Titanic vs. Lord of the Rings. Prof. Bainbridge is responding to my challenge about whether, if there were an ensemble acting Oscar, LOTR would have won it and neither Titanic nor Ben Hur would have, thus making LOTR the biggest Oscar-winning movie ever, with 12, not just 11.
Bainbridge points out that LOTR won the SAG ensemble acting award, but Titanic didn't. The Full Monty did!
I realize now how complex this what-if question is. Bainbridge points out that the SAG ensemble award may be essentially its version of best picture: SAG only gives acting awards, so ensemble works as a way to recognize the whole picture. If that's so, and if the Oscar voters tracked the all-actor SAG voters, we could infer that the ensemble Oscar would have gone to Titanic. But it is a different group of voters, as we can tell from the way the Oscars didn't care at all about The Full Monty.
Bainbridge also theorizes that an ensemble award would be used to honor casts in movies that did not feature one or two dominant stars, that is "true ensembles." Voters might conceive of the ensemble award as a way to make up for the fact that films with large crowds of actors don't have a fair shot at the individual actor awards. Clearly, LOTR had many great actors in it, but they were in relatively small roles. But small roles can earn supporting actor awards, and it's notable that no one even had a nomination in a supporting category.
I can't speak for Ben Hur, because I've never seen it, but I'll accept that Charlton Heston was an overriding star there, and maybe the cast of thousands types would not seem to deserve any recognition.
But how about Titanic? Bainbridge says look at the posters: it's all about Kate Winslet (the sublime Kate Winslet, whom true Peter Jackson fans will love from Heavenly Creatures) and Leonardo diCaprio. But what about Kathy Bates (people love her), Victor Garber (the New Yorker thought he was the best thing in the film), Billy Zane (an acquired taste), David Warner (you want an English actor of long reputation, look at this), Francis Fisher, Jonathan Hyde (deliciously evil as Ismay), Bill Paxton, and the beloved old actress Gloria Stuart?
I say it would have won an ensemble award. What was the real competition? Not The Full Monty. Not Boogie Nights (because of the subject matter). Maybe L.A. Confidential. Considering the extreme love of the acting in Mystic River, I'd say that the ensemble award for Titanic would have been more likely than for LOTR.
UPDATE: Christopher Althouse, who's a devoted student of film, writes: "I think Titanic and Ben Hur would both have won ensemble awards, and to the extent that they could have not won, I don't think it's a given that LOTR would have won."