Here’s Why I Think ‘Titanic’ is a Mess. One Big, Beautiful Mess

In 1997, the film sweeping the major critics awards was the superb, intense film noir, LA Confidential (1997), which I first saw at TIFF and was, like the rest of the press, knocked out. It had everything, was superbly made, brilliantly acted and especially directed by Curtis Hanson, captured the era to perfection and had a twist that caught audiences off guard leaving them breathless.

The film received nine Oscar nominations and critics felt it was destined to win. But it, and many of the great films that year were about to go like a great ship once had. It did not matter that As Good As It Gets, The Apostle, Boogie Nights, Good Will Hunting, The Sweet Hereafter, and Contact were also released the same year because all of them were about to go down like a ship colliding with an iceberg.

James Cameron had directed and written Titanic (1997), funded by two studios and just to break even this film had to become the top grossing film of all time. Most of us, not all, predicted failure from which Cameron would not recover.

Cameron had set a romance against the backdrop of the doomed crossing of the Titanic, his script was weak, but he had cast two actors who brought the nonsense to life.

Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet brought the thing to exciting, vivid life, made the words work, gave it their all and saved Cameron in every way as Jack saved Rose. They were gifted enough, among the finest of their generation to make the goofiness of the script sound real and truthful.

Though the two actors spend a great deal of time shouting “Jack” Or “Rose”, they also have a heat that spills off the screen into the audience. We believed in their the romance — not always — in spite of how terrible the screenplay was.

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Now, let me say there are a great many things in Titanic (1997) that work beautifully, and the craft behind the film is undoubtedly brilliant. Cameron had done his homework, dropping to the bottom of the ocean to see the wreck of the Titanic up close and personal, shooting footage he used in the film. Those ghostly shots, where the ships is brought to life again are startling in their beauty. The recreation of the extraordinary ship works, the visual effects are staggering, and that score….that haunting, perfect score breaks our hearts.

Yet with all that, it is still Di Caprio and Winslet who make the film what it is.

Now, let’s get to what does not work.

The screenplay. The screenplay. And the screenplay.

Boy meets girl, she is from upper class, trapped, feeling her life is lost. She falls in love, makes love with boy from steerage who has nothing and all is right with the world. But then ship hits an iceberg and is going down. Her fiance frames the boy she loves, she apparently believes fiance despite the fact he is a monster and she knows this and allows the boy to be taken away and handcuffed to a pipe. Then some change of heart takes place and she decides to rescue him because she knows he did not take it. So they attempt to get off the ship before it goes down, and eventually are floating in the Atlantic, she on a headbaord, with clearly enough room for both, holding hands until he becomes a popsicle in the water and dies. With little grief she pushes him off, and blows the whistle to save herself, watching Jack sink to the bottom of the sea.

And I haven’t even started on the silly story of the old lady who is actually Rose.

I knew the film would make money when I took my wife to see it after seeing it for the first time with the press. Behind us were few young girls who had seen it enough number of time to memorize the lines (and speak them aloud) and crying and bemoaning all through it. Twice I told them to knock it off. At the end, they told me I was mean…whatever. But it told me repeat viewings were happening and I knew then the film would be a hit, a huge hit.

It was nominated for fourteen Academy Awards, tying the record set by All About Eve (1950), and won eleven, tying the record set by Ben Hur (1959) and since equalled by The Lord of the Rings : The Return of the King (2003). All I could think of was that the Academy wanted to send a message to the independent film world, that Hollywood was alive and well and making great films.