Saturday, February 23, 2013



Three years after awarding box office champ FORREST GUMP, the Academy once again agreed with the American public, giving a best picture victory to James Cameron's TITANIC, which was not only the most popular film of that year, but the highest grossing film ever up to that point (unadjusted for inflation).  The win was icing on the cake for Cameron, who's incredibly expensive and risky project had paid off in a way no one (probably not even him) saw coming.  And not only did it win best picture, TITANIC also won ten other Oscars, tying it with BEN HUR for most wins ever; it was also the first winner to be produced, directed, written and edited by the same person.  But, as with
FOREST GUMP, there was an inevitable backlash against the film (the fact that many of its biggest supporters were teenage girls in thrall to its romantic storyline didn't help), with many people ridiculing its melodramatic  and simplistic story.  Looked at objectively, years after all the hype, TITANIC is a solidly entertaining period piece, that looks great, is full of drama and excitement, and that, yes, has a nice romantic storyline.  But I don't think it ranks as the best film of its year, with its main flaw being one of the film's main characters (more on that later).
The movie sprang from the mind of James Cameron around 1995, when, after viewing Roy Ward Baker's 1958 film about the Titanic A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, he decided to explore the remains of the actual Titanic.  This lead to him pitching the idea of a Romeo and Juliet story on the Titanic to the 20th. Century Fox studio.  The studio was understandably dubious, especially given Cameron's budget requests and the film's  projected length, but he was riding high after having made the back to back hits  TERMINATOR TWO (1991) and TRUE LIES(1994).  So the studio took a chance, and Cameron shot real footage of the wreck of the Titanic that would appear in the film, and then went to work.  It was a massive production, with over a thousand extras and enormous sets that were built to the exact specifications of the real Titanic, along with numerous costly special effect shots.  The studio wanted Matthew McConaughey to play the lead role of Jack, but Cameron demanded the then mostly unknown Leonardo DiCaprio, with the also mostly unknown Kate Winslet set to play the female lead Rose.   The shoot was long and difficult, with literal tons of icy water being blasted onto the cast and crew; meanwhile the budget got so big that another film studio, Paramount, chipped in part of the cost, while Cameron himself gave up his director's fee and percentage of the gross.  All told, the budget was a stunning $200,000,000.  Upon its initial release, it looked like the film had no chance of breaking a profit; sure it opened up at number one at the box office, but at under $30,000,000, hardly the stuff of blockbuster numbers.  But then an amazing thing happened: it stayed at number one with little drop off for an astounding fifteen weeks, still the longest run for any film ever.  Stories appeared of fans (mostly women or teenage girls) seeing the film again and again, obsessing over DiCaprio and his character of Jack, vaulting him to the kind of screaming fandom usually reserved for teen pop stars(this showed the wisdom of Cameron casting DiCaprio; although he was 23 when the film was made, DiCaprio looked even younger, exciting teenage girls in a way a more mature looking actor may not have).   This adoration lead to the film making over $600,000,000 in the US alone.  Even before the Oscars, Cameron's huge gamble had paid off.

Leo DeCaprio & Kate Winslet

The film's story begins in the modern day, with treasure hunter Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton)seeking a valuable diamond necklace believed to still be on the wreck of the Titanic.  He enlists the aid of elderly Titanic survivor Rose (Gloria Stewart), who recounts the story of how, when she was a young woman,(Winslet) she rode on the Titanic with her fiancee Cal (Billy Zane), whom she was planning on marrying only for financial protection for herself and her mother Ruth (Francis Fisher).  On the ship, she meets the dashing but poor Jack (DiCaprio), and finds herself drawn to him.  The insanely jealous Cal attempts to have Jack framed for theft, but when the ship strikes an iceberg and begins to sink, Rose stays with Jack, even when that means missing her place on a lifeboat.

