Blessed be they who categorize, for they know that there are two kinds of people: those who didn't like TITANIC, and those for whom the film has become an obsession -- Titaniacs who dissect every shot, every line, every nuance of this deceptively conventional film. This reviewer, yes I must confess, fell into the latter camp.
For most of 1997, critics were salivating at the delicious prospect of panning what was believed to be James Cameron's boondoggle -- a $200 million motion picture in which we know the ending even before the picture is released; a production plagued with cost overruns, temper tantrums, and even PCP-laced seafood chowder.
A scene in which the script-sell took place would read like something out of Robert Altman's THE PLAYER: "Let's combine DIE HARD with Romeo and Juliet...but yeah, let's set it on the Titanic! It's a teenage love story, so we need young actors no one has heard of, with no box-office clout, and the audience knows going in most of what happens." It sounds unworkable, so who would blame the critics, and the rest of us, for being skeptical?
Instead, James Cameron has given us arguably the most unforgettable motion picture experience in a generation. His flawed masterpiece TITANIC invites, and deserves, comparison to grand, sweeping epics of years past. From the first shot of the heroine's face peering out from under a huge hat (a star-making shot right out of NOW, VOYAGER) to the don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-something ending, the film sucks you into the lives of its protagonists. Once Cameron has made you care about these fictional people, you then care by extension about the fates of the over 1500 real people who died that cold night in 1912, putting the viewer into complete emotional overload. He grabs your heart right out by its roots and then doesn't even have the decency to give it back to you after the film ends.
The triumph of TITANIC is not that it is perfect, but that it so deeply touches the viewer in spite of its glaring flaws. At three hours and fourteen minutes, it is two films in one: a conventional rich-girl-loves-poor-boy love story and an action film complete with the obligatory slow-motion-run in-front-of-the-[fill-in-the-blank] (in this case, rushing water). In theory, both are so hokey and so "been there, done that", that neither one should work. In actuality, both work marvelously, to the point that you, the viewer, can willingly suspend sufficient
disbelief that you actually find yourself hoping that history will change and the ship just might miss that iceberg.
How does such an unpromising premise become a picture that causes even hard cynics like myself who guffaw with derisive laughter at tearjerkers such as TERMS OF ENDEARMENT and STEEL MAGNOLIAS to exit the theatre weeping? How does such a hokey plot become The Film That Launched a Thousand Fan Fictions, causing otherwise rational people to ruminate for well-nigh onto two years on the emotions and life of the lead character's life after the picture ends? How does such a mass of cliches cause women to go home and hug their husbands; cause football-crazed men to sniffle surreptitiously into
their Kleenex; drive college students to change their majors in an effort to "make it count"? How did this film become a national obsession? Some have seen this movie three, four, five, even seven times, finding something new each time. Some have purchased multiple copies of the video -- in both formats -- and the DVD too, just for good measure. Still others say they can still weep at the mere thought of certain scenes almost two years later. Are we undergoing some sort of collective permanent sobfest in the post-Diana era, or is something else at work here?
By now you all know the story, not just of the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, but of Rose DeWitt Bukater and Jack Dawson. She is a 17-year-old Philadelphia society girl engaged to marry the odious Cal
Hockley, an arrogant, inherited-money upper-class twit with a George Plimpton accent. Jack is a freewheeling artist of about 19, on his own since age 15, who wins his third-class passage on Titanic in a poker game. They meet, they fall in love, and then the Titanic sinks, sending over 1500 passengers, most of them second and third class passengers, to a frozen death in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
The framing device for the story is the search by fictional Titanic explorer Brock Lovett for a rare blue diamond necklace, known as the "Heart of the Ocean." Lovett's voice-over as the camera surveys mostly footage of the actual wreck is a cynical, pompous rant about the majesty of the wreck for the benefit of video cameras, when what he is really looking for is booty. He and his staff, including the obligatory smart-assed, overweight, Hawaiian-shirted, bearded computer geek, find a safe believed to contain the sought-after necklace. They raise
the safe to the surface, but find no diamond. What they do find is a drawing of a young woman wearing nothing but the necklace...and the drawing is dated April 15, 1912.
Rose Dawson Calvert, age 101, sees a CNN report about the finding of the drawing. She is the woman in the drawing. That she knows what the necklace is called convinces Lovett that she is the "real deal", and this sets up the plot for Rose to tell her story of Titanic...and of the love she lost on that night so many years ago.
Far from the Dickensian Miss Havisham, or Aunt Ada Doom in COLD COMFORT FARM, who saw something nasty in the woodshed, the aged Rose is obviously a woman who has lived well, and she begins to spin her tale of horror, tragedy and lost love. Gloria Stuart, a Depression-era film actress who retired in 1939, makes a stunning comeback in this role. Her Rose becomes a griot to this small village of explorers, enlightening them to the human stories surrounding about this tragedy. Shot against a backdrop of television monitors displaying
the wreck of the ship, she is as much an artifact as anything found at the wreck site.
