Oscars 1997 Revisit: Titanic, Good Will Hunting and Highest Ratings

It was lightning in a bottle. 

The 70th Academy Awards in 1998 served as a high-water mark for the annual telecast that the Oscars have struggled to match for over two decades. And it wasn’t only because of the “king of the world” moment.

With an estimated 87.5 million viewers tuning in for part or all of the awards (57 million reported by Nielsen on ABC), the ceremony saw the massively popular “Titanic” win 11 Oscars, including best picture; it was one of those rare moments where a populist favorite was also an awards season darling. But there are other reasons to look back at that ceremony with a mixture of appreciation and sadness – and at least some wistfulness for how the movie business operated at its peak, a pinnacle it may never reach again. With a balance of box office sensations and arthouse hits, there was something for everyone at the Shrine Auditorium that evening. For “Oscar-heads” like myself, if the previous ceremonies had me fall in love with the gold guy that holds a sword, then March 23, 1998, was the night I put a ring on it. I was hooked. 

“Titanic” star Leonardo DiCaprio may have been snubbed as best actor, but his passionate fandom (and, boy, were they Leo-obsessed back then) didn’t boycott. They all tuned in to see if the tragic tale of Jack and Rose would get some sort of storybook ending, and it did.

I was in eighth grade at Frank R. Conwell School P.S. #3 in Jersey City, New Jersey when actor Billy Crystal emceed the celebration for the sixth time. I hadn’t seen all of those broadcasts. Still, I did watch Crystal serve as master of ceremonies when “The English Patient” triumphed in 1996, and my earliest telecast memory was in 1992 when the horror masterpiece “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) was awarded the Big Five awards.  

I can still vividly remember going into my math teacher, Mrs. Peters’ 10:15 am class, where she asked, “So, who stayed up to watch the Oscars last night?” 

We must have all looked exhausted because about three-fourths of us raised our hands, to which she replied, “Your parents let you stay up until 1 a.m.?” 

“Let” is a strong word as my mother worked as a mail carrier in the Bronx and would get up at 4:00 am every morning for a long commute. She was conked out by the time the show started. 

It was one of the first awards seasons I watched unfold from beginning to end with all the different televised ceremonies. “Titanic” and “As Good as It Gets” took home the Golden Globes for best picture drama and comedy/musical, respectively, but a jaw-dropper came at the SAG Awards. That’s when the top prize for cast ensemble went to the British romp “The Full Monty.”  Would “Titanic” still win the Oscar with a preferential ranking today? I’ll let you know at the end.  

In today’s social media climate, pundits and enthusiasts would read into the SAG upset as a “chink in the armor” of Cameron’s sprawling three-hour epic. And it got off to a rocky start — the movie that was supposed to sweep kicked the night off with a loss for best supporting actress. At 87 years old, Gloria Stuart became the oldest performer ever nominated for a competitive Oscar, but came up short against Kim Basinger for “L.A. Confidential.” 

Curtis Hanson’s noir thriller was the critical darling of the precursors, winning the top prizes from Critics Choice, Los Angeles, National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics’ Awards. If social media had existed then, you would’ve read tweets saying “L.A. Confidential is a lock to win it all.” 

But at the time, we didn’t have the oversaturated trophy and prediction landscape of today. The studios still mounted spirited and pricey Oscar campaigns — see Harvey Weinstein and Miramax — but before blogs, Twitter and the like, the results of the Globes, SAG and critics awards provided the bulk of the clues. 

“Boogie Nights”
©New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection

One of the unique underlying narratives of that year was the transition of television actors.  

In the middle of her consecutive four-year Emmy run for the comedy series “Mad About You,” Helen Hunt won the best actress statuette for James L. Brooks’ massive $314 million global hit, “As Good as It Gets.” If you were a ’90s kid, you knew Hunt’s co-star Greg Kinnear from the daily talk show recap series “Talk Soup” on the E! network. Who would have thought his tender turn as a gay artist who goes on a road trip to reconnect with his mother would stand tall all these years later? 

We also saw the comeback tales in 1997. Burt Reynolds, a pop culture sensation of the ’70s, had transitioned back to television with “Evening Shade” (1990-94) after starring in multiple box office disappointments. His feature revival and supporting actor nomination came when writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson cast him as adult film director Jack Horner in “Boogie Nights,” an examination of the 1970s porno industry in California.  

