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ANALYSIS: OSCARS LISTING TO MAINSTREAM.

Byline: Bob Strauss Daily News Film Critic

If you've got to go Hollywood, there's no better place than at the Oscars.

That was the unmistakable message sent by the 70th Annual Academy Awards. After last year's excursion into small, independent and even (gasp!) foreign territory, the academy re-legitimized the traditional star and studio system with a single-minded vengeance.

Not only did ``Titanic's'' record-tying sweep of 11 Academy Awards validate the movie that was so big it took two major studios to make it, but all four acting awards went to longtime Hollywood favorites. Even the one nominally indie production that could claim one of the big six Oscars, ``Good Will Hunting,'' got it for Robin Williams, as mainstream a star as there ever was.

Fortunately, Hollywood also stands for showmanship. That was nicely keyed by the show's time-consuming (but delightful) assembly of all those previous winning actors. But it was carved in stone by the selection of this year's winners.

Even though this year's show hardly rewarded adventurousness, it at least threw enough curves to keep the ceremonies worth watching - a good thing, too, since emcee Billy Crystal was off his game for the first time. History's funniest Oscar host sure got it right, though, when he opened his introductory monologue with ``Welcome to the Titanic.'' It was an apt acknowledgement of the most inevitable Best Picture winner since ``Gone With the Wind'' in 1939.

But the academy quickly established its reluctance to just sail the plotted course when, in the first category announced, ``L.A. Confidential's'' Kim Basinger beat ``Titanic's'' sentimental favorite Gloria Stuart for Best Supporting Actress. It was at that instant that the voters notified all concerned that, at least a few times during their 70th annual praisefest, commercial success was not to be the sole judging criteria.

No new record

While the ``Titanic'' reactionary inside us surely welcomed that, the part that loves to see records broken - anyway, anyhow - couldn't help but be disappointed. A Supporting Actress nod was ``Titanic's'' only hope of surpassing ``Ben-Hur's'' all-time highest cache of 11 Oscars. It'll be a long time before another movie has enough popularity and emotional impact to scale those heights again.

Not that any tears need to be shed for James Cameron's magnificently profitable gamble. No film has ever made more than $1 billion or tied the highest number of Oscars ever earned, among a gazillion lesser milestones. But as unavoidable as ``Titanic's'' success may have been, it also got to the top by breaking some long-cherished (if never always followed) Oscar taboos, like the year's biggest moneymaker can't win Best Picture, nor can a film take the big prize without having earned a writing nomination.

And then there were the pundits who predicted that the academy isn't into three-peats. Right, except when the worthy fellow is his era's favorite movie star, doing his best and most committed work in more than a decade. Jack Nicholson's third acting Oscar puts him in the distinguished company of industry stalwarts Ingrid Bergman and Walter Brennan; and he still has a chance to match Katharine Hepburn's all-time record of four acting Oscars.

At least.

As for Nicholson's winning co-star in ``As Good as It Gets,'' Helen Hunt proved her Oscar worthiness when she introduced the awkwardly written Visual Effects presentation with a sensible, unapologetic, ``We've just gotta start over.'' Some of those distinguished British women she was running against may have had more technique going for them, but that's true movie star cool.

Predictable, if not bold

Of course, this won't go down in history as the boldest Academy Awards year. Sure, ``L.A. Confidential'' absolutely earned its Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. But Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's job resume of an Original Screenplay winner, ``Good Will Hunting,'' was hardly the most original vision to run in its race (though the kids do get points for the most exuberant acceptance speeches).

The same goes for the Supporting Actor category, where Robin Williams' reassuring turn in ``Good Will Hunting'' outdid more taciturn, and more terrific, work by ``Boogie Nights' '' Burt Reynolds and ``Jackie Brown's'' Robert Forster.

But you gotta love the irony. Produced by Miramax, the company behind last year's big indie winner ``The English Patient,'' ``Hunting'' was this year's only multiple Oscar-winning independent - and it was more conventional than many of this year's major studio contenders.

Not sentimental

Atypical of Hollywood, the voters restrained their worst sentimental instincts in what could have been a year of wall-to-wall comeback awards in the acting categories. The best nostalgia this year was kept in its proper place, in all of those swell montages of past Best Pictures (and best animals - perfect for the ``As Good as It Gets'' year).

And I wouldn't have missed the surprise appearance of Fay Wray for any amount of money. Nor honorary award winner Stanley Donen's impromptu soft shoe - and talking about perfect years, when better for the academy to finally recognize the master of that ultimate Hollywood genre, the American musical comedy.

How home team were this year's Oscars? Even the excellent Documentary Feature winner, ``The Long Way Home,'' was co-produced by Rabbi Marvin Hier of L.A.'s own Simon Wiesenthal Center.

