The evening of March 23, 1998 was both the best of times and the worst of times for James Cameron. That was the night where the director's record-shattering blockbuster, Titanic, made Oscar history by winning 11 statuettes — tying a record that had been set almost 40 years earlier by 1959's Ben-Hur. (It's a feat that wasn't repeated until the 2004 ceremony, when Peter Jackson's trilogy-capping Return of King also took home 11 Oscars.) And a titanic audience watched the movie sweep the 70th Academy Awards: Nearly 60 million viewers tuned in during the course of the show, one of the last times that the Oscars reached that many eyeballs.
But that was also the night where Cameron himself entered Academy Award history as an example of what not to to do when accepting an Oscar. After winning the Best Director statue, the filmmaker — who will be attending this year's ceremony with his latest Best Picture-nominated $2 billion global hit, Avatar: The Way of Water — cried out, "I'm the king of the world!" followed by an extra-long yell that foreshadowed Howard Dean's infamous scream six years later. In that moment, he had won the Oscar... but lost the audience.
Relive the awkwardness of James Cameron’s Best Director acceptance speech below:
In a new oral history about the 1998 Oscars, Cameron tells The Hollywood Reporter that he was informed of his faux pas almost immediately by none other than Warren Beatty, who had presented Cameron with the statue — a Beatty-declared victory that didn’t require a do-over. "I’ll tell you exactly when I first realized it [was going to be a problem]," the director says. "When I walked backstage and Warren Beatty had this look on his face like, 'What the f*** did you just do?' And I went, 'Oh, was that not cool? OK.'"
Of course, Cameron was merely quoting his own Oscar-nominated dialogue shouted so memorably in the movie by his not-nominated — and therefore not in attendance at the Oscars — leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio. When the actor crowed, “I’m the king of the world!” to the rooftops, moviegoers swooned. When the director repeated it from the Shrine Auditorium in L.A., he inadvertently created a moment that entered Oscar infamy alongside Rob Lowe duetting with Snow White, Adrien Brody forcibly smooching Halle Berry, John Travolta’s "Adele Dazeem" faceplant.
Seen again a quarter-century later, Cameron’s "king of the world" callback itself doesn't seem to be the issue. In fact, the crowd laughs along appreciatively, enjoying the shoutout to DiCaprio’s joyful shout. It's when he starts crowing that he appears to lose them, with the laughter — though notably not the applause — promptly dying down. The image of Cameron's arms lifted aloft in triumph also leaned into his reputation as a filmmaker whose exacting perfectionism can, for some, cross the line into arrogance.
It likely didn't help that Cameron had spent the past year in the public eye because of Titanic's famously troubled production history, which included multiple reports of budget overruns and release-date delays. Prior to its Dec. 19, 1997 release, the movie was expected to be one of the director's rare flops, and a sign that his reach had exceeded his grasp. "Cameron’s reputation hangs in the balance, as does the bottom line of Fox, which financed the bulk of the production," wrote Entertainment Weekly that November.
The director's confidence in the movie kept him going through all the turbulent behind-the-scenes drama, but once Titanic became a pop culture sensation, that confidence threatened to come across as egoism in an industry that often prefers a humbler reaction to massive success. "If he had done that [speech] before voting closed, he would have lost," admits former Fox chairman Bill Mechanic in The Hollywood Reporter Oscar night oral history. "That’s the sort of thing that would cost you winning."
It definitely cost him fans among the people responsible for pulling off that year's show. "Cameron’s out there and he’s going on, 'I’m the king of the world!'" the telecast's director, Louis J. Horvitz, recalls. "I’m going, 'You’re an a**hole!'"
Cameron now acknowledges that his personal moment of triumph appeared "hubristic" to onlookers. "In my mind, it was celebratory — I was just stating how I felt," he says. "What I specifically wasn’t saying is, 'I’m showing all y’all motherf***ers 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. 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."