Other career revivals included “Easy Rider” star and adapted screenplay nominee Peter Fonda getting the spotlight as a leading man in “Ulee’s Gold.” Winner Jack Nicholson (“As Good as It Gets”) gave Fonda a nice shout-out during his speech, dedicating his award to the character actor J.T. Walsh who had died two months earlier.  

Some of our current movie stars got chances to shine that year in films that might not have been made today, aside from the obvious DiCaprio and his leading lady Kate Winslet. 

Best buddies Ben Affleck and Matt Damon won an Oscar for writing “Good Will Hunting,” a film the two also starred in, launching their careers into the stratosphere. The psychological drama, which accumulated over $225 million against a minuscule $10 million budget, provided a pathway for one of my favorite moments in Academy history when actor Robin Williams won best supporting actor. His best buddy Billy Crystal is seen walking onto the stage to clap for his friend he loved so dearly.  

On the global scale of box office returns, eight of the 10 highest earners received at least one Oscar nom – only “Tomorrow Never Dies” ($333 million) and “Liar Liar” ($302 million) were shut out (justice for Sheryl Crow and Jim Carrey).

On the other hand, while we can celebrate the top earners correlating to Oscar attention, we still have to acknowledge this as one of the many years leading up to 2015’s #OscarsSoWhite, as no person of color was nominated for acting or directing.

Director James Cameron raises his Oscar in his “I’m king of the world moment” after winning best director at the 70th Academy Awards.

And then there’s the actual show assembled by producer Gil Cates and director Louis J. Horvitz. Unafraid of “running over,” the show clocked in at three hours and 47 minutes and was littered with the star power of the moment — Neve Campbell in the middle of her “Scream” franchise run, introducing R&B singer Aaliyah to perform “Journey to the Past” from “Anastasia” and pop singer Michael Bolton for “Go the Distance” from “Hercules.” One-year post-snub for “Evita” (1996), Madonna introduced the three chart-topping song performances of “How Do I Live,” “Miss Misery,” and eventual winner “My Heart Will Go On.” We have that same potential for chart-toppers from top-grosser this year with Rihanna, Taylor Swift and the entire songwriting and choreography team behind the Indian hit “RRR.” 

Glenn Weiss (producer, director) and Ricky Kirshner (producer) could follow a similar blueprint as in 1998, especially with this year’s slate of contenders. The parallels between what we could have in store and what was recognized two and a half decades ago could be good news for ratings. 

Aside from another huge Cameron movie with “Avatar: The Way of Water,” we have a Steven Spielberg movie that’s very well-respected but didn’t light it up at the box office (“Amistad” and “The Fabelmans”). We have another international filmmaking debut that could be the little engine that could (Peter Cattaneo for “The Full Monty” and Charlotte Wells for “Aftersun”), and a film by a respected director that may not be a fit for best picture but could find love with acting and screenplay wins (Curtis Hanson with “L.A. Confidential” and Todd Field with “Tár”). 

Both years had two airplane movies — “Air Force One” and “Con-Air” and “Devotion” and “Top Gun: Maverick” — although the former two didn’t have to share the same actor, Glen Powell. 

The 1997 ceremony gave us the second woman ever to win original score with Anne Dudley for “The Full Monty,” and this year could see the first woman ever to win a second time with Hildur Guðnadóttir for “Women Talking.”  

Some of the same artisans are also in the race again, like sound designers Mark Mangini (“The Fifth Element” and “Good Night Oppy”), Gary Rydstrom (“Titanic” and “The Fabelmans”) and Kevin O’Connell (“Con Air” and “The Woman King”). The same goes for cinematography with Russell Carpenter (“Titanic” and “Avatar: The Way of Water”), Janusz Kamiński (“Amistad” and “The Fabelmans”) and Roger Deakins (“Kundun” and “Empire of Light”) and costume designers Ruth E. Carter (“Amistad” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”) and Sandy Powell (“The Wings of the Dove” and “Living”). 

It’s unclear if we could ever see such a perfect storm of contenders matched with the tastes of consumers and Academy voters. The theatrical movie business is undergoing a massive reset due to consumers’ pandemic habit changes coupled with the strength of streaming.

The industry changes, as do the appetites of moviegoers. Could the Academy ever get 57 million viewers watching again? With broadcast alone, it seems impossible, but if the show were to add a simultaneous streaming component and a killer production…all things are possible for those who believe in Oscar.

And as for the question of whether “Titanic” would win on a preferential ballot system: My gut tells me either “Good Will Hunting” or “L.A. Confidential” would be the victors today, but it’s always debatable. 

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