Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Titanic (Photo: Paul Harris/Getty Images, Screenshot)

At the height of the cynical ’90s, Titanics heartfelt spectacle became king of the world

Titanic (Photo: Paul Harris/Getty Images, Screenshot)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

The Popcorn Champ

The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?

It’s the string quartet that really gets me. The passengers are running around, screaming, doing everything they can to get onto the few remaining lifeboats, and the musicians, who have been placidly playing jaunty music the whole time, finally decide that it’s time to move on, to either live or die. But bandleader, Wallace Hartley—a real guy, who really lived—begins to play the somber 19th-century hymn “Nearer, My God, To Thee,” as his colleagues walk away. They all hesitate, turn around, and rejoin Hartley. In their last act on Earth, they work together to make art, to pray, and to lend grace and beauty to other people’s dying moments.

When the string quartet plays, director James Cameron does not ease up on his sweeping scenes of mass chaos, but he does let the chaos take a new dimension. As the hymn softly weeps over the soundtrack, we see other people accepting their deaths. These people—the shipbuilder staring at the clock, the old couple huddled up on the bed together, the mother telling a story to her children—have been there the whole time, usually in the background. Cameron’s been telling a story of melodramatic young love, and none of these people have had much of a role to play. But when the hymn plays, they all get their own quiet moments of dignity. It’s a lovely little gesture, if anything in Titanic can be termed “little.”

In real life, it was an eight-piece band, not a string quartet, and nobody is entirely certain what their last song was. They played as the ship sank and the passengers boarded the lifeboats, and then every last one of them died. One witness claimed that he saw Hartley, in his final moments, telling his bandmates, “Gentlemen, I bid you farewell.” That’s not quite “Gentlemen, it has been a privilege playing with you tonight,” but it’s pretty good. Hartley and his band instantly became a part of folklore around the sinking of RMS Titanic. Nearly 40 years before Cameron’s Titanic, Roy Ward Baker included a strikingly similar scene in his own big-budget Titanic picture, A Night To Remember.

Cameron didn’t have to invent the scene with the string quartet; it was right there for him. Still, that stately and old-fashioned tear-jerking moment says a whole lot about what he was able to accomplish with Titanic. The mid-’90s were a cynical time at the movies. Everyone wanted to be Tarantino. A year and a half before Titanic, Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day had pioneered the art of glib wisecracking in the face of mass death. A movie like Independence Day didn’t want to get you emotionally involved in the lives of its characters. It just wanted you to have fun watching the world burn. Cameron, by contrast, made about the least cynical film imaginable.

Cameron could do cynical. He had, after all, just made True Lies, an absurd and over-the-top Schwarzenegger action flick that had been the No. 3 movie at the 1994 box office. Cameron was fine with wisecracks. But even at his most chaotic, he has always been careful to make you feel the helpless final moments of even his most minor characters—the other Sarah Connor in The Terminator, the doomed Marines in Aliens, the poor mall-worker guy who gets gunned down in the crossfire in Terminator 2. In Titanic, Cameron gives us bodies spinning through black space, bodies crushed under falling debris or trapped or drowned, frozen bodies bobbing in an inky sea. You feel all of them.

Cameron had to be an absolute freak to make Titanic. He had to become obsessed enough with deep-sea diving, and with Titanic’s rediscovered wreck, to start taking submarines down to the bottom of the ocean to film it. His brother had to help invent a camera that could survive the water pressure. Cameron had to risk his life repeatedly to keep visiting the old hulk. He eventually spent more time around the boat than the passengers themselves had.

Cameron knew that he needed a human story to center the whole spectacle, so he banged out a romance about two star-crossed kids from opposite sides of the tracks. But more than the actual humans in the story, Cameron was into scale and accuracy. He built giant models and massive water tanks. He forced his actors to float around in frigid water for days at a time. He gave Kate Winslet hypothermia. The director invited calamity, like the bizarre story where a disgruntled crew member dosed the chowder at catering with PCP, sending dozens to the hospital. Along the way, Cameron spent hundreds of millions, taking his production far over budget.

