By the Boatload

Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

Is anything out there going to sink that ship?

Don't bet on it.

That, at least, is the consensus of veteran Oscar handicappers, all of whom pick early favorite "Titanic" to take home the best picture statuette on Monday night. More than that, the big boat also seems fated to convert at least 12 of its 14 nominations (likely missing out on best actress and losing makeup to "Men in Black") and exceed "Ben-Hur's" nearly 30-year-old record of 11 Oscar victories.

Two factors are strongly in "Titanic's" favor. First off, it has the kind of epic scope that the academy traditionally favors. And its inflation-aided bursting of the coveted billion-dollar-worldwide-gross barrier has turned it into the kind of genuine phenomenon that voters are not going to be able to resist being a part of.

While the academy includes curmudgeons who live only to vote against the grain, there is no obvious choice for them to flock to. "L.A. Confidential" justly dominated the critical awards and can't be totally discounted, but older members have been troubled by its violence and plot complexity. "The Full Monty" has the look of a traditional spoiler, but a recent plagiarism suit will not help its chances. The biggest threat to "Titanic" is not "As Good as It Gets" but the tirelessly feel-good "Good Will Hunting." But even the help of the usual adroit Miramax advertising campaign probably can't pierce enough hulls to make a difference.

The pick: "Titanic."

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The choices in the other major categories look to be as follows:

Best Actor: Jack Nicholson's bravura performance in "As Good as It Gets" won the Screen Actors Guild award two weeks ago, but it's not clear how strong the feeling for him in the academy is. Peter Fonda and Robert Duvall have different kinds of sentiment going for them. Fonda's work in "Ulee's Gold" wonderfully echoed his celebrated father, Henry, but he's perceived as more a member of the Montana community than the Hollywood one. Duvall is strongly respected within the business, and he will probably get points for writing and directing "The Apostle" himself.

The pick: Robert Duvall.

Best Actress: The toughest pick of the night, the only category, one prognosticator accurately noted, that is "impossible to call with confidence." Though a flood tide for "Titanic" could benefit Kate Winslet, both she and "The Wings of the Dove's" Helena Bonham Carter seem the least likely victors. As for the other three, a case could be made for each. Though "Afterglow" has set few people on fire, Julie Christie is one of everyone's favorite actresses, and a recent retrospective of her work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hasn't hurt her chances.

"As Good as It Gets' " Helen Hunt is the SAG winner, popular and well-known for her TV work in "Mad About You," and as the only American in contention the potential beneficiary of what Oscar followers have come to call the Marisa Tomei Effect. "Mrs. Brown's" Judi Dench, on the third hand, helped in visibility by her appearance in recent James Bond films, gives the kind of likable and larger-than-life performance that often wins the day.

The pick: Helen Hunt.

Best Supporting Actor: Basically a two-man race, and not between "Jackie Brown's" Robert Forster and "As Good as It Gets' " Greg Kinnear, both of whose nominations were award enough. Though Anthony Hopkins is a voter favorite, "Amistad" received only a lukewarm academy response. When the nominations were announced, most seers felt Burt Reynolds' comeback-kid performance in "Boogie Nights" would be the winner, and it still might.

But while Miramax's pushing of "Good Will Hunting" won't capture best picture, it has helped Robin Williams' chances considerably. Nominated three times without a victory, he's a brilliant comic who leans on screen toward the kind of warm and cuddly characters the academy smiles on. And think of the kind of acceptance speech he'd likely give.

The pick: Robin Williams.

Best Supporting Actress: Once again, a two-person race, with actresses Joan Cusack ("In & Out"), Minnie Driver ("Good Will Hunting") and Julianne Moore ("Boogie Nights"), however deserving they may be, mainly taking up space on the ballot. Given that 87-year-old Gloria Stuart was the emotional heart of "Titanic," its hard to see how the academy can resist watching her come up on stage to get this award. Still, "L.A. Confidential's" Kim Basinger, a member in good standing of the community giving the performance of her career, has been gaining on Stuart in recent weeks. This one is fated to be close, as witness the tie between Stuart and Basinger in the SAG voting.

The pick: Gloria Stuart.

Best Director: The one irrefutable statement about "Titanic" is that it is James Cameron's picture from beginning to end; the man did everything he could himself, even turning out the drawings that Jack Dawson used to win Rose's heart. This award has always been Cameron's to lose (Curtis Hanson for "L.A. Confidential" is probably the strongest of the competitors), but the hands-on director has played all his cards right, displaying a becoming tact and restraint as the cash and awards for "Titanic" have mounted up.

The pick: James Cameron.

Best Original Screenplay: The situation with both screenplay categories is the opposite of what's happening in acting: Everyone agrees who the winners will be. Though "As Good as It Gets," "Boogie Nights" and "Deconstructing Harry" are all more interesting than the consensus winner, it matters not. Nor will the cheerful spirit of "The Full Monty" help it triumph. The academy has trouble resisting actors in any capacity, and the added fillip of their being young and handsome and the prime movers in a Cinderella story they themselves starred in makes this choice a mortal lock.

The pick: "Good Will Hunting," written by Ben Affleck & Matt Damon.

Best Adapted Screenplay: This may be the strongest category in the entire competition, with excellent scripts for "Donnie Brasco," "The Sweet Hereafter," "Wag the Dog" and "The Wings of the Dove" in the running. But "L.A. Confidential's" nine nominations (as many as for the four other films put together) give it strength in several branches. It's also a film that many people believe was the year's best, and this is the category where all those folks can make their mark.

The pick: "L.A. Confidential," written by Brian Helgeland & Curtis Hanson.

Best Foreign-Language Film: Because so few academy members invest the time to vote in this category, anything can happen. Only one of the films, the Alan Arkin-starring "Four Days in September" from Brazil, has already been in theaters. And while voters are saying kind things about both Spain's "Secrets of the Heart" and Russia's "The Thief," the battle seems to be between two unreleased films with major distribution. That would be the Dutch "Character," to be released by Sony Classics, and the German "Beyond Silence," to be released by Miramax and called by more than one voter "a typical Hollywood film but made in Germany."

The pick: "Character."

Best Documentary. The academy's documentary branch did something surprising this year. No, it wasn't neglecting Errol Morris' excellent "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control" while embracing the simplistic "Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life": bonehead moves like that have become the norm for this group. Rather the surprise was the high quality of the other four nominated films, which makes picking a winner more difficult than usual. Of the three excellent favorites, the two with African-American subject matter ("Colors Straight Up" and "4 Little Girls") might cancel each other out, leaving the Oscar to "The Long Way Home's" look at events leading up to the formation of the state of Israel.

The pick: "The Long Way Home."

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