You can be blasé about some things, Rose, but not about Titanic
You probably know the story. It’s a matter of Hollywood legend.
James Cameron — known for making thrillers — convinces Fox to fund a three-hour tragic romantic melodrama crossed with a disaster film set aboard the RMS Titanic’s ill-fated maiden voyage. The budget balloons to the $200 million. Every trade rag preemptively declares it a flop based on bad buzz from the crew, the cast, and the studio executives. A million horror stories emerge from the filming, including injuries, sickness, and a mass-dosing of PCP. Cameron, the writer, director, and producer, is such a notorious and abusive perfectionist on set that the cast and crew joke that he’s been possessed by a demon called Mij (Jim backwards). The world’s schadenfreude knives are out, tabloid writers licking their chops.
But upon release, the film is not only a success, it’s an unprecedented modern cultural phenomenon. Teenage girls line up to see the film every day after school. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet become the teen sensations of a generation. The film tops the weekly box office totals for nearly a third of a year, a reign that will almost certainly never be matched. Bewildered pundits struggle to come up with comparisons, going back to Gone with the Wind to find a film of such monolithic importance and ubiquity in America. At the Oscars, Titanic wins a record-tying 11 statuettes, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and two acting awards.
You probably know the other story, too, the actual story. It has become cultural DNA and shorthand.
During a search for a lost diamond on the shipwreck of the Titanic, a centenarian played by Gloria Stuart claims to know the story of the missing jewel. She narrates a flashback of the fateful trip, taking us back to 1912. We follow the forbidden, across-the-tracks romance between Rose (Winslet) and Jack (DiCaprio). It’s an upstairs-downstairs Romeo and Juliet.
After the collision with an iceberg, the film pivots from a glitzy drama to a blockbuster disaster film. Rose and Jack don’t make it on a lifeboat, but instead float on a piece of debris. Jack sacrifices himself for Rose by letting her stay out of the ice cold-water. When she’s rescued, Rose let’s Jack’s frozen body sink to the bottom of the ocean, but she fully embraces his free-wheeling spirit. “I’ll never let go.”
Flash forward to the present and we see 101-year-old Rose has in fact had the missing Heart of the Ocean diamond the whole damn time. When no one is looking, she tosses it into the water so that it may join Jack, her true heart of the ocean, on the sea floor.
And then she promptly dies. Titanic’s Grand Staircase is her climb to Heaven, and Jack is her St. Peter.
It’s a lot of plot, but Titanic is a lot of movie. Start to finish, it runs a whopping 197 minutes, three and a quarter hours.
I need to be clear, though: The length is good. The bigness is the point. Titanic is one of the grandest visions of cinema ever created. Everything is giant-sized: the emotions, the melodrama, the cast of hundreds, the transporting music, and, above all else, the astonishing production values. Adjusted for inflation, Titanic still has one of the biggest budgets ever for a film. And there’s never any doubt that we’re seeing every last penny on the screen.
James Cameron did fastidious research on the Titanic’s sinking during pre-production. He committed to memory not only the layout of the ship and the timeline of its voyage but the stories of every passenger. He has said that this research helped him deeply appreciate the real-life scope of the casualties. This helped him realize that the story he wanted to tell was not just as a historical event and a piece of spectacle, but a crushing tragedy, and he went all-in on both pieces.
Ultimately, the dramaturgical dynamic that makes the movie work so well — that makes it capital-G Great — is that the two central storytelling modes — tragic romantic melodrama and disaster epic — parallel and bring out the best in each other. The destruction of this giant vessel, a temple to man’s industrial hubris, is devastating because we have fallen for the lovers and been immersed in the worlds they operate in. And the death of Jack takes on mythological proportions because it’s paired with a such an apocalyptic calamity. Yin and yang.
It would have been easy to short-change either element of this story: But Cameron doesn’t skimp. Not even a little bit. Jack and Rose’s passion pops off the screen, particularly during their jaunt through the entire length and height of the ship as they flee from her fiance Cal (Billy Zane) and his henchman Lovejoy (David Warner). They are so believable as teenagers in the throes of first love that it’s not hard to see why Jack’s death and icy descent was a traumatizing moment for millions of teenage girls in 1997. To quote Nicole Kidman’s AMC ad, “heartbreak feels good in a place like this.”