What’s often lost amid the “king of the world” brouhaha is the fact that Cameron delivered three speeches that night, and those struck the right tone. Early in the evening, he shared Titanic's win for Film Editing with fellow editors Conrad Buff and Richard A. Harris, and let both of them speak first. Each of his collaborators thanked his colleagues and spouse, whereas Cameron singled out his 5-year-old daughter, Josephine, whose mother — Cameron’s then-wife Linda Hamilton — was in the audience. "Honey, this is the thing I described to you," he said. "It’s called an Oscar, and it’s really cool to get."
When Beatty announced Cameron’s name as Best Director, the filmmaker opted to address his cast rather than his kid. "I don’t know about you, but I’m having a really great time," he began, before calling out old and young Rose — seatmates Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart, who were nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively — along with the absent DiCaprio and the large supporting cast. "You guys gave me pure gold every day, and I share this gold with you."
Continuing in that “no i in team” vein, he acknowledged the larger Titanic crew, as well as the various members of his family — Hamilton, their children and his parents. "There is no way that I can express to you what I’m feeling right now," Cameron said, visibly moved. "My heart is full to bursting." In another world, his speech stopped there and he departed the stage as Oscar royalty. But on our earth, he kept going and proclaimed himself king.
Clearly, Cameron recognized that his DiCaprio impression didn’t go over so well, because he didn’t attempt anything like it again in his final appearance that night, when he accepted Titanic's Best Picture statue from Sean Connery. Producer Jon Landau spoke first, rattling off the lengthy list of people who helped make the movie possible so Cameron wouldn’t have to, which earned him a backhanded compliment from the director when it was his turn at the mic.
"I think Jon saw Shine too many times," Cameron said, referring to the 1996 Best Picture nominee starring Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush as mentally troubled pianist David Helfgott. "He thanked everybody and did everything I was going to say."
Watch Cameron accept the Best Picture Oscar below:
Not that Cameron proved in any way speechless. Looking beyond the film, he turned his attention first to the audience that embraced it and then to the real-life event that inspired it. "It’s kind of hard for us to remember that this euphoria... is for a film that’s based on a real event that happened, where real people died," he said somberly, summarizing the film’s message as "the future is unknowable, the only thing we truly own is today" — a sentiment that notably sounds closer to Terminator than Titanic.
"I’d like to do a few seconds of silence in remembrance of the 1,500 men, women and children who died when the great ship died," Cameron continued. "During these few seconds I’d like you to also listen to the beating of your own heart, which is the most precious thing in the world." At Cameron’s poetic urging, the audience fell silent as the camera cut to a wide view of the room rather than single out specific faces.
In The Hollywood Reporter oral history, Horvitz says that Cameron's request threw the booth into a tizzy. "He goes out there and he goes, 'Let’s have 15 seconds of silence for the victims.' We’re going, 'Jesus Christ! We don’t have time!' I’m just trying to get off the air because of the restrictions of running into the East Coast news... If I run into the news, we owe money."
After that longer-than-anticipated pause, the director tossed out his last (self-) congratulatory remark of the evening. "You really made this a night to remember in every way," knowingly name-dropping the previous Titanic film, 1958’s A Night to Remember. "Now let’s go party till dawn!"
In the years since the nonstop party that was Cameron’s 1998 Oscar night, the director has regularly owned up to how his "king of the world" moment put a dent in the festivities. "After jumping up and making a fool of myself with my acceptance speech, I’m sure nobody wants to see me at the Academy Awards again," he semi-jokingly told Entertainment Weekly in 2010, just before he received his second directing nod for the original Avatar.
Cameron missed out on a Best Director nomination for Avatar: The Way of Water, so there's no chance for an "I see you" moment at this year's ceremony. But the filmmaker is still riding the high of Titanic's victory 25 years later. "We had done an almost impossible thing, which is we had made ourselves an underdog in a weird way," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "We had created a scenario in which we appeared to fight our way back and have a triumph when the chips were down. The chips were down only because everybody made the chips down. I didn’t fricking do it!"
[This article was originally published Mar. 2, 2018. It has been updated to reflect recent events.]
Titanic is available to rent or purchase on most VOD services, including Prime Video.