Even between the ridiculous base characterizations, the awful dialogue and the Harlequin romance-novel plotting, there’s a spark in 'Titanic' that can’t be denied. It’s the reason why it became the biggest film of all time. It’s partly James Cameron’s skills in creating a spectacle for the big screen, in the fashion of David O. Selznick and Cecil B. DeMille, but it's more about the undeniable chemistry between Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, who make every heavy handed, on-the-nose line believable and sincere. This is why 'Titanic' remains a supremely watchable guilty pleasure.
Titanic (1997) dir. James Cameron
Starring: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kathy Bates, Billy Zane, David Warner, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton
By Alan Bacchus
James Cameron wanted Titanic to be his Doctor Zhivago, and so, like David Lean, the film begins in present day and flashes back to retrace the memories of a tragic love story against the background of a large-scale historical event. The opening introduces Rose (Gloria Stuart), who is brought aboard the ship of a treasure hunter looking for a lost diamond necklace from the wreckage of the Titanic. Rose recounts the story of her fateful trip in 1912 to the high-tech treasure hunters.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jack, a poor American looking for a ride back to his homeland. He wins his ticket during a game of poker, hops on the boat in the nick of time and sails off. When he rescues the lovely erudite Rose from a suicide attempt he becomes the local hero and finds himself hobnobbing with the upper-class elite, namely Rose’s impudent fiancé, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Longing glances from across tables turn into gleeful flirting around the boat and then passionate sweaty sex in the back of a car. Then, of course, the boat hits an iceberg and the crew and passengers have one hour to get off before it sinks. Despite numerous attempts by Cal to separate them, Rose and Jack stay together all the way into the freezing cold water where their fleeting romance will eventually go down with the ship.
Indeed, much of the film is clunky as hell and the sappy paperback romance is replete with some of the worst dialogue and two-dimensional characterizations, but James Cameron has a knack for good casting, and his lead actors are so likeable the dialogue is more than tolerable. In 1997, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were young, and though not household names, they were both already Oscar-nominated actors. DiCaprio is just about the perfect everyman and Kate Winslet, who was practically born in a corset, falls into her character like an old shoe. Together sparks are palpable, something only the big screen can create.
Looking back, Billy Zane as Cal Hockley is still grating and nearly unwatchable. His performance is so bad, despite being the biggest movie ever made, it was a career killer. Virtually every word out of his mouth is like bile.
With the star-crossed lover romance firmly in place and the antagonists identified, once the ship starts going down the tech-master Cameron takes over and delivers an awesome 90-minute disaster sequence. It’s an Irwin Allen extravaganza with every penny of its $200 million budget on the screen. Cameron had a gimballed full-scale replica of Titanic docked in a man-made tank in Mexico. Some of the CG effects during the first half of the film look cartoony now, but everything blends in well during the nighttime scenes. My favourite moment is that poor digital person who falls and gets hit by the propeller on his way into the water. The three editors, one of whom is Cameron himself, deserve much of the reward for cutting together the moments of disaster-related suspense with the emotional anguish of joining Rose and Jack together.
For intrepid cinephiles I highly recommend going back to Roy Ward Baker’s take on the Titanic story, 1958’s A Night to Remember, now on Criterion Blu-ray. Imagine Titanic without the love story. You will find many similarities between the two films, including several blatantly stolen shots from the 1958 version. The production value is surprisingly high. Check it out.
Okay, so take out Leo’s “I’m king of the world” line, Billy Zane and maybe Danny Nucci, and you have a perfectly enjoyable film. Leave them both in there and chew some potato chips over those moments and you still have a fine film.
Titanic is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment in Canada.