Who Will Oscar Pick?

It's hard to see how the big ship could lose this prize. Hollywood loves to celebrate success, and box-office take remains the industry's favorite measuring stick.

The Academy Awards race: one of the world's most exciting contests, fraught with relentless competition, unpredictable twists, and suspense as excruciating as anything in the movies themselves!

Right? Maybe in some vintage years, but not in the edition heading toward a climax this Monday night.

A picture called "Titanic" has skewed the race in a direction nobody could have foreseen - especially last summer, when release of the $200 million megamovie was postponed amid reports of technical disasters and budget overruns unheard-of even in Hollywood.

Proving far more seaworthy than the vessel it's named after, the film has overcome its troubled past - and its superlong running time, and its lack of top-rated stars - to become history's first movie with $1 billion of ticket sales, surpassing "Star Wars" as the top-grossing movie in North America.

More to the point, it's nominated for a whopping 14 Oscars, tying the record set by "All About Eve" in 1950. If it snags most of them, it could beat the record set by "Ben-Hur," which galloped away with 11 statuettes in 1959.

All of which makes a vivid contrast with last year, when an unanticipated Race of the Indies found nominations flowing to "The English Patient," "Sling Blade," and "Secrets & Lies," three offbeat pictures made far from the Hollywood studios.

Will the fuss over Titanic lead to a record-setting sweep? Or can other contenders earn a fair share of statuettes, either through their own merits or an anti-"Titanic" backlash fueled by rivalry, jealousy, or plain old weariness with a picture that's worn out its welcome?

Only time will tell, but if "Titanic" does avoid possible icebergs in its path, it won't be for lack of noteworthy competitors.

* In the Best Picture category, the most credible rivals are rooted as firmly in romantic-film tradition as "Titanic" for its first two hours. As Good as It Gets deserves no prizes for narrative logic (why is the Jack Nicholson character so nasty at the beginning, and so adorable at the end?), but it has enough cleverly shifting moods to please admirers of drama and comedy.

Much the same can be said about Good Will Hunting, which also boasts an appealing behind-the-scenes saga centered on Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who also wrote the screenplay, then struggled to get their dream movie produced.

L.A. Confidential is a long shot, largely because audiences have never warmed to it. But critics have given it several awards for its balance of script, content, performance, and style. The Full Monty has many enthusiasts, but the Race of the Indies was last year's news. In all, it's hard to see how the big ship could lose this prize, especially since Hollywood loves to celebrate success, and box-office take remains the industry's favorite measuring stick.

Probable winner: "Titanic."

* The only high-profile races uncontested by "Titanic" are for Best Actor and Supporting Actor, where star Leonardo DiCaprio and secondary players like Billy Zane failed to make the cut.

Damon, another young heartthrob, is a front-runner for Best Actor, although Nicholson could squeak past him. He's a Hollywood standby, after all, and Oscar voters love over-the-top acting. Dustin Hoffman probably won't win for his jokey performance in Wag the Dog, but it's tantalizing to think about an independent production taking this category: Robert Duvall in The Apostle or Peter Fonda in Ulee's Gold.

The field for Best Supporting Actor is even more wide open. Anthony Hopkins can probably be written off for his below-par appearance in Amistad, and Greg Kinnear is more solid than exciting in "As Good as It Gets." Robin Williams has a lot of admirers, though, and could benefit if a "Good Will Hunting" groundswell flows across the bow of "Titanic."

Burt Reynolds's laid-back humor in Boogie Nights and Robert Forster's touching performance in Jackie Brown are considered to be major comeback bids, and it would be cheering if either one took home a prize.

Probable winners: Matt Damon, Burt Reynolds.

* "Titanic" figures significantly in the Best Actress and Supporting Actress sweepstakes, although these remain vulnerable categories.

While she outshines costar DiCaprio just by getting nominated, Kate Winslet faces heavy competition from Judi Dench in the queenly Mrs. Brown and Helena Bonham Carter in the moody Wings of the Dove, not to mention the radiant Julie Christie, who may win even though Afterglow hasn't quite managed to find its niche with audiences. And then there's Helen Hunt in "As Good as It Gets," showing that a non-Britisher can get nominated too!

Gloria Stuart could prove a sentimental Supporting Actress favorite as the century-old narrator of "Titanic," but again the field seems open. Julianne Moore of "Boogie Nights" has a growing reputation as one of film's most versatile and venturesome talents. Many are rooting for Joan Cusack as the disconcerted fiance of In & Out, and prognosticators can't discount Minnie Driver in "Good Will Hunting" or Kim Basinger in "L.A. Confidential."

Probable winners: Julie Christie, Joan Cusack.

* Of all the major categories, Best Director is the one with the most artistic meaning, since directors usually do the most to steer a production from drawing board to multiplex.

The most brilliant contender is Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, whose The Sweet Hereafter would be nominated all over the place if the Oscars cared more about humanistic depth. Still, it's hard to see how the captain of "Titanic" could lose to him, or to such comparatively modest achievers as Peter Cattaneo of "The Full Monty" or Gus Van Sant of "Good Will Hunting." Even Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential" seems downright landlocked by comparison with his work.

Probable winner: James Cameron.

"Titanic" will probably sweep up every technical award in sight, and it will be hard to argue with that verdict, given its impressive achievements in areas like sound, editing, and design.

Perhaps the debate will turn to whether our media-struck society is well served by such a sweep, or whether the "Titanic" juggernaut is swamping other meritorious movies - from the spiritual Kundun to the thought-provoking Gattaca and even the hilarious Men in Black, all competing in at least one category - that its triumph subtly diminishes the film scene as a whole.

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