The most awe-inspiring portion of the film, though, is unquestionably the ship’s sinking. There’s the sheer production scope — a life-size RMS Titanic replica in a pool holding millions of gallons of water — but also plenty of moments where you feel its human impact: the captain (Bernard Hill) accepting his own submersion as water pours in his cabin, the montage of third class families tucking into bed as oblivion encroaches, the band playing “Nearer My God to Thee” to soothe the panicking masses, etc. We witness the fate of every individual we meet, or even catch glimpses of, across these three hours. Fortunes take dramatic turns for either the tragic or the fortuitous for everyone, rich or poor, man or woman, child or adult. As much as Titanic is a movie of destruction at catastrophic proportions, it’s also one of the great cross sections of humanity on film.
One thing I really enjoy about the film is the way it handles class in very direct ways. Cameron and his team really nail with fussy precision the stuffy yet pristine first-class fanciness and sense of entitlement. Meanwhile, the third class party is dingy and chaotic and swooning. The class structure is literalized in the structure of the ship: the wealthy at the very top, the second and third class in the layers beneath them, and the unfortunate laborers stuck in the hellish furnaces below that. But during the sinking of the ship — the social structure turned on its side and snapped in half — incoming death is the great equalizer. The hypocrisy of the wealthy getting special treatment comes to the forefront.
In addition to its story and everything we see on the screen, the film’s sound design is phenomenal. Crashing waves; falling China; buckling steel; bodies slapping against propellers: As much as you see these things you hear them; and, in turn, you also feel them right down to your bones.
But as I recall myself sitting in a theater seat taking in the sounds of Titanic, it’s not the world-class foley I’m thinking of. It’s the music. That inescapable James Horner score. On the one hand, it isn’t the richest or most varied score: There are only a couple of themes that are repeated ad nauseam. It frankly sounds bafflingly cheap and tinny at moments — the only time you can ever use the word “cheap” to describe any part of this film. The worst offenders are the sea shanty-style themes, especially “Southampton” and “Leaving Port” that we hear on the Titanic‘s boarding and departure. They sound like they were generated by off-the-shelf computer MIDI software.
Nonetheless, Titanic’s music is one of the greatest and most effective in the history of cinema. There’s one particular theme entitled “Rose” that is best known for being adapted into the credits theme, the global smash “My Heart Will Go On” by Céline Dion, which I want to expand upon in a moment. But this specific musical refrain, “Rose” is so sublime at transporting us into the film’s emotional texture that just hearing it brings me back to the sensations and feelings of the movie. It’s a heart-rending melody that gets reused a bunch of different times and in different contexts and timbres, serving as a leitmotif for Rose and Jack’s romance. It includes a wordless vocal line sung by Sissel Kyrkjebø.
Horner’s score is supplemented by multiple diegetic numbers that provide some variety and flavor. Most memorable is “Nearer My God to Thee,” but there are a few others, including a hymn at the first-class church. My favorite is the polka number at the third-class party that Jack and Rose spin to.
Much of Titanic has been the subject of backlash over the years, especially during its inescapable reign. Its heightened emotions and unflinching sincerity make it an easy target for anyone who is more concerned with being cool than being vulnerable. But no element of the film has received more backlash than “My Heart Will Go On.” It’s impossible to imagine anyone other than prime Céline Dion singing this song, her vocal command and grace carrying the tune from half-whispered verses to surging chorus. And then there’s that key change, one of the all-time sledgehammers in pop music history, where Celine’s voice briefly takes on a quality that can only be described in poetic terms. It’s the ascent to the afterlife. It’s the sun rising at the beach. It’s holding your newborn for the first time. Tom Breihan writes a terrific column called “The Number Ones” where he reviews every song to top the Billboard charts. He gave “My Heart Will Go On” an 8 out of 10. I would give it a 10 out of 10. (You should read his article anyways, it’s got some great nuggets.)
Another element of some critical and cultural controversy is Titanic’s acting. The film received two acting Oscar nominations, one for Winslet and one for Stuart. Curiously, DiCaprio was not able to ride the Oscar nomination wave, perhaps presaging his future struggles with the Academy. And yet I’ve never encountered anyone who dislikes his performance, even though Jack is a much less complicated character than Rose, and is basically purely heroic from start to finish. He was the one who emerged from the film as one of the biggest stars on the planet, his good-natured and boyish performance deeply endearing.