Before Titanic came out, plenty of people, Cameron included, thought the film might be a historic flop. This was just two years after Kevin Costner blew all his Dances With Wolves goodwill on Waterworld, a gill-man Mad Max that had been the most expensive movie ever made before Titanic came along. To anyone paying attention, Titanic looked like a work of hubris almost as grand as the building of the actual Titanic itself. (Even adjusted for inflation, he spent more making the movie than the White Star Line had spent making the real boat.) Instead, Titanic became the biggest cinematic cultural phenomenon that I have ever been alive to witness.

Like a lot of teenagers who dug Tarantino, I was convinced that Titanic was going to be too stupid to be worth my time or money. A few weeks after its opening, though, it became clear that I was missing out on something. I tried to go see the movie with my dad a couple of times, and it was always sold out. Finally, we went to the theater hours before showtime and bought tickets. (Life was different before online ticket sales.) When we came back to watch the movie, we had to sit in the aisles. Enough other people had bought tickets to other movies and snuck into the Titanic showroom that there were no seats left.

It was like this for months. You just could not get in to see this movie. There weren’t enough theaters. You had to plan your whole day around it. People did. They kept going back again and again to keep watching—five, six, 10 times. The movie transcended blockbuster. It became a sort of mass catharsis, a secular religious rite. People would just go see it so that they could cry. I watched people well up with tears when “My Heart Will Go On” came on their car radios. I watched people bawling while recounting scenes from the movies to their friends at school the next day. There must’ve been some kind of collective demand to feel something, and Titanic became that something.

It opened in mid-December of 1997, and it was still the No. 1 movie at the box office in March, when it won 11 Oscars, enough to tie Ben-Hur for the most ever. (A few years later, the last Lord Of The Rings movie would make it a three-way tie.) Nothing was able to knock Titanic out of the No. 1 spot until the weird-ass Lost In Space film came out in April. When the giant two-tape VHS edition of Titanic finally came out in September 1998, the movie was still playing in theaters.

The night Titanic won all those Oscars was the night that Elliott Smith somehow wound up onstage at the Kodak Theatre. Smith, the tremulous indie singer-songwriter who would die by suicide five years later, had contributed a song called “Miss Misery,” among others, to Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting. Good Will Hunting had been a surprise hit, and Smith had been nominated for Best Original Song. That’s why he was up there, looking small and uncomfortable, playing his acoustic guitar and singing his beautiful song. Immediately after he got done, the dry ice fired up, and Celine Dion howled “My Heart Will Go On” in front of a white-clad orchestra who played on some kind of imitation ship deck.

Smith later said that Dion was truly kind to him, that she helped ease his nerves even though she must’ve been feeling plenty anxious, too. But the metaphor is too obvious to ignore. Titanic was Celine Dion. Every other movie was Elliott Smith. Men In Black, the year’s No. 2 film, was a huge hit, but it earned much less than half of what Titanic made.

For Titanic to do what it did, a million happy accidents had to fall into place. For instance: Jared Leto, reportedly Cameron’s top choice for the role of Jack, had to refuse to even audition. (Claire Danes was also considered for Rose. There’s an alternate reality where Titanic is a My So-Called Life reunion.) Then Cameron had to find Leonardo DiCaprio, picking him only after people like Billy Crudup and Stephen Dorff had turned the role down. Then Cameron had to convince DiCaprio to leave behind his actorly pretensions and play Jack as a floppy-haired, sensitive-eyed teen idol, a dream boyfriend.

Titanic might be the most straightforward piece of acting that DiCaprio has ever done, at least since he was on Growing Pains. He’s often quite bad in Titanic. (That speechifying that he does while he’s all covered in frost and dying in the water? Terrible!) But DiCaprio does what the movie needs. He looks very, very pretty, and he dies. This was enough to turn the cerebral young indie-film actor into a circa-1964 Beatle. (It’s probably not a coincidence that the TRL boy-band boom started up a year or so after Titanic. Millions of kids were chasing that feeling, looking for something to scream about. Nick Carter had the right floppy blond haircut at the right time.) From a certain perspective, everything that DiCaprio has done since is a reaction to what happened with Titanic—a rejection of that hysteria, or a commentary on it.

