Three British actresses cleared the first hurdle in the Oscar preliminaries last week, with Judi Dench, Helena Bonham Carter and Kate Winslet all nominated for best actress in the Golden Globe awards. Though the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which hands them out, is a motley crew, the Globes typically set the pace in an awards season that climaxes with the Oscars in March. Dame Judi has won high praise for her portrayal of Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown, but the two popular favourites are surely Bonham Carter, for The Wings of the Dove, and Winslet, for Titanic.
The similarities between their characters and situations are striking, but the forces propelling them towards the Academy Awards could not be more different. On Sunset Boulevard this week, The Wings of the Dove was playing at a five-screen art-house theatre, to an audience, on a weekday night, of scarcely more than 20. Titanic on Friday opened as a full-dress Hollywood event at the Chinese Mann theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. The house was full, and TV trucks waited to capture the noisy queue that stretched round the block for the midnight showing.
For those who haven't seen it, The Wings of the Dove is a very British adaptation of a Henry James novel, a love triangle full of tortured sensibilities and buttoned-down passion. Bonham Carter plays Kate Croy, driven by a Zola-esque scheme to marry her penniless journalist lover to a dying American heiress.
Titanic tells the story of - you know: two star-crossed young lovers, played by Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, set sail for New York, and guess who doesn't make it (which is largely the point of the plot, or technically the sub-plot). It lasts three hours and 15 minutes, which is roughly how long the unsinkable Titanic took to go down in 1912.
Until very recently, Titanic was billed as the likely candidate for the biggest flop in Hollywood history. It was filmed mainly in Mexico, in a new Fox studio purpose-built to handle a 90 per cent scale model of the ship, five stories high, "sunk" in an eight-acre water tank.
It was from there, last spring, that the stories began creeping out that Titanic was running monstrously out of control, with tales of set injuries, theft, and a producer-director, James Cameron, going on a vastly expensive ego trip. The film's original budget was posted at a generous $110m (pounds 65m). That figure crept up to about $200m, more costly in inflation-adjusted dollars even than Cleopatra, the Roman orgy starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and a multitude of extras that bombed in 1963. Having had their fun, however, Hollywood and its hangers-on have suddenly decided that Cameron has delivered.
A film that cost this much money simply couldn't be trashed. "Sunken Treasure," Entertainment Weekly called it, giving the film a "watery rave" as reviewers nearly drowned in tidal puns. The "movie of the year", concluded the New York Times, "the first spectacle in decades that honestly invites comparison to Gone with the Wind".
Moviegoers at the Mann last week seemed unanimous in their verdict: paying $7 to see 1,500 people drown was a snip. As the credits for the myriad stuntmen, accountants and computerised effects rolled up, they cheered repeatedly. Titanic collected eight Golden Globe nominations; The Wings of the Dove earned just the one.
The first hurdle for both Winslet and Bonham Carter, of course, is getting an Oscar nomination. The vote for that is not tallied until January, two weeks after the Globes are awarded, and there is respectable, if not stellar, competition, from the likes of Jessica Lange and Helen Hunt.
The two British actresses' roles, on paper at least, are uncannily similar. Both movies can be called Edwardian period dramas: the Titanic sank in 1912, while Dove's setting was moved forward for the film to 1910. Winslet's Rose Calvert and Bonham Carter's Kate have dissolute fathers who have left them poor (Rose's is conveniently dead, Kate's encountered in an opium den) and under pressure to marry money.
Winslet is seen being laced into a corset, Bonham Carter removing hers. Both shed their clothes for their lovers and the camera, and both spend a great deal of time looking Ophelia-like around water, Bonham Carter in Venice and Winslet in the Atlantic.
Bonham Carter recently won the Los Angeles Film Critics' Association's best actress award for her performance, and US reviewers have heaped praise on "the most seductive performance of her career", for "a new, dark-toned radiance", a complex and fascinating portrayal of a divided and passionate personality. Joseph McBride, one Los Angeles critic who voted for Winslet, said her performance was "luminous" and underestimated.
But Bonham Carter is blessed with the subtlety of Henry James and the sparing wordplay of the British screenwriter Hossein Amini; for her part Winslet has to struggle with dialogue from a mock-Tudor soap opera. Titanic's script was written by Cameron, who according to rumour browbeat Winslet almost to tears in Mexico, and whose slickest production to date is Terminator 2.
With his extraordinary screen charisma Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays a working-class tough, manages to survive lines like "Rose, you're no picnic." Winslet, however, suffers worst in a slow-motion love story where DiCaprio is supposed to set her spirit free by teaching her to spit. Her lines include such gems as "You think a first-class girl can't drink?", and "So what are you, an artist or something?" As a result, she is most persuasive and alluring when she turns silent, and watery.
Richard Corliss, who reviewed both films for Time magazine, describes himself correctly enough "as the solitary grinch" on Titanic, having called it "dead in the water" in its first national review. His description of the 31-year-old Bonham Carter as "our modern antique goddess" was by contrast a virtual love letter.
Any run-off between the two actresses, however, is against the backdrop of a David and Goliath contest between the two films. The ultimate result, Corliss says, depends on whether Titanic gets "the Big Mo", winning Best Picture and attracting other awards in its wake. "There are some categories," he says, "where a totally strong showing, a near sweep, can carry an actress along."