The absence of Leonardo DiCaprio and James Cameron's Titanic screenplay from the list of 1997 Oscar nominations deserves its own slot because Titanic wasn't just a movie. As the biggest worldwide grosser ever until Avatar (not taking inflation into account), Cameron's romantic adventure-melodrama was a cultural and financial phenomenon.
DiCaprio's failure to get a nomination was particularly surprising because he is at the heart of the film, which helped to catapult the 23-year-old actor to the realms of superstardom and unbridled teen idolatry. Like a true gentleman, his Jack Dawson even freezes to death so as to save the romance from sinking along with the ship. But all for naught as far as Oscar voters were concerned.
DiCaprio's omission – and, for that matter, that of Cameron's screenplay – become even more glaring when you consider that just about everyone and everything in Titanic received nominations: fourteen in all, a record (shared with Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1950 drama All About Eve). Nominees ranged from 87-year-old veteran Gloria Stuart to the most amazingly astounding, most wonderful girl, er…, woman co-star, Kate Winslet; from the mammoth ship itself to the killer iceberg (by way of the nominated production designers and visual effects people).
As for James Cameron's screenplay, the San Francisco Examiner's Barbara Shulgasser wrote the following:
“The big, proud credit that runs at the end of the three-hour howler, Titanic, touts James Cameron, of The Terminator fame, as the writer-director of this $200 million extravaganza. I would like to warn anyone with circulation problems or a short attention span that Cameron gives writing-directing, and the tradition of making multihour movies, a bad name.
“The guy might be gifted at spending money on computer graphics and Poseidon Adventure-like special effects, but he sure as hell hasn't the slightest clue how to write a scene.”
The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan was just as unimpressed: “To the question of the day,” begins his review, “what does $200 million buy? – the 3-hour-and-14-minute Titanic unhesitatingly answers: not enough.” Turan, in fact, lambasted both the film and Cameron's writing so often that the most amazingly astounding, most wonderful director, er…, writer-director wrote a piece in the Times demanding Turan's “impeachment.” (That was around the time of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky media sewage spill.)
“Say what you like about writer-director Cameron – and take it from me, people have – he has always been a visionary in terms of film technology, as his pioneering computer-generated effects in The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day testify. He is not a director you want to underestimate, and with Avatar's story of futurist adventures on a moon called Pandora, he restores a sense of wonder to the moviegoing experience that has been missing for far too long.”
Further down in his review, Turan adds the following:
“Perhaps the most surprising thing about Cameron's visual accomplishments is that they are so powerful we're barely troubled by the same weakness for flat dialogue and obvious characterization that put such a dent in Titanic.”
Could that explain Avatar's 2009 Writers Guild of America nomination for best original screenplay? Perhaps.
Avatar, by the way, ended up with 9 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. But not Best Original Screenplay.
Below is a Leonardo DiCaprio / Jack Dawson, huh … homage:
Note: The “Biggest Oscar Snubs” series isn't a reflection of my personal tastes. Instead, the “snubs” are listed according to the furor they generated at the time. Sometimes I agree with those who called the Academy nuts; other times I'm in full agreement with those Academy members who cast their vote for somebody else.