And yet the real protagonist of Titanic is Rose, and Kate Winslet’s performance is the best human-level thing about the movie. Winslet essentially badgered Cameron into giving her the part, writing and calling him every day, and that’s what won her the role over people like Gwyneth Paltrow and Winona Ryder. Winslet throws herself into it with poise and charm and physicality. She’s graceful, but she’s also desperate; I love the shot of her running down a flooding hallway with an ax to go save Jack. In moments like that, Rose is Cameron’s new Sarah Connor: a tough woman driven and determined to save a cute, squinty boy.

Most of 1997’s biggest box office successes—even the high-concept and spectacle-driven ones—were essentially movie-star vehicles. That’s true whether those stars were doing comedy (Jim Carrey in Liar Liar, Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding) or action (Harrison Ford in Air Force One, Nicolas Cage and John Travolta both going fucknuts in Face/Off). Men In Black lives and dies on Will Smith’s ability to radiate bemused cool and to crackle alongside Tommy Lee Jones. Some of the year’s movie stars were relatively new, like dewy young Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting. Some were long-established, like Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. (The one big exception to what I’m talking about is probably The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and even there you can make a case for the T. rex as the movie’s star.)

Titanic has its stars. The various character actors who populate the ship tend to fade into the background when DiCaprio and Winslet are on screen. Much of the interaction between Jack and Rose is truly hacky, like their meet-cute via suicide attempt, or the way Rose, apparently enough of an art expert to recognize greatness in a young Picasso, flips out over Jack’s basic-ass drawings, which had been done by Cameron himself. Titanic is a well-written movie in terms of pace and structure, of telling us what we need to know when we need to know it. It’s not a well-written movie in terms of dialogue. But through presence and charisma, DiCaprio and Winslet make you care about these baby goobers in love anyway. Cameron lets their whole melodrama play out for so long that you almost forget the boat’s about to sink.

Almost none of the other actors in Titanic are even really allowed to pop. But a few make an impression, like Gloria Stuart, the 87-year-old silent-film veteran who played the 100-year-old Rose. At the time, she became the oldest person ever to be nominated for an Oscar. And then there’s the matter of Billy Zane, who does a variation on his maritime psychopath from the great 1989 Aussie thriller Dead Calm and who threatens to walk away with the movie a few times. Zane’s character doesn’t always make sense. If he hates Rose as much as he seems to, for instance, then why does he keep trying to save her? And then kill her? But Zane is so big, and his mustache-twirling theatrics fit the movie’s tone beautifully. He’s exactly the piece of shit he needs to be.

Zane is big because Titanic is big. It is, in fact, titanic. Cameron takes more than three hours to tell his puffed-up death opera, and he never quite loses thread of the story or control of the tone. Cameron tells stories through visceral images — the signal flares lighting up the sky like fireworks, the water eerily creeping down hallways, the diamond finally plonking down into the water. And he gets his perspective in, too. It remains amazing that the guy behind many of the biggest and most expensive movies of all time is so visibly suspicious of corporations. In the Cameron filmography, the White Star Line takes a place right alongside anti-human money machines like Cyberdyne and Weyland-Yutani.

That perspective is one of the reasons that Titanic remains extremely watchable now, even with all its eye-roll moments. Mostly, though, it’s still good because it was always good. That scene with the string quartet? You don’t see something like that in a bad movie. James Cameron knows what he’s doing. That’s why he’ll be in this column again.

The runner-up: In 1997, Good Will Hunting was a feel-good blockbuster—a little indie film, written by two best buds, that went on to win Oscar gold and make careers. It doesn’t quite feel like that now. There’s too much Weinstein in the narrative, and the best bits became tropes too quickly. Honestly, Good Will Hunting isn’t all that different from Titanic, another relatively conventional coming-of-age romance built around a movie-star performance from a handsome young guy who would eventually be in The Departed. Still, Good Will Hunting remains a really good conventional coming-of-age romance, and its best scenes, overplayed as they might be, still sing.

Next time: Steven Spielberg’s gore-soaked war-valor tale Saving Private Ryan just barely edges out Michael Bay’s Armageddon, a very different summer spectacle.