The Best Picture Project — Titanic (1997)

The film poster shows a man and a woman hugging over a picture of the Titanic's bow. In the background is a partly cloudy sky and at the top are the names of the two lead actors. The middle has the film's name and tagline, and the bottom contains a list of the director's previous works, as well as the film's credits, rating, and release date.Directed by James Cameron

Screenplay by James Cameron

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, David Warner, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Bill Paxton and Gloria Stuart

I saw Titanic in it’s first weekend in release, on Christmas Day 1997.  I distinctly remember this because I’d never seen a movie theater lobby so overrun with people before, nor had I ever been forced to sit in the third row from the front on the leftmost aisle before.  Spending three-plus hours leaning back and craning my neck to the right was hardly the ideal way to see the film and yet, it did not stop me from recognizing this was a seminal moment for me in film.[1]

And surely, given how it was such a cultural phenomenon, I’m not the only one who was captivated by Titanic[2].  In fact, it’s fair to say the whole world was captivated by it[3]  , given it was the first film to do more than $2 billion at the global box office[4].

William shakespeares romeo and juliet movie poster.jpgFortunately, because everybody has seen the movie, and probably more than once, there’s really no point going through a beat-by-beat plot description for Titanic other than to say it’s Romeo and Juliet on a sinking boat.[5]  Sure, some of the details may be changed[6], but on the whole, that’s the story.  One part Romeo and Juliet, one part sinking ship, one part $2 billion in receipts.

And given the money it made, and the fact it won Best Picture, there’s no point in spending a lot of time talking about the film, right?  Because when you have the intersection of that much money and that many awards[7], that awards must mean it’s the greatest film of all time, right?

Ah, if only things were that simple…

Look, given the cultural force it became , Titanic is a difficult movie to write about.  On the one hand, there’s the temptation to take the piss out of something that made that kind of money — $2 billons temptations.  On the other hand, it’s tempting to be an apologist and declare the movie is perfect because it’s flawed, which is an oxymoronic argument, but one that actually makes sense.

Luckily, I’m neither a hater, nor an apologist.  I’m somebody who genuinely likes the movie but, at the same time, cringes at the shadier aspects because, fairly, Titanic is a flawed film.  And since I’ve said flawed film, let’s start with what I don’t like.

Hater

The biggest, easiest and truest thing to hate about Titanic is the script – after all, every problem in the movie essentially originates there.

“Wait,” you say.  “How can the script be the flaw when the film won Best Picture?”

Except—

Except the question you should ask is, “How amazing would this film have been if the script weren’t holding it back?”

My answer–

“Double Academy Awards!”

Seriously, though, the script for Titanic is not bad, only flawed.  Or, to put it another way, less-than-stellar.  And I’m obviously not the only one who thinks so, because while the movie is tied for most Academy Award nominations ever, and most Academy Awards ever, it wasn’t part of the Screenplay game.

Fun fact: seven  films won Best Picture without having rated a screenplay nomination:  Wings, The Broadway Melody, Grand Hotel, Cavalcade, Hamlet, The Sound of Music and Titanic.

Anyway, so Titanic’s script is less-than-stellar, rife with some of the most leaden exposition every written[8], some seriously clunky dialog and other tone deaf nonsense[9].  Given the precision Cameron brings to the rest of the film, it’s perplexing he didn’t stop and consider bringing on a collaborator, if only to smooth over the clunkier bits in the screenplay[10].  But hey, I guess when you want to be King of the World[11], you get a little precious about your words.

Lover

Okay, so the script is clunky and tends toward melodramatic, but let’s be honest – that’s the point of the film.  We’re not talking about high art here – it is melodrama.  It’s the most controlled and unabashed melodrama in the history of melodrama.  Which is why all the complaints about the performances being a bit broad or on the nose are all wrong – those are exactly the qualities the story calls for.  Yes, there are moments requiring subtlety, such as the Captain and Mr. Andrews silently accepting their fates, and when they come, the performances are subtle.  But on the whole, this is a heightened story and so it needs the broad accent of Kathy Bates and the sniveling oiliness of Billy Zane.

And honestly, I’m fine with the performances being a little less-than-100%-truthful.  After all, if the film were absolutely scrupulous in getting every detail right, including the words the people said, and the way they behaved, the ship’s sinking would not simply be tragic – it would be harrowing.  Which would you rather have, the emotionally rich and entertaining version of Titanic brought to you by James Cameron, or the brutal, accurate and wrenching version of Titanic brought to you by Michael Haneke?  I know the one I’d rather have, but you go ahead and decide for yourself.

Come on, wouldn't this have been a better look?

Come on, wouldn’t this have been a better look?

Anyhow, of all the performances in the film, Billy Zane easily gives my favorite.  No, he’s not subtle[12], but if he was, he’d just wouldn’t be compelling – he’d be ridiculous.  After all, nobody wants to watch a real villain; no, they want the theatrical villain.  And Zane is so endlessly watchable precisely because he goes over-the-top – if he gave any less to his character, he just wouldn’t be effective.  But even as over-the-top as he goes, I’m still a little disappointed he didn’t have a moustache to twirl – that would have been perfect[13].

