Titanic (1997): James Cameron Oscar-Winning Blockbuster, Starring DiCaprio

There’s no denying the voyeuristic pleasure deriving from watching (vicariously and voyeuristically) the sinking of the most famous boat in history, an epic spectacle. Add to it a conventional but involving romantic story and at least two sympathetic characters, and you have a wining formula: a star-driven, special-effects spectacle.

The tale is presented an extended flashback, as the personal account of one survivor, Rose. Through Rose as an elderly woman, we are introduced to various characters whose fate and reactions are followed as the film unfolds.

The first glimpse of the young Rose (Kate Winslet) is a detailed shot of her gloved hand shown from above as she emerges from a car, obscured by enormous hat.
Clearly Rose belongs to the privileged class; soon she is going to be a trophy wife. In voice-over, Rose says: “To me it was a slave ship taking me back to America in chains. Outwardly, I was everything a well-brought-up girl should be, inside I was screaming”

From these images of wealth and privilege, Cameron cuts to Jack (DiCaprio), a poor but free and daring lad. He wins passage on SS Titanic, embodying youth, energy, optimism, and joy. In many ways, Jack is the opposite to the class that Rose and her cohorts represent. These oppositions continue throughout the film, and eventually will force Rose to switch class position.

Cameron uses the ship’s structure to reflect the rigid hierarchy of the passengers’ respective social classes. When Jack sees Rose on the First Class deck, she is above him, both literally and figuratively. It’s Jack, the Christ-like figure, who in the end sacrifices himself and redeems Rose from her chains by chaining himself.

If Rose represents an angel’s image in the First Class, the opposite image is the vast engine room, which, with its sweating workers and pits of fire, is like a vision of hell. Due to their position at the bottom of the social structure and the ship, they will be the first to die. Through such juxtapositions of imagery, Cameron makes his position on class system clear.

“Titanic” is an American film, in which the hero is the Wisconsin farm boy, without manners or grace, and where we are encouraged to sympathize with every character but the rich. The rich are represented by Cal, Rose’s fianc (Billy Zane) and Rose’s mother, both negative characters.

When Cal first gives Rose the Heart of the Ocean pedant, he describes its royal lineage, claiming royal status: “We are Royalty, Rose.” Though he’s American, Cal is associated with the rich passengers, the corrupt elitism of European aristocracy rather than America’s egalitarianism. Cal comes across as selfish, possessive, and heartless, standing in direct contrast to Jack’s qualities. Similarly, Rose’s mother is presented as mercenary, willing to sacrifice her daughter’s real happiness in order to gain status and fortune.

The film’s only rich character that is not negative is Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), but she is despised by fellow passengers for being a nouveau riche; her money is new, as opposed to aristocratic pedigree. Warmhearted, Molly wants to help Jack, and she is willing to row the lifeboat back at the end f the film to save those freezing to death in the water. Similarly, Rose’s positive qualities also develop as she learns to leave the corrupt world of her mother and fianc behind.

The narrative structure is made more complex and layered by the use of the extended flashback and the fact that a number of different stories are told. Indeed, “Titanic” is effective as both a love story and a disaster tale, and, for a change, the combination of the two genres is successful.

“Titanic” is structured around a series of loosely linked, action-packed sequences in the episodic style, following the paradigm of Classic Hollywood Cinema, namely equilibrium, crisis, and then closure with a new equilibrium. The initial balance is the excavation of the Titanic in search of the Heart of the Ocean. The crisis is represented by the discovery of the empty safe. This causes Rose to be brought on board to tell her story, which reveals what happened to the missing pendant. Resolution and closure come when Rose throws the Heart of the Ocean into the water.

As a disaster movie, the equilibrium is represented by the state on board before the ship hits the iceberg. The iceberg is the dramatic crisis, disrupting the previous calm, and the crisis is resolved when the ship sinks, an example of closure that takes the shape of an “unhappy” ending.

As a love story, the crisis comes earlier with Rose’s suicide attempt, which causes her to meet Jack and to begin setting herself apart from Cal.

The film’s wide canvas sweep, period romance and polished production values, as well as it record-setting 14 nominations and box-office record-shattering trajectory. James Cameron won three Oscars for directing, producing and editing. He followed in the footsteps of James Brooks, who won 3 Oscars for Terms: producing, directing, and writing.

Cameron later reflected: “This movie touched a common chord. It has been connecting on a heart level in every country, and we can hardly take responsibility for it. We were just a conduit.” The multiple wins established Cameron as the new Spielberg, the new genius on the block.

Some critics complain about the banal dialogue, as the scene in which Rose puts paintings around their rooms, and Billy talks about these awful paintings (which happen to be Picassos) and says that the artist will never amount to anything. But it doesn’t matter. If the movie’s level of conversations is the least important part of a screenplay, it’s because the narrative structure is clear and the film’s tone right. Ultimately, what makes “Titanic” unique as a movie is Cameron’s skill in applying modern technology to classic storytelling.

Cast

Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio)
Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet)
Ruth DeWitt Bukater (Frances Fisher)
Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton)
Molly Brown (Kathy Bates)
Lizzy Calvert (Suzy Amis)
Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart)
Spicer Lovejoy (David Warner)
Cal Hockney (Billy Zane)