Jack, (Leonardo DiCaprio) is introduced to us in a more prosaic way, as with his completely gratuitous Italian companion Fabrizio, he wins two steerage tickets on Titanic's maiden voyage. He looks like the brash, optimistic, excited kid that he is. DiCaprio is adorable in this role, one which arguably has ruined a promising acting career by turning a prodigious talent into a Movie Star. He tries mightily, and
indeed only an actor of DiCaprio's skill could turn this literary conceit and the awful dialogue Cameron has written for him into anything approaching a flesh-and-blood character.
DiCaprio manages to make this character who can charm a room full of upper-class stiffs, pursue one of their women by letting her steer the relationship, ride a sinking ship into the icy North Atlantic as though it's a rollercoaster, and ultimately sacrifice his life so his new love can live hers to the fullest, totally believable. That said, DiCaprio's biggest drawback is that at age 23 when the film was made, he still looks about sixteen. And while Jack is written to be about age 19, he looks so much younger than Kate Winslet that it does a disservice to this exquisite actress.
Jack is a character that exists only in fiction, a knight errant, a savior, who must die for someone else's sins. This "savior" theme resonates throughout the film with an eerie prescience, as the exuberant Jack stands poised at the bow of the ship, arms outstretched in a pose that is by turns blissful and reminiscent of a crucifixion. Throughout the film, Cameron films DiCaprio suffused in a sort of golden glow, in contrast to the sallow, washed-out evil fiance Cal (Billy Zane).
Rose (Kate Winslet) is quickly revealed to be miserably unhappy. Smoking a cigarette in a long holder at lunch in defiance of both her mother and fiance, she looks as if she can't wait for 1920 to come so she can bob her hair, hike her skirts, and turn into Louise Brooks. She leaves the table and goes outside for air, where Jack, sketching other passengers, sees her for the first time. Jack sees Rose and his eyes stay locked on her. She looks at him briefly, then looks away. Despite the worlds that exist between the first-class and third-class decks, you just know that they will meet cute.
Winslet is luminous. From the first shot of this glamorous, haughty girl in the killer suit and hat to the cold, bedraggled, wet urchin disembarking from the Carpathia, she is riveting as Rose. Media reports to the contrary, it is THIS performance and THIS character, not DiCaprio, that kept women of all ages going back to the theatre to see this film again and again, and keeps them writing story after story about what happened in between "young Rose" and "old Rose". She looks wonderful and not in the least anachronistic in the period costumes. Unlike many British actors, who paint their American portrayals with a very broad brush, she makes Rose a very believable upper-crust American. (Kathy Bates' Molly Brown is more akin to the British notion of Americans.) A million light-years away from the Uma Thurman-type of blonde waif that seems to have a lock on most romantic leads in todays films, Winslet is positively Rubenesque by today's standards, but perfect for the time period...and the character. Tightly corseted and almost literally bursting out of her dresses, her physical presence is a metaphor for her emotional and logistical bondage as well.
Winslet is either the best actress of the last thirty years, or despite her many public and emphatic denials, she was utterly besotted with her young co-star during the filming. From the moment she first gazes into DiCaprio's eyes as he helps her rescue herself from an accidental fall following her aborted suicide attempt until the moment she lets go of his dead hands in the sea, she pulls the audience into what Rose is feeling toward this utterly irrestible, but totally unsuitable young man every step of the way. Every moment in your own life in which you felt
excitement and ambivalence about following your heart comes rushing back, no matter how long ago it was. When people describe their confusion about having feelings about this film so similar to being "in love", it is because you as the viewer do not watch Rose, you ARE Rose. Indeed, so much of the film is shot from her perspective, YOU are running and sobbing toward the stern railing to end it all; YOU are with an exciting young man "flying" on the bow of the ship (in arguably one of the most romantic scenes every captured on film), YOU are perceiving the priceless diamond necklace as a yoke of slavery. Yet still, Winslet's best moments are when she says nothing and lets her eyes do the talking. Her despair at realizing what Cal
expects from her in return for the gift of the priceless diamond; her attempts to contain her joy at seeing Jack resplendent in his borrowed tuxedo at the foot of the first-class Grand Staircase; her excitement tinged with embarrassment as Jack sketches her nude, her transformation from grief to steely determination with such subtlety that it is barely detectable as she realizes that Jack is dead and she must save herself -- it is an astonishing achievement for this young actress.