The film opens with modern shots of the actual rotting watery remains of the Titanic being searched by remote controlled robotic ships.  This leads to an extended set up for the main story that focuses on a search for a (fictional) valuable diamond necklace.  While I think this opening goes on too long before getting us to the real story of the film,  the shots of the sunken ship are hauntingly beautiful, and it does introduce to the character of Rose, well played by Gloria Stewart.   I also enjoy the moment when a computer geek (Lewis Abernathy) gives the audience a quick computer simulation of the ship's sinking that nicely sets up the latter part of the film.
It's when the flashback begins that the movie really takes off, and when Cameron's eye for detail and historical recreation become so important; by the end of the film, cinematographer Russel Carpenter's camera will have shown us every inch of the Titanic, from the stunning ball rooms to the steerage to the massive engine room, along with many glorious shots of the ship in all its hulking entirety.  The inevitable sinking of the ship is stunningly filmed, and I find the boat's final descent, with helpless passengers clinging on vainly, to be particularly powerful.  Cameron also gives us a wealth of minor characters, many of them based on real people, moving all around the ship, (I especially like Kathy Bates as the unsinkable Molly Brown) heightening the sense of realism.  The result is what  I like to call immersive cinema, that is, a film set completely out of the audience's own world that is so full of details and well populated with interesting characters that, for the length of the film, the audience feels like they are actually in that world.  It is a transportive experience, and I think that's one of the keys to the film's success.  That's why I'm not generally bothered by the film's simple storyline, because it provides immediate and easy to identify with characters that can be universally embraced and related to by any audience (the fact that the film was a world wide hit proves this).  This transportive feeling is one that Cameron would use again in 2009's AVATAR, which was an even bigger hit than TITANIC, and that was so immersive that there were reports that some audience members were depressed when the film ended and they had to "return" to planet earth, as it were.
I often wonder if, when scripting the film, Cameron realized how, with the character of Jack, he was creating an almost perfect dream man for young women and teenage girls.  He's a world traveler and artist, who lives by his own rules and loves dancing and drinking; while he has a bad boy streak(he wins passage on the boat in a poker game),  he's no thief, even when standing next to an open safe filled with valuables.  And he falls for Rose completely almost immediately, praises her "inner fire", and bravely acts to save her life when the ship is sinking.  While he may be too good to be true, DeCaprio gives such a sincere performance that it's hard not be won over by him.  If anything, his charming nature seems almost too easily earned, which may explain why he was not even nominated for best actor for the role.  Sincerity is also the word for Winslet's performance as Rose; if Jack is the man girls dream about, Rose is the woman they dream about being. Like Linda Hamilton in the TERMINATOR films and Sigourney Weaver in ALIENS, she is another strong woman in a Cameron film; she is smart (she figures out that there are not enough life boats right away), brave (she saves Jack's life, too) and follows her heart, even when it means giving up a life of wealth with Cal.  It's clear that Cameron had much affection for his Romeo and Juliet, and that really comes through in the almost immediate bond between them.  While I don't enjoy every scene they have together (the scene in which he teaches her how to spit comes to mind), it's hard not to be won over by them, or to deny the loveliness of the soon to be iconic moment when  Jack and Rose stand together at the mast of the ship, arms outstretched. 

Billy Zane

But, while I am won over by the romantic couple, the film's greatest flaw lies in the character of Billy Zane's Cal; now normally you would think that he would be a sympathetic person.  After all, here is a man who's fiancee openly cheats on him, even after he gives her a valuable diamond necklace.  But Cal is so vile, so pompous, classist and cruel, that he never has a single likable moment in the film.  He's even a fool, scoffing at Rose's admiration for Picasso ("he won't amount to a thing") and dismissing her fears about the number of life boats.  Personally,  I find his villainy so over the top that it hurts the film, changing Cameron's scrupulously realistic tone into almost a cartoon every time he opens his mouth and starts sneering.  Even worse, his framing of Jack for theft is an unnecessary subplot that distracts from the sinking of the ship and pads an already lengthy film. And then he follows that up by literally shooting at Jack and Rose when he sees them together, and, just when he couldn't seem to get any worse, he cowardly uses an abandoned baby to con his way onto a life boat.  At this point he might as well wear a black mustache and hat while tying Rose to the train tracks!  Billy Zane is a fine actor, but his character is written in such broad tones that there's no way to save him. I suppose that Cameron felt that humanizing Cal might have made Rose less likable, but I think it would have added to the complexity of both Cal and Rose if he was a decent man that she just falls out of love with as she finds herself drawn to Jack.  But making Rose less noble and more complicated might have made her less of an identification character for the female audience that made the film so popular, so there you have it.  Sometimes you can't argue with success.  

I've already mentioned how Cameron's viewing of Roy Ward Baker's 1958 film A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, influenced him,  and that influence goes beyond mere subject matter, with Cameron borrowing some of the details (like the string quartet that continues to play even as the ship sinks) and exact shots and dialogue from the earlier film.  Although that film didn't have Cameron's huge budget and special effects, it has a documentary tone that ultimately makes it seem more real, if less moving than TITANIC.  More importantly, it doesn't have any villains like Cal, allowing the iceberg to be villain enough, and for that alone I think it's, overall, a better film. 


Despite all it's gorgeous recreations and romantic moments, TITANIC is not my favorite film of that year.  I prefer BOOGIE NIGHTS, PT Anderson's amazing, entertaining story of the rise and fall of a fictional porn star.  I also love Barry Levinson's wickedly funny WAG THE DOG, a media satire that seems to get more relevant every year.