Winner '97:
First Saw It:
Titanic
December 28, 1997, at the United Artists Fairfax Towne Center in Fairfax, VA, with my dad
Bridesmaids: As Good As It Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, L.A. Confidential
My Vote: L.A. Confidential, though I think Titanic ranks among Oscar's best winners
Overlooked: The Sweet Hereafter, Boogie Nights, Oscar and Lucinda, Donnie Brasco


Titanic

Director: James Cameron. Cast: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Zane, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Frances Fisher, Kathy Bates, Bernard Hill, Victor Garber, David Warner, Danny Nucci, Jason Barry, Suzy Amis, Lewis Abernathy, Jonathan Hyde, Ioan Gruffudd, Jenette Goldstein. Screenplay: James Cameron.

Photo © 1997 20th Century Fox/Paramount Pictures
I'm not convinced that "spectacle" is the ultimate goal of movie-making, but if it were, Titanic would sail straight into the canon of the all-time great cinematic achievements. As it is, the triumphs of Cameron's film are as prodigious (though occasionally as outsize and unwieldy) as the ship itself. His insistence on a broadly populist idiom—framing the whole narrative around a puppy love and a lost diamond—are far more apt than some detractors have admitted. The legend of the Titanic has, after all, survived primarily as a popular-culture horror story and an almost universally recognized myth. Thus, a more esoteric approach might actually have cheated the tale of its unique, fundamental status as a historical event that nonetheless stuck in the world's imagination as something more or different than history.

The movie's attempts to highlight the story's implicit essay on social stratification win points for ambition. Still, the melodramatic flavor of the love story is where the movie's heart obviously lies, extending from the character conceptions to the puerile dialogue to the high-gloss cinematography—I'm thinking of Jack and Rose "flying" at the ship's front rail, sponge-bathed in the Atlantic's most violet sunset. A few generous reviewers have situated Titanic's more sappy conventions as a kind of homage to Titanic-era storytelling, when playhouses and weekly magazines and even the new inventions of the cinema had a shared taste for the tin-type romance. But have tastes really changed so much in the present-day, in our art or in our own private worlds? I tend to think we most often live our lives as though we were plotting a narrative, so however paradoxically, even our moments of fullest emotion are almost necessarily influenced by the portraits of those emotions (fear of dying, struggles against convention, sexual awakening) we have received from art and culture.

Titanic's love story is thus self-consciously styled as the kind of first romance that necessarily traces itself along an inherited image of adult sexual fulfillment. It's that image, after all, with which most teenagers are truly "in love." The crisis of the ship's sinking registers so powerfully, then, because we see how cruelly and uncontrollably the dual "real world"s of physical jeopardy and social edict can intrude on the fairy tales we forever want to write for ourselves. The whole story of the Titanic is about impossible daydreams being punctured by hard facts, and so, in an apt correspondence, Cameron devises a love story that is also impossible, even insipid, before eventually being confronted with a big dose of reality. I certainly think that the kind of picture some have suggested as an alternative to a mawkish romance—i.e., an earnest and less clichéd chronicle of disaster and suffering—would have been both a mighty chore to watch and a mighty over-exaggeration of the actual scope or meaning of the original incident. The plane of the picture would become too flat.

Besides the virtues of its fully justified romanticism, Titanic really moves. Even audiences who found Boogie Nights or The English Patient tedious to sit through will probably forget the passage of time entirely during Titanic, which at 192 minutes is more than half an hour longer than either of the other two films. Cameron and co-editors Conrad Buff and Richard A. Harris have done a marvelous job of balancing the story's threads of romance, history, and action-extravaganza so that none outweighs the others.

Stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are also central to maintaining the film's pace and balance. Yes, Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater are flimsyish characters, but DiCaprio and Winslet still have the formidable challenge as actors to gauge the levels of their performances against the galvanizing visual and technotronic aspects of the film. It is easy in action pictures to literally get caught with your mouth hanging open; Laura Dern proved in Jurassic Park that standing agape is quite enough to get you through a special-effects picture. Cameron's ambition demands more than that, however, and the mission he lays out to DiCaprio and Winslet is that they can a) occupy the screen in the personal scenes and not make us miss the more extravagant spectacles of the ship and its appointments, and b) mute themselves in the action sequences only to the extent that they don't get missed, since a sinking ship isn't too dramatic if we've forgotten about the living, imperiled people onboard. DiCaprio and Winslet, both impeccably cast, fill these tricky double-binds very well, and while no one had me thinking "Oscar," Winslet's nomination is not the total travesty that Gene Siskel, for one, made it out to be.

There are plenty of other things to say about Titanic. Regarding the sociological subtheme, Cameron uses the very structure of the ship—top decks for the wealthy, bottom levels for the poor—to show how interdependent the classes really are. The rich here are literally riding atop the less advantaged, and moreover, the "ship of dreams" would be impossible to build without the massive revenues brought in by selling passage to so many lower-class citizens. The dreamworld of luxury only goes on so long as the rabble will pay for it.

And we, the rabble, are certainly shelling out some bucks for this one. At $500 million and counting, Titanic has become a mass phenomenon to rival the sinking itself, largely because Cameron is a master at populist storytelling. He has shown previously in the Terminator films and the masterful Aliens that he is more than willing to introduce impressive thematic concerns into his movies, not as a distraction from invigorating entertainment but as a requisite element. By contrast, his less successful films like True Lies seem to feel emptier not because the pyrotechnics are missing but because the soulfulness—the soulfulness that he makes entertaining—is gone.

In his notorious audacity, precision, and hubris, we can see shadows of Cameron in his depiction of the builders of the Titanic; in his wonderment at the visual world and his dogged commitment to painting portaits of well familiar subjects, he has colorings of DiCaprio's Jack. Perhaps, though, Cameron is most fully present in his own movie as Brock Lovett, the diamond hunter played by Bill Paxton, frequently segregated as the character with the least obvious relevance to the film. Who knows if the film might still work without this framing device—it certainly might improve with a better-scripted framing device—but Brock, like Cameron, is a man who has made a science out of finding and conveying art where few other men would, or could, ever look. A–


Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: James Cameron
Best Actress: Kate Winslet
Best Supporting Actress: Gloria Stuart
Best Cinematography: Russell Carpenter
Best Art Direction: Peter Lamont; Michael Ford
Best Costume Design: Deborah Lynn Scott
Best Film Editing: Conrad Buff IV, James Cameron, and Richard A. Harris
Best Original Score (Drama): James Horner
Best Original Song: "My Heart Will Go On"
Best Sound: Gary Rydstrom, Tom Johnson, Gary Summers, Mark Ulano
Best Sound Effects: Tom Bellfort & Christopher Boyes
Best Visual Effects: Robert Legato, Mark A. Lasoff, Thomas L. Fisher, and Michael Kanfer
Best Makeup: Tina Earnshaw, Greg Cannom, and Simon Thompson

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: James Cameron
Best Actress (Drama): Kate Winslet
Best Actor (Drama): Leonardo DiCaprio
Best Supporting Actress: Gloria Stuart
Best Screenplay: James Cameron
Best Original Score: James Horner
Best Original Song: "My Heart Will Go On"

Other Awards:
Directors Guild of America: Best Director
Producers Guild of America: Best Picture
Screen Actors Guild Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Stuart; tie)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Production Design
National Board of Review: Special Achievement Award (Cameron)
Satellite Awards: Best Picture (Drama); Best Director; Best Art Direction; Best Costume Design; Best Film Editing; Best Original Score; Best Original Song

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