With this kind of Hollywood boosterism pumping, it's amazing ``The Full Monty's'' Anne Dudley even got a well-deserved Original Comedy Score.

And while we're on the subject of deserving, of course ``Titanic'' won more Oscars than it rightfully should have (that dreadful Celine Dion song, for the most obvious example). But the real question isn't about numbers of Academy Awards when it comes to this phenomenon; rather, it's does any movie deserve to make that much money?

How that will influence the kinds of movies that studios make in the future is infinitely more important than how many toys Cameron and company took home last night.

This year's Academy Awards battle cry seems to have come from last year's only major studio contender, ``Jerry Maguire.'' With all but three of the feature film Oscars distributed to films that boast nine-figure grosses, and the vast majority of those won by the most expensive and profitable film of all time, the 70th Oscar race all but screamed ``Show me the money!''

And there simply isn't anything more Hollywood than that.

OVERHEARD AT THE ACADEMY AWARDS

`Good evening and welcome to the Titanic. Like the Titanic, we are huge, expensive, and everyone wants us to go faster.'

`A year ago, the White House was complaining that there was too much sex in Hollywood.'

-- Billy Crystal

`Just for the record, 5-6 1/2 and falling.'

-- Dustin Hoffman

`I've worked on three films (with James Cameron) -- ``Terminator,'' ``Terminator 2'' and ``True Lies.'' It was, of course, in his low-budget art-house period.'

-- Arnold Schwarzenegger

`If you come early, you get to work the room.'

-- Robin Williams

`I've been dreaming of coming here all my life, but I said I would never come until I was nominated. And they called my bluff.'

-- Minnie Driver

`It's incredible tonight. It used to be much better arranged.'

-- Charlton Heston

THE WINNERS

List of winners for the 70th annual Academy Awards.

BEST PICTURE: ``Titanic.''

BEST ACTOR: Jack Nicholson, ``As Good as It Gets.''

BEST ACTRESS: Helen Hunt, ``As Good as It Gets.''

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Robin Williams, ``Good Will Hunting.''

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Kim Basinger, ``L.A. Confidential.''

BEST DIRECTOR: James Cameron, ``Titanic.''

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: ``Character,'' The Netherlands.

BEST SCREENPLAY: Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, ``Good Will Hunting.''

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Brian Helgeland & Curtis Hanson, ``L.A. Confidential.''

BEST ART DIRECTION: ``Titanic.''

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: ``Titanic.''

BEST SOUND: ``Titanic.''

SOUND EFFECTS EDITING: ``Titanic.''

BEST ORIGINAL MUSICAL OR COMEDY SCORE: ``The Full Monty,'' Anne Dudley.

BEST ORIGINAL DRAMATIC SCORE: ``Titanic,'' James Horner.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG: ``My Heart Will Go On'' from ``Titanic,'' James Horner and Will Jennings.

BEST COSTUMES: ``Titanic.''

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: ``The Long Way Home.''

DOCUMENTARY, SHORT SUBJECT: ``A Story of Healing.''

FILM EDITING: ``Titanic.''

BEST MAKEUP: ``Men in Black.''

ANIMATED SHORT FILM: ``Geri's Game.''

LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM: ``Visas and Virtue.''

VISUAL EFFECTS: ``Titanic.''

Special award:

HONORARY AWARD: Stanley Donen.

Oscar winners previously announced this year:

GORDON E. SAWYER AWARD: Don Iwerks.

SCIENTIFIC AND TECHNICAL AWARD: Gunnar P. Michelson

CAPTION(S):

8 Photos, Box

PHOTO (1--Cover--Color) Best Supporting Actor Robin Williams, `Good Will Hunting'

Terri Thuente / Daily News

(2--Cover--Color) Best Actress Helen Hunt

(3--Cover--Color) Best Actor Jack Nicholson

(4--Cover--Color) Best Supporting Actress Kim Basinger

Photo Illustration by Bradford Mar / Daily News

(5--Color) An astonished Kim Basinger, winner of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in ``L.A. Confidential,'' reacts backstage with husband Alec Baldwin.

Associated Press

(6--Color) James Horner, left, and Will Jennings were swept up in the ``Titanic'' deluge, winning for Best Original Song for ``My Heart Will Go On.''

Tina Gerson/Daily News

(7) ``Titanic,'' nominated for a record-tying 14 Academy Award nominations, came away from Monday night's ceremony with 11 wins, including Best Picture.

(8) Ben Affleck, left, and Matt Damon, winners of the Best Screenplay award for ``Good Will Hunting.''

BOX: THE WINNERS (see text)
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 24, 1998
Words:1510
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