Winslet is a slightly trickier case. She truly feels like a 19-year-old girl in this film, spunky and hotheaded and passionate. This can be off-putting even when done right. Winslet’s grasp of the more complex emotional material, like her conflicted relationship with her mother and her uncertainty with Cal early in the film, is a bit slippery. And yet where it really counts, she’s absolutely terrific: Her chemistry with DiCaprio is outstanding, and I find it very touching that they’ve remained close ever since, even as Leo became more enigmatic. Winslet also is notably adept during the thriller portion of the film, bringing some physicality and timing to the disaster set pieces. While it’s fun to imagine some of the other rumored names for the part — like Gwyneth Paltrow, Claire Danes, and Winona Ryder — it’s tough to imagine anyone bringing a more complete version of Rose to the screen than Kate Winslet.
The supporting cast is strong and charismatic all around, though nobody is doing anything particularly nuanced (minus Victor Garber as the beleaguered ship designer, who is terrific). Nuance is not the name of the game, though. Consider, for a moment, Billy Zane. He’s unforgettable as the hammy supervillain Cal, Rose’s fiancé. He absolutely nails the East Coast, old money, Ivy League brat flavor. It’s not a complex performance, but it’s a good one. He’s just an all-time great “d-bag boyfriend” character, one of my favorite tropey character types.
A few other highlights: Kathy Bates is a reliable scene-stealer as a sassy new-money first-class passenger who takes a liking to Jack; Bill Paxton nails the swarthy present-day sea captain angle; and Frances Fisher gives a pointed turn as Rose’s overbearing mother.
Titanic is not a flawless film. There are plenty of nits one can pick should one be so inclined. The biggest problem is the dialogue, which sometimes reads like a ninth grader wrote it. Jack and Rose famously say each other’s names a whole bunch. I don’t mind this so much as the groaning one-liners (”a woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets”) and a few shitty anachronism jokes (”Something Picasso? He’ll never amount to anything”). But even the dialogue that isn’t actively bad is rarely good or special. There’s a difference between bad dialogue and a bad story, and Titanic is a great demonstration of that gap.
There’s also some story cruft in these 197 minutes. For example, Rose exits a lifeboat at the last moment not once but twice. Why repeat that beat? There’s a lot of business in the second half of the film around Rose and Jack getting framed for the theft of the diamond that feels a lot less interesting than that type of stuff did before the boat hit an iceberg.
The most peculiar narrative element to me, and frankly, the most inessential, is the framing story, taking place in the present day. For starters, the opening portion of the framing story spoils multiple plot points of the flashback, including Rose’s survival (okay) and the fact that she ends up taking Jack’s name (less okay). It also lays out the entire mechanics of the crash and sinking before we get to witness it in the flashback. It’s like someone narrating a Wikipedia article as the opener to a huge blockbuster, rendered as a three minute CGI demonstration. I suppose the idea is to make sure that the audience has the basic historical knowledge that fuels the story. It also serves a thematic purpose: It provides a contrast between understanding as fact a boat crash happened a century ago without fully processing the humanity behind it.
I still think it’s tedious. The footage of the real-life Titanic wreck is cool the first time through. But on re-watches I’m always itching to get to 1912 during those opening 20 minutes. I don’t think it’s a surprise that one of the most popular fan edits of Titanic floating around the web, subtitled The Maiden Voyage, cuts out all of the present scenes, shortening the films by a solid 35 minutes. Then again, the other most popular fan edit is an extended edition that throws in every deleted scene, ballooning the film to almost four hours, so maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s easiest just to embrace it all as part of the overall experience of Titanic. You need to be ride-or-die, everything-or-nothing. “You can be blasé about some things, Rose, but not about Titanic.”
Here’s what it boils down to: When I think of the things I want to experience when I go to a movie theater, they’re pretty much all raised to their apotheosis form in Titanic. Heartbreak and romance and thrills and a sense of humanity plastered across a giant silver screen. I want “king of the world” images and “never let go” drama.
And so Titanic is one of those rare films whose strengths are so astounding that it bowls over every flaw and complaint I might have. It’s a transcendent film. Near, far, wherever you are, forever and ever, amen.