#627) Titanic (1997)
OR “The Looooooove Booooooat”
Directed & Written by James Cameron
Class of 2017
As always, a reminder that this post is about the film “Titanic”, and not the historical event depicted. There’s a ton of information out there for the curious, with its Britannica entry being a good place to start.
The Plot: In 1996, an expedition team surveys the remains of the passenger liner RMS Titanic, which sank after hitting an iceberg in April 1912. After an unsuccessful attempt to recover the valuable “Heart of the Ocean” diamond necklace, researcher Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) comes into contact with Titanic survivor Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart), who recounts her experience aboard the ship. In 1912, Rose (Kate Winslet) boards the ship with her socialite family and wealthy yet obnoxious fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Disappointed with the direction her life is going, Rose meets Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a starving artist and third-class passenger. The two are attracted to each other, but are aware of the class difference that separates them. Over the course of two days, Jack and Rose fall in love, and Rose decides to start a new life with Jack once the ship arrives in New York. When the ship is struck by an iceberg, Jack and Rose’s newfound love is put to the ultimate test.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “a cultural touchstone of the era” with “spectacular sweeping scenes”. They also quote David Ansen’s Newsweek write-up in which he called the film “big, bold, touchingly uncynical filmmaking.”
But Does It Really?: Somehow in this film’s quarter-century existence, I have managed to not see “Titanic” in full until this viewing (Though I’ve seen bits and pieces over the years). All I could think while I was watching was “James Cameron you bastard, you did it.” All filmmaking is alchemy, and while no one film has the perfect recipe, “Titanic” is pretty damn close. Cameron somehow managed to have his cake and eat it too; combining a historical epic with a disaster action movie, a deep-sea documentary, and a star-crossed romance, and making it all work spectacularly. “Titanic” has been parodied to death, and has now endured multiple generations of backlash (both historical and critical), but the film continues to be an impressive feat of moviemaking, and possibly the last classic Hollywood epic.
Everybody Gets One: Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were young actors starting to get noticed when “Titanic” came their way. Although both had recently received their first Oscar nods (DiCaprio for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”, Winslet for “Sense and Sensibility”), neither was the first choice for Jack and Rose (names such as Chris O’Donnell, Gwyneth Paltrow, Billy Crudup and Claire Danes were suggested). While DiCaprio had to be persuaded to even audition for Jack, Winslet lobbied aggressively for Rose, and the pair’s instant chemistry sealed the deal. The two actors formed a strong bond during the intensely exhausting shoot, and have stayed close friends ever since.
Wow, That’s Dated: The 1996 prelude dates itself with its giant camcorders and a reference to the Geraldo Rivera/Al Capone TV special. And while Cameron’s depiction of the Titanic sinking was accurate with the information he had at the time, new details have emerged in the ensuing years that have inexplicably enabled critics to declare the film retroactively inaccurate, whatever that means.
Seriously, Oscars?: It wasn’t enough for “Titanic” to make all the money and receive all the acclaim, it had to win all the Oscars too. At the 70th Academy Awards in 1998, “Titanic” lead the pack with 14 nominations (tying “All About Eve” for the most nominations ever), and took home 11 (tying “Ben-Hur” for the most wins ever). The film won Picture, Director, Song for “My Heart Will Go On”, and seven technical categories (also a record for a single film). The “Titanic” steamroll was inevitable, but left little room for other well-received contenders like “Good Will Hunting” and “L.A. Confidential“.
- James Cameron was inspired to write a movie about the Titanic based on his fascination with the actual shipwreck, as well as a 1992 IMAX movie that featured high-def footage of the wreck. Cameron pitched the film as “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic”, and a skeptical 20th Century Fox okayed the film in the hopes of maintaining a good business relationship with Cameron. The underwater sequences of the actual wreck were filmed first (Cameron admits these scenes were the reason he wanted to make the film) while Cameron was concurrently immersing himself in research and scriptwriting.
- Production on “Titanic” ran from July 1996 to March 1997, and is generally agreed upon to have been an unpleasant experience for everyone. Most of the cast experienced illness from hours in cold water, three stunt performers broke bones, and James Cameron’s dictatorial directing style earned him the moniker “the scariest man in Hollywood”. The film went 30 days over schedule, and when Fox refused to give Cameron more money, Paramount agreed to co-finance the film, ballooning the budget to $200 million (the most expensive movie ever up to that point). With the special effects needing more time to be completed, “Titanic” had its release date pushed from July 1997 to December, prompting speculation that the film would be a disaster.
- The opening prologue helps a modern, more cynical audience permit itself to enter the romantic world of 1912. Of course it’s lovely to see the late Bill Paxton represented on this list outside of his brief role in “The Terminator“, but the MVP is Gloria Stuart. Long past her heyday in 1930s Hollywood, the 86-year-old Stuart was aged up to play 101, and is an overall gem as older Rose. Also in these bookend scenes is Suzy Amis as Rose’s granddaughter. Amis and James Cameron met during filming, and they’re still married over 20 years later.
- Dialogue has never been Cameron’s strongest suit as a writer, and the opening of the film is a massive offering of Exposition 101. Cameron, however, more than makes up for this with his visual storytelling, particularly the scale and build up to the Titanic’s launch. You truly get the sense of awe needed to convey the ship’s mightiness, making its demise all the more devastating.
