible).

Helen Hunt on March 7 was a presenter at the Directors Guild Awards, attended the Screen Actors Guild prizes the next night, then flew to Las Vegas where she was saluted as actress of the year by ShoWest — which, by no coincidence, honored several other Academy Award contenders: Anthony Hopkins, Burt Reynolds, Damon and Minnie Driver.

Each of these tactics boosts a nominee’s profile, reminds voters to see the film, and assures everyone that the candidate is a serious artist/regular guy/veteran who has paid plenty of dues.

The campaigning takes on other forms. After nomination ballots went out, Miramax changed critics’ quotes in newspaper ads for “The Wings of the Dove,” for example. The blurbs no longer praised the film, but singled out the performers and director, the cinematogaphy, costume design and production design. After the nominations were announced, nearly every quote focused on nominee Helena Bonham Carter.

During the nomination process, ads for “Full Monty” featured Mark Addy, who seemed the best hope for an acting nod. When he didn’t get one, the ads changed back to the more recognizable Robert Carlyle, or to group shots of the men.

Print and TV ads for Miramax’s “Good Will Hunting” lately have used a quote from Jay Carr of the Boston Globe — “If there’s an upset for best picture, ‘Good Will Hunting’ has the best chance!” Miramax may be hoping to lure audiences with that quote, but the other subtext is clear: hey, Academy members, every vote counts!

And as every viewer knows, it’s the unpredictability of the contest that makes it so much fun to watch. If predictions are right, 1 billion people on March 23 will be tuning in to find out if “Titanic” will sink or sail.

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