If Rose and Jack seem vaguely familiar, aside from the done-to-death theme of their story, it is because Cameron has written these characters before. The theme of a young woman living an ordinary life who finds the strength within herself as the result of a doomed relationship with a young warrior/knight first appears in Cameron's portfolio in THE TERMINATOR, in the personages of Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese. While some feminists have decried that Sarah/Rose needs a man (Kyle/Jack) to find her own strength, the fact remains that Rose is merely a more extended characterization of the "warrior princess" into Linda Hamilton evolves in the TERMINATOR movies, and undoubtedly the most fully-written female character in recent years. In fact, it is difficult to believe that either Jack or Rose was created by a man, as Jack (a more developed character than Kyle Reese) is a complete female fantasy: a fabulous looking 19-year-old male who is not just a perfect gentleman; allowing the object of his affections to drive the sexual part of the relationship; but also brave, true of heart, and capable of deep and utterly selfless love and devotion. Who could ask for anything more? Some critics of the film have decried Cameron's emphasis on the fictional story rather than the stories of the real people who died. Because we become so involved with Jack and Rose, it is easy to lose track of the memorable performances recreating some of those historic moments.
Most notable among these is Victor Garber; a multifaceted actor whose characterization of Thomas Andrews, the ships designer, is one of those small performances that steals a picture right out from under its stars. It is a masterpiece of understated, yet powerful acting. Even though you know that the ship will sink, when Garber says quietly of the doomed ship: "She is made of iron sir. I assure you, she can. And she will. It is a mathematical certainty," you are as shocked as J. Bruce Ismay must have been. He is the only member of the upper crust who treats Jack like a human being; and when the ship is sinking and he quietly resets the clock, having abandoned all hope, your heart breaks for him.
The other notable performance is violinist Jonathan Evans-Jones as bandleader Wallace Hartley. As the band plays its last notes,
and he says quietly: "Gentlemen, it has been a privilege playing with you this evening", you forget that this line is stolen almost verbatim from APOLLO 13. This one line drives home the sacrifice of the many staff and crew whose vain efforts to keep the ship going cost them their lives -- the waiters, cooks, and maids, the men stoking the furnaces up to the last moment in an effort to keep the electric lights on.
How can one review TITANIC without discussing the special effects? Because after two years, four theatre viewings, at least four more video/cable viewings, umpteen million TV specials on "how they did it", a the trade rag Cinefex #72, the Illustrated Screenplay, and on and on ad nauseum, they are almost beside the point. Cameron has essentially rebuilt Titanic for this film, and for Titanic rivetheads, the
first time you see the promendade decks, the first-class dining room, and especially the Grand Staircase, is almost a religious experience. Cameron has even incorporated a famous photograph of a young boy playing with a top into the film. I know I will never again be able to watch the excellent A&E documentary on the subject without seeing DiCaprio in a tuxedo at the top of the staircase. The morph shots from the wreck to the new ship and back again, and of young Rose's eye into old Rose's eye. are heartbreaking, drawing you into an uncomfortable realization not just of the tragedy but also of the passage of time and of your own aging. In putting the viewer on the ship, instead of dispassionately in the lifeboats, as in earlier films, you experience the terror those left behind after all the boats had left. For the first time, the over fifteen hundred stranded people scrambling vainly to survive in the subfreezing water are portrayed in full, and it is a horrifying sight.
Has Cameron ignored those who died? Hardly; they are all there in the water; even the nameless, faceless third class passengers. We hear their cries slowly die out, and when Officer Lowe (Ioan Gruffudd, lately seen in HORATIO HORNBLOWER) in the only boat to go back in an attempt to rescue survivors rows through the sea of bodies, the magnitude of the loss is like being slapped in the face.
It is a credit to the vision of James Cameron, who in telling Titanic's story for the umpteenth time, realized the importance of telling it from the viewpoint of those on the ship. By the time the ship sinks, you actually feel as if you have experienced the exhilirating highs and devastating lows that Rose has experienced over 48 hours -- the sexual tension, the fear, the terror, and the grief -- and you are just as drained and exhausted. Cameron mitigates some of this by panning across a group of photographs of Rose's life -- "a life lived well", as the screenplay indicates, providing a moment of uplift at the end of this tragic story of arrogance, loss, and death. Yet her [dream?] reunion with Jack and the others who died on the ship serves primarily to underscore the tragedy, as the many familiar faces are seen alive again.
I would like to believe that more than 85 years after Titanic's sinking, at least some of the buckets of the tears shed by the people who continue to devour this film are at least partially tears of mourning for the forgotten victims -- the men in all classes who put their wives
and children on lifeboats and then went down with the ship; the women who refused to leave their husbands, and the many second class and steerage passengers-- men, women and children -- who never made it to the boat decks. I know I have thought about these people every night since December 26, 1997, when I first saw