Just behind Zane my other favorite performance is Frances Fisher as Kate Winslet’s mother.  While Zane gets to be the oily, over-the-top villain, Fisher gets to be the cold as ice number-cruncher.  But rather than be a one-dimensional character – you know, after the money for money’s sake – there’s real depth to her performance.  When she’s manipulating her daughter into marrying Billy Zane, you can see the true, bald fear in her eyes and read it as entirely genuine.  Amazingly, you almost feel bad for her, which is what makes her an outstanding villain.

Aside from the performances, it thrills me a bit that, for being a big effects movie, Titanic plays out for a long time almost like a drawing-room film.  It carries a measured pace and tone and keeps the editing to the minimum, instead drawing  the drama the clash of the two social classes, rather than whiz-bang movie tricks.  In a way, Titanic is almost the disaster movie as art film.

As a side note, almost twenty years on, I’m amazed at how well the effects hold up.  Sure, some could use a bit of polish – and I mean, only a bit – but they convince.  In the end, I suppose that’s what’s most important.

Somewhere Between Love and Hate

For all the sky-rocket-to-stardom Titanic was for Leonardo DiCaprio, his performance is lacking.  Sure, he’s energetic and game, but sadly, that’s not enough to overcome the complete lack of gravity he brings to the proceedings.  Nor does it give him the ability to smolder – something he’s never been able to do.  Unfortunately, this means he has a tendency to come off laughably earnest, like a good, willing puppy.  He’s certainly fun and adventurous, but there always seems to be just a little something missing that makes me doubt Kate Winslet would be so into him she’d suddenly run off with him.

Though, on the issue of DiCaprio, it’s fair to say I’m taking this position as someone not in his target demographic – a straight man.  Perhaps if I were a woman, or into men, he might be everything I dreamed of.  But, as a straight me, he needs to bring something a little more to the party to win my fancy.

Did It Deserve To Win

La confidential.jpgDid it deserve to win – the eternal, essential question of the Best Picture Project.

To answer, in a word – yes.  To answer in a few more words – yes, but just barely.

The main rival for Titanic at the 1997 Oscars was LA Confidential, an outstanding neo-noir, full of the same sort of melodrama and sniveling performances you get in Titanic[14], and if it had won, nobody would have complained.[15]    After all, LA Confidential effectively corralled a sprawling, unfilmable James Ellroy novel into something coherent, direct, and yet, at the same time, completely convoluted.  In other words, it completely changed the source material, while leaving it utterly the same.

It’s a masterwork of controlled direction, one of the few times Curtis Hanson really got to show the world exactly what he could do.  It launched careers, solidified others, and is nearly perfect.

But—

But what I think holds it back, what I truly think  kept it from the winners circle, is the ending.  Sorry, kids, but when Russell Crowe is not dead at the end, when he absolutely should be, the movie falls apart.  Where before it’d tried to be brutal and truthful, in that one moment, it became just another movie.

My advice, if you haven’t seen it before, once the police show up at the motel at the end, and Dudley takes a bullet, end the movie with that scene – you’ll thank me for it.

A Side Note

All is Lost poster.jpgWatched this almost back-to-back with All is Lost, the J.C. Chandor/Robert Redford sinking yacht movie, which made for an interesting double feature of boat sinking movies.  And given both movies filmed in the same tank in Baja Mexico, it seemed appropriate.

For other entries in the Best Picture Project, please go here.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

[1] It also did not stop me from vowing never to see a movie on Christmas Day again, a vow I might wind up breaking now that the Alamo Drafthouse has a location in my town and one can reserve their seats.

[2] It’s interesting to note that the film never made more than $30 million dollars in a given weekend, not even it’s opening weekend.  Sure, it continued to be the number one film for fifteen straight weeks, bringing in roughly $30million a weekend, but in today’s climate of $150 and $200 million opening weekends, a $30 million opening weekend for $200 million costing Titanic would likely get it run as a bomb.

[3] Everybody but my wife, that is, unless the word ‘captivating’ was somehow now defined as ‘long’, ‘dull,’ and ‘boring’.

[4] http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=titanic.htm.

[5] Or, as the little girl in the movie might have me say, a ship.

[6] For instance, there is the whole suicide thing at the ending of Titanic as there is in Romeo and Juliet.

[7] Eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, can’t be wrong, can it?

[8] Okay, I exaggerate.  But still…

[9] I’m the King of the World?

[10] For crying out loud, the movie has three editors – couldn’t he find one other writer?

[11] There it is again.

[12] Far from it.

[13] Though, if I’m honest, his eyebrow work is on-point.

[14] All right, maybe not as sniveling, but close.

[15] Not true, teenage girls probably would have.

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