Let’s Talk About… ‘Titanic’ (1997)

Film #79 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

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I remember it like it was yesterday. I had just turned seventeen and was waiting eagerly in line with my family to see James Cameron’s Titanic, which had just been released. Of course, I was excited about the film, because a little over a year before, Baz Luhrmann’s dizzyingly beautiful adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet had hit the theaters and re-introduced me to Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor who I had never paid much attention to beyond his brief stint on Growing Pains. But unlike my younger sisters who squealed at the mere sight of him and had his posters all over their walls, I simply found DiCaprio to be a pretty great actor, so I was excited to see what Titanic had to offer.

What I received was an insanely romantic love story that took the poor boy/rich girl trope and ran with it full throttle against the backdrop of one of history’s greatest tragedies. Titanic went on to become the first film to ever reach $1 billion dollars at the box office and settled in as the highest grossing film of all time until James Cameron’s Avatar knocked it from the top spot in 2010. I fully admit that I might have helped contribute to Titanic’s box office success, having gone back to see it in the theaters again twelve more times (I know, I know. I was seventeen and a romantic, okay?).

When the movie was released on VHS in September of 1998, it was still playing in the theaters. No matter where you went, you could not escape this film. The soundtrack jumped to the top spot on the Billboard Charts and stayed there for sixteen weeks, while the theme song, My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion, became one of the best selling singles in history and won a bevy of awards, including the Oscar for Best Original Song.

The impact that Titanic had on pop culture continues even today, with quotes like “I’m the King of the World!” as recognizable as “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Who hasn’t joined in on the debate over whether or not Jack could have actually fit on that floating door with Rose (MythBusters says yes, James Cameron says the script says no, so no)? But I think in the hype and popularity surrounding Titanic, the film itself gets a bit lost. The amount of work and ambition that went into this film getting made is nothing short of remarkable.

James Cameron was coming off of the box office success of his action comedy film True Lies when he began production on Titanic, a love story between a young man and woman from two very different social classes. The history of the movie’s casting is well known. Gwyneth Paltrow and Matthew McConaughey were the frontrunners to portray the doomed couple but ultimately Kate Winslet was cast as Rose and managed to persuade DiCaprio to take the role of Jack. Their chemistry in the film was undeniable and so authentic that it led to rumors and persistent questions about the nature of their real-life relationship.

Cameron had a replica of the Titanic built to scale for his shoot in Mexico, along with a seventeen thousand gallon tank for the ship to be sunk in. The shoot went long and the budget ballooned to $200 million dollars. There were reports of problems on the set, including Cameron’s temper and uncompromising, perfectionist behavior. It was said to have gotten so bad on set that a disgruntled crew member laced the chowder with PCP, leading to several hospitalizations. When the runtime of the film breached three hours, Fox executives wanted to cut out about an hour’s worth of footage, which Cameron refused to do. Due to the disastrous production, and the fact that the release date was pushed from July 4th to December, critics and reporters were convinced the movie was going to sink just as the actual Titanic had.

“Everyone thought they were going to lose money. Nobody was playing for the upside, myself included.” – James Cameron.

Despite the odds, when the film was released it was to the acclaim of critics and audiences alike. Titanic went on to break box office records and score fourteen Academy Award nominations, winning eleven, including Best Picture and Best Director for James Cameron.

There is nothing overly complicated about the plot and I’m pretty sure that everyone is pretty well versed in the basics even if they haven’t seen the film, so I won’t go into a deep dive of the details. Simply put, first-class passengers Rose Dewitt Bukater (Winslet) and her mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) are traveling with Rose’s wealthy, temperamental fiance Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). It’s clear very quickly that this is not a match based on love. Rose is marrying Cal at her mother’s behest in an effort to solve the financial problems they incurred after the death of Rose’s father. Jack Dawson (DiCaprio) is a penniless American simply trying to get back home. He and his friend Fabrizio (Danny Nucci) luck into two third-class steerage tickets by winning them in a card game just before the Titanic’s departure.

Early on in the voyage, Rose considers committing suicide by jumping overboard but is rescued by Jack, and the two embark on an unlikely romance that immediately faces a bevy of obstacles, least of which is their social standings. From a stuffy, restrained formal dinner with a silly amount of forks in the first class dining room to a booze-filled party full of music and laughter in the third class steerage, we’re given a glimpse into just how different Rose and Jack’s worlds really are. But as they fall in love, the couple ignores what is expected of them and Rose makes the decision to get off the ship with Jack when they dock in New York. Unfortunately, fate takes over when the Titanic is unable to steer quickly enough away from an iceberg, and suddenly we’re in the midst of unspeakable tragedy as the ship begins to sink.

It’s during this last half of the movie that I feel the movie hits its true emotional core. Now it’s not about whether or not Jack and Rose’s relationship will survive the end of their voyage, but whether they will survive the night. The ship’s crew begins to try and evacuate thousands of passengers and Cameron combines Jack and Rose’s desperate journey through the ship with scenes of other fearful and confused passengers fleeing to the safety of the lifeboats. The situation unravels quickly as the realization that there aren’t enough lifeboats triggers unspeakable panic and chaos. Class no longer matters. It’s all about survival.

Cameron used real-life accounts of Titanic’s passengers in the film. As water floods the ship, we are shown an older couple lying in bed, clinging to one another as they accept their fate. This is a nod to the real-life story of Isidor and Isa Straus. Isidor was the owner of Macy’s department store. He refused to take a spot in the lifeboat with his wife when there were other women and children still aboard the ship. Isa refused to leave their husband behind and they returned to their stateroom, where they perished together. Some say that Captain Smith (portrayed by Bernard Hill) was seen in the wheelhouse where he was consumed by flooding, and while this is the Captain’s fate in the movie, some accounts of survivors insist he shot himself, while others claim he jumped into the water to help drowning passengers to lifeboats.

The “Unsinkable” Molly Brown (played by a feisty Kathy Bates) is desperate to help the passengers trying to stay afloat in the freezing waters of the Atlantic but is rebuffed by the crewman in charge of the lifeboat they occupy. In real life, when Brown was met with this opposition, she threatened to throw the commanding officer overboard if they didn’t go back and help. Whether or not the lifeboat did so is unclear.

It’s one thing to get caught up in the forbidden romance of the movie, but it’s another to be faced with the knowledge that these were real people who lost their lives that night. As rescuers from the RMS Carpathia navigate their boats through the dark ocean to search for survivors, they have to pull aside still bodies floating in their way. The sight of the dead in the freezing waters, including a mother and her baby, is difficult to process, but I felt like Cameron was respectful in how he portrayed the aftermath of the sinking. It’s a sobering, heartwrenching reminder that this was a real tragedy that took place.

If I have any criticisms it’s that the dialogue itself is a bit clunky and borderline corny from time to time, but Cameron’s passionate direction, the talent from the supporting cast, and the dazzling chemistry between DiCaprio and Winslet is what makes Titanic so magnificent. It’s technological achievements alone make up for the film’s weaker points. Frankly, whether or not you like this movie, it’s hard to deny the effect that Titanic has had on pop culture and cinema. The movie’s influence endures today and will, dare I say it… go on.