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Twenty years ago, the nation — no, the world — was overtaken by Titanic mania. Director James Cameron’s romantic epic based on the very real 1912 tragedy made $2.2 billion worldwide, making it the highest-grossing film of all time, until 2009 when Cameron beat his own record with Avatar.
As the movie’s theme, “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion, played on loop on every single radio station (this was a pre-Spotify society!), stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio experienced a level of fame they hadn’t felt before — especially DiCaprio, who had fan clubs in his honor popping up all over the world.
Yes, he really was king of the world. Actually, they all were, and that was never more evident than on March, 23, 1998: the night of the 70th Academy Awards.
The hysteria behind Titanic helped make the 1998 Oscars the most watched of all time, with a reported 87 million viewers. Using history to make history, let’s look back on that fateful night.
Titanic holds a major Oscars record to this day
In 1998, Titanic earned a whopping 14 Academy Award nominations, tying the number of most nominations ever set by the 1950 hit All About Eve. Ahead of the 2017 ceremony, La La Land became the third film ever to receive 14 nominations.
But even among this elite class, Titanic‘s 14 nominations stand out. To this day, Titanic is the only film to have received 14 “clear” nominations, which means it received nods in 14 different categories, and thus could have won 14 statuettes. (La La Land was nominated in 13 different categories, scoring two Best Original Song noms, while All About Evewas nominated in 12 categories, doubling up in both Best Actress in a Leading Role and Best Actress in a Supporting Role.)
And that’s not the film’s only Academy Award record…
Titanic also has the distinct honor of being one of three films with the most Academy Awards to its name. Along with 1959’s Ben-Hur and 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Titanic secured 11 statuettes at the 1998 ceremony.
But James Cameron has one major regret
When Cameron won his Best Director Oscar, he boisterously exclaimed, “There is no way that I can express to you what I’m feeling right now. My heart is full to bursting, except to say, ‘I’m the king of the world!'”
It didn’t take long for him to realize quoting his own movie was a mistake, he told Entertainment Weekly. “It implies that everyone in the audience there at the [Shrine Auditorium] voted for your movie because they all loved it,” he said.
“In my mind, at the time, I was saying I feel like Jack felt,” Cameron explained. “Jack who had nothing, Jack who had not a dime in his pocket but felt on top of the world because of the elation in his heart. That was what I was trying to express. It wasn’t ‘F— you, I’m the king of the world, all you a–holes can just f— off and die now. We were right, you were wrong, na-na-na-na-na-na.’ Which is how it was interpreted.”
Young Rose and Old Rose joined forces
If you’re in the mood to smile, watch this clip of the opening of the Oscars from two decades ago. It’s classic Hollywood at its finest, featuring Titanic‘s own Winslet and Gloria Stuart — both nominated for playing the same character, Rose, of course. Making things slightly more meta, the two actresses sat side-by-side during the ceremony. Both women went home empty-handed, but, honestly, they could not have looked happier to be there, especially Stuart, who became the oldest woman ever nominated in an acting category that night, a record the late actress holds to this day.
But one main cast member was noticeably absent
It was an undeniably huge night for Titanic as a whole, but one major player was left out in the cold… again. (Sorry.) Of the film’s 14 nominations, Best Actor for DiCaprio was not one of them. More than 200 Leo fans called the Academy to complain, and Leo boycotted the awards in protest — or a less dramatic (and probably more accurate) interpretation would be that since he was not nominated, he didn’t score a ticket. Anyway, it didn’t really matter in the end, because the heartthrob won the much more prestigious MTV Movie Award for Best Male Performance later that year.
Titanic‘s domination was a surprise to no one
No one sitting inside Los Angeles’s Shrine Auditorium was shocked about Titanic‘s record-setting evening, and host Billy Crystal’s show opener is the proof. For his grand entrance, Crystal stepped off a sinking ship onto the stage and leapt into a song about the Best Picture nominees, starting with a hefty Titanic introduction set to the Gilligan’s Island theme. During L.A. Confidential‘s verse at the end of the song, he referenced the film once again, singing, “You could be the iceberg tonight!”
But really, Celine Dion won the night
This performance of “My Heart Will Go On” deserves a rewatch. That smoke machine rolling out a wispy ocean fog, the orchestra in all white, and Dion wearing a dress that could definitely still pass as stylish and theHeart of the Ocean. Not to mention, she sounds flawless as she effortlessly belts out the Best Original Song-winner that would become one of the best-selling singles of all time and the world’s best-selling single in 1998. This is true perfection.