- Wow, this movie is a murderer’s row of great actors. Among the supporting cast aboard the ship: Frances Fisher, Kathy Bates (as Molly Brown), David Warner, Victor Garber, Jonathan Hyde, and Bernard Fox (aka Dr. Bombay from “Bewitched”). There really isn’t a weak link in this chain.
- Poor Billy Zane. Cal is a short-sighted, one dimensional asshole, and Zane is doing the best with what he’s given. Fun Fact: I met him once. Nice guy.
- The sparks between Leo and Kate are palpable, and it really does help keep the movie (forgive me) afloat. They’re so good in this I’m even willing to ignore Kate’s not-quite-there American accent and Leo’s ’90s Tiger Beat haircut.
- The “I’m flying” scene on the ship’s bow is a romantic highpoint (filmed with an actual sunset, no CG or lighting tricks). Although I was well aware of all of this movie’s iconic sequences before this viewing, I had zero knowledge of the earlier scene where Jack teaches Rose how to spit, which is super gross but – thanks to Kate Winslet – actually serves as a set-up to a later payoff.
- Full disclosure: I was 11 years old when “Titanic” was released on VHS in September 1998, and the parents of a neighborhood friend of mine had a copy. We never got past the first cassette, but we definitely saw the drawing scene and, let’s just say Kate Winslet is an important player in my formative years. On a similar note: I found out years later that Kate Winslet was subjected to a lot of fat-shaming by critics and late night comedians at the time, and all I can say is “How dare you!” Winslet is a stunningly beautiful human, and the skinny model standard of the late ’90s is an impossible (not to mention unhealthy and unnatural) measure for anyone to meet, so everyone lay off!
- It’s hard not to research a post on “Titanic” the film without slipping into research on Titanic the actual ship. I’ve never been much of a non-pop culture history buff, so all the details about the real Titanic were new to me. The one bit of real Titanic trivia that I found worth noting here: When “Titanic” premiered, seven of the ship’s survivors were still alive. Millvina Dean was the youngest Titanic passenger (2 months old), and the last survivor to pass (May 2009 at age 97). Dean declined an invitation to attend the premiere of “Titanic” which – you know what? Fair.
- Shoutout to actor Scott G. Anderson, playing Titanic’s real-life lookout Frederick Fleet, who I assume gets a few free drinks whenever anyone recognizes him as the guy who yells “Iceberg right ahead!”
- Part of my amazement with the film is how much of it is real. Computer effects and detailed models were obviously used for the most epic shots, but there’s a good chunk of this movie that is real people on real sets surrounded by real water. Even more amazing is how many of these scenes are clearly DiCaprio and Winslet doing their own stunt work. Where’s Shelley Winters when you need her?
- [Spoilers] I remember about 10 years ago when “Titanic” was re-released there was a brouhaha in social media about the floating door Jack and Rose swim to for safety. The theory was that there was enough room for both Jack and Rose on the door, and Jack did not need to sacrifice himself. There was even a whole “Mythbusters” about it. Honestly, the film made it clear to me from the get-go that the door could not support both of them and still float, so I don’t know what everyone got so worked up about. Was there nothing else going on that week?
- The film’s other most dated aspect: ’90s power ballad “My Heart Will Go On“. James Cameron was initially against having any song in the movie for fear of becoming outdated, so composers James Horner and Will Jennings wrote the song in secret, had Céline Dion record a demo, and waited for Cameron to be in an approachable mood before pitching the idea. Cameron finally relented upon realizing that studio execs – already upset with him for going over-budget – would be pacified at the prospect of the movie spawning a hit song.
- “Titanic” opened in December 1997, and quickly became a blockbuster hit, staying in theaters for 10 months (!) and surpassing “Jurassic Park” as the highest grossing movie of all time. Everything around the film was also a success: the VHS release was the best selling home video of all time, the soundtrack album reached number one on over two dozen charts around the world, and the companion “Making Of” book was #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list for several weeks.
- For my younger readers, I am here to tell you: If you were alive in 1998 you could not escape “Titanic”. It was everywhere. People loved shouting “I’m flying, Jack!” and “I’m the king of the world!” (even James Cameron said the latter in his Oscar speech), and cruise ships had to take extra safety measures to prevent passengers from recreating these moments on their bow (not to mention reiterating the emergency safety measures already in place). There were the obvious parodies (my favorite is the hard-to-find Letterman sketch “Death Boat ’98”), and while they have subsided over the years, “Titanic” has remained a cultural touchstone, especially for those of us with a severe case of ’90s nostalgia.
- Following the mega-hit sensation of “Titanic”, both its stars and director kept a low-profile. DiCaprio and Winslet opted for independent productions, eventually pivoting to bigger movies (and Oscar wins for, respectively, “The Revenant” and “The Reader”). Cameron’s next projects were deep sea documentaries (including the Titanic wreckage film “Ghosts of the Abyss”) before returning to narrative features with “Avatar”, which – like “Titanic” before it – defied its predicted failure to become the highest grossing film of all time.
- “Titanic” continued its box office success in 2012, when the film was re-released in 3D for the 100th anniversary of the original sinking. A young naive Twitter was not only unaware that it was a re-release, but also unaware that it was based on a historical event.
- And finally: “I’m going to sink this bitch.”
Further Viewing: The other countless Titanic movies. Among them: 1953’s “Titanic”, 1958’s “A Night to Remember”, and 1964’s “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”, to name just a few.