May 11, 1998 12:00 PM

His Oscar acceptance speech may have been Titanic director James Cameron’s high-water mark that night, but only hours earlier he had been behaving like anything but King of the World. On the Shrine Auditorium’s red carpet, in full view of cameras, Cameron, 43, yanked his actress wife Linda Hamilton, 41, by the arm and began yelling at her. Later, asked if Titanic’s 11 Oscars had changed her husband of eight months, Hamilton replied dryly, “He was always a jerk, so there’s no way to really measure.”

No way, that is, unless you count the moving vans hauling Cameron’s belongings from their Malibu home on April 21. Though neither side would comment, the apparent separation hardly came as a shock. Their turbulent romance began during filming of 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (she starred; he directed), contributing to the breakup of Cameron’s marriage to screenwriter Kathryn Bigelow (he had also been wed to a Bob’s Big Boy waitress and to a movie producer). It was an “on-again, off-again kind of thing,” says a friend. Titanic’s grueling two-year shoot didn’t help, nor did Cameron’s interest in actress Suzy Amis, who played Rose’s granddaughter. “He’d been drooling over her on the set,” says film critic Christopher Heard, author of a 1997 Cameron biography. “He had a crush on her.”

Barring a pre-nup, Hamilton, the mother of Cameron’s only child, Josephine, 5 (she also has a son, Dalton, 8, with her first husband, actor Bruce Abbott), could net half of his estimated $100 million-plus Titanic earnings in a divorce. Still, says a friend, “I’m sad for her. I think she wanted to be everything for him.”

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