Looking Back at the 70th Academy Awards

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 70th Academy Awards, which recognized the films of 1997.* Of course, it was the year of Titanic, which was nominated 14 times, and took home Oscars in 11 categories. It belongs in rare company with All About Eve and last year’s La La Land for number of nominations and matching with Ben-Hur for the number of wins.

There’s other fun Oscar-related trivia for Titanic: Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart were the first actors ever nominated for playing the same character in the same film (Winslet and Judi Dench would also do this for Iris in 2001). Stuart was also the oldest ever nominee at 87. But that isn’t why I wanted to look back at this film and those Academy Awards.

The opening of the ceremony sets up the overall tone of the evening, and it feels like it is doing something we haven’t seen in t a bit–assuming the television audience knows at least the premise of all of the films:

It feels like one of the last gasps of something being immensely popular without being connected to a franchise. Since Titanic won, only four times has the highest-grossing film of the year at the (domestic) box office not been a franchise film. That drops to three if those Avatar sequels ever come out, and it drops to two if you also discount that 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a pre-existing IP. All that’s left is Saving Private Ryan and American Sniper. And only once since Titanic has the top film at the box office also won Best Picture at the Oscars, which was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

This was all before X-Men and Spider-Man. Before Harry Potter and Twilight. The film landscape has changed so much since then, including what makes a film a “Best Picture” film. It’s something we’ve been talking a bit about as we cover Best Picture winners on The Shame Files podcast, but that definition is always changing over time (except that they tend to be long movies more often than not).

In the 20 years since Titanic won, the Oscars seem to oscillate between big and small movies, indies and studio pictures (this is not a redundant measure, as Braveheart is an indie film). It is easy to dismiss the Academy as a homogeneous group, but a trend towards smaller films is clear. Many of those smaller films are crowd-pleasing, even populist in their own way (The King’s Speech, Spotlight). But Titanic still remains an outlier, even if I suspect it doesn’t get the love from cinephiles that it deserves. It holds up better than Avatar, a film I haven’t been able to sit through at home.

Titanic is conventional, but as Ebert wrote, “ you don’t choose the most expensive film ever made as your opportunity to reinvent the wheel.” It reminds me of a time when everyone was seeing the same films, hearing the same music, watching the same television. Now, we’re all in our own little bubbles of our own making, easily isolating ourselves from things that are not to our taste. But maybe that’s just because I was 11 years old at the time. Anyway, they’ve added ER to Hulu, so we can all go back in time and party like it’s 1998.

*I’ve started using the ceremony numbers over saying the year, because if someone says “the 1998 Oscars” I have no idea if they mean the year Titanic or Shakespeare in Love won.

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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