(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)
It still remember seeing “Titanic” 25 years ago. Despite being directed by the same guy who did such “manly” movies as “The Terminator”, “Aliens”, and “True Lies”, I remember dismissing “Titanic” as little more that a cornball romance set aboard the ill-fated British passenger liner. Well, it kinda is that.
But it was also a James Cameron movie meaning it would be an enormous blockbuster spectacle unlike anything done before. Sporting a whopping $200 million production budget, “Titanic” was easily the most expensive at the time. It became the first film ever to reach $1 billion at the box office and remained the highest grossing film of all-time until it was passed by 2019’s “Avatar”, yet another Cameron extravaganza.
“Titanic” truly is two movies fused into one – a sudsy love story and an epic disaster film. In addition to directing, producing, and editing, Cameron wrote the script, incorporating numerous historical details into his story. He also included several real-life characters including “The Unsinkable” Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), the vessel’s architect and shipbuilder Thomas Andrews (Victor Gerber), Captain Edward John Smith (Bernard Hill), and the ship’s bandmaster Wallace Hartley (Jonathan Evans-Jones), among several others.
But at its core “Titanic” is a fictional love story anchored by its two young stars. In 1997 Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, both barely over 20-years-old at the time of their casting, had already gained notoriety and each had already earned Academy Award nominations for supporting roles, him for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and her for “Sense and Sensibility”. But “Titanic” catapulted them both into Hollywood stardom (Winslet’s performance earned her a second Oscar nomination).
While Winslet’s Rose DeWitt Bukater and DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson were purely fictional, several things about their characters and circumstances were rooted in reality. Cameron gave a lot of attention to the class distinctions between the two leads. Jack was a poor aspiring artist who won his third-class ticket on the Titanic in a poker game. Rose was the upper-class fiancé to an older and wealthy heir (played by Billy Zane), a relationship encouraged by her widowed mother (Frances Fisher) who was desperate to maintain her high-end social status.
For Cameron, realistically portraying the Titanic was vital, and he felt a great responsibility to get it right. He poured a lot of time, effort, and budget into researching and recreating the Titanic’s interiors and exterior. The ship was reconstructed to full scale, and Cameron, along with his production designer Peter Lamont, followed archived blueprints and old photographs to capture the liner’s luxurious original designs. The meticulous attention to detail is as remarkable as it is impressive, and understanding what all went into accurately representing the Titanic really enhances the experience.
Meanwhile Winslet and DiCaprio fleshed out what would become one of cinema’s most well-known tragic love stories. Rose and Jack’s tale of forbidden love has its share of mushy moments. But Cameron never pushes it too far, and there is lots of compelling dressing surrounding their romance in the form of interesting characters, side stories, and themes. The good casting doesn’t hurt either, starting with Winslet and DiCaprio. And I can’t say enough about the often underappreciated Billy Zane. He’s a bit of a mustache-twirling cartoon (minus the mustache) which is one reason I like him so much. He’s possessive, conceited, and snobbish and Zane hits every single vile or despicable mark.
Then of course you have the second half which combines powerful emotional beats with pure moviemaking extravagance. As the film shifts to disaster movie mode, we again see Cameron pushing the boundaries of special effects. Much like with “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” and “The Abyss”, he once again took digital technology in some groundbreaking new directions. But just as impressive are the incredible practical effects that included elaborate miniatures, a 5,000,000 gallon water tank, and some extraordinary set design. And all of it to create the most realistic rendering of the Titanic disaster ever put on screen.
“Titanic” would go on to earn 14 Academy Award nominations, winning eleven including Best Picture and Best Director for Cameron. To its credit the movie has stood the proverbial test of time. I still find the central romance a bit too syrupy at times, but it’s hard not to be moved by where it goes. And you can say what you want about James Cameron, but he makes movies that people want to go see. Whether they’re about a blue-skinned indigenous tribe on a faraway planet or a love story set aboard a doomed luxury liner in 1912.