James Cameron didn’t feel like the king of the world after the poor reaction to his 1998 Oscars acceptance speech.
The “Titanic” director, who won three Academy Awards for the epic period piece including Best Picture and Best Director, quoted the film by saying he felt like the “king of the world” as a winner onstage. Yet the quote was met with immediate backlash, as proven just by looking at presenter Warren Beatty’s face backstage, according to Cameron.
“I’ll tell you exactly when I first realized it [was going to be a problem]: when I walked backstage and Warren Beatty had this look on his face like, ‘What the fuck did you just do?’ He was just looking at me like, ‘You poor boob, what the fuck did you just do?’” the “Avatar: The Way of Water” director told The Hollywood Reporter. “And I went, ‘Oh, was that not cool? OK.’ I mean, obviously I’ve analyzed that. My wife at the time, Linda [Hamilton], had said, ‘Well, if you’re going to quote a line from the movie, then quote it with gusto.’ I’m like, ‘Well, I can do that.’”
Cameron continued, “And what I realized is, the problem with it is that it’s too self-referential and seen as hubristic — not just the actual sort of semiotics of, ‘I’m the king of the world,’ but the scenario of quoting your own movie as if every single person in the audience is a big fan, because there were a lot of people in that audience that did not vote for ‘Titanic.’ You can’t make the assumption that because you’re winning, you’ve won by some vast landslide.”
“As Good as It Gets,” “The Full Monty,” “Good Will Hunting,” and “L.A. Confidential” were also up for Best Picture that year.
Cameron noted that he meant the nod to “Titanic” as a “celebratory” wink to his parents who were in the audience.
“I was talking to my parents. If you actually look at a transcript of it, I say, ‘Mom, Dad, I know you’re back there,’ because they were in the back of the house. I said, ‘I can’t tell you how I feel right now except to say that I’m the king of the world!’ Meaning talking to my parents saying, ‘I feel pretty great right now.’ And that was it,” Cameron clarified. “What I specifically wasn’t saying is, ‘I’m showing all y’all motherfuckers how it’s done, and yes, I’m the king of the world! I’m all that!’ That’s not what I was saying. But, of course, that’s what they heard.”
The “Terminator” director continued, “And, of course, as a director, I’m supposed to be better than that. I’m supposed to know what the audience hears — how the line actually lands is actually part of the art form.”
During the THR oral history of the “Titanic” Oscar win, Academy show director Louis J. Horvitz admitted he though Cameron was “an asshole” for the speech, while former Fox Filmed Entertainment head Bill Mechanic speculated that Cameron’s perceived conceit could have “cost” the film the Oscar.
“If he had done that before voting closed, we would have lost,” Mechanic said. “That’s the sort of thing that would cost you winning.”
“Titanic” actor Billy Zane added, “We were like, ‘Oof, that was…’ ‘Huh…’ ‘Yeah, that was…’ I got it, but, yeah.”
Meanwhile, presenter Beatty decades later infamously had his own Oscar mishap misreading the envelope for Best Picture and inaccurately announcing “La La Land” (“Moonlight” was the actual correct winner).