The Best Picture Winners: Titanic (1997)

| January 25, 2018

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just 36 days away and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

Much like Forrest Gump, James Cameron’s Titanic was a movie that, upon release, was greeted by enthusiastic audiences and raving critical reviews, but over time has been chided for being overcooked, overly-melodramatic and even cornball.  To that I say . . . yes, it IS cornball, but is cornball always a negative?

Titanic is a big, old-fashioned epic love story set against one of the most infamous human tragedies of the 20th century.  It does what all epic historical dramas do; it creates a sense of time and place, of purpose and history in a way that no other medium is able to do.  Stories and songs can be written but the movies encompass the best parts of all artistic mediums and give us a front row seat.  Cameron takes an event that we’ve all heard about and puts his filmmaking craft to work, utilizing the latest in computer effects, editing, sound, music and sets, he puts his hands around the event and brings it close enough for us to understand with unblinking clarity. As a storyteller he is a master.  He understands that our minds are likely to get lost in the chaos of the sinking of the ship, so his remedy is to stage a computer simulation at the beginning of the film (in the present day) that explains exactly how the ship was damaged, how the bulkheads took on water, and how the ship broke apart.  By the time we get to the scenes of the actual sinking, our minds are already oriented to what is happening.  In that way, we can then focus on the human element.

This human element is the most surprising aspect of Titanic.  It would have been simple enough to manufacture the story on the technical level without a human connection, or simply to have a multi-character Grand Hotel with the various passengers and their problems, but Cameron is mindful that in order to grasp our emotional investment, there needs to be a central story that leads us through the disaster.  That’s vitally important.  The emotional toll of this event was, for people of the early 20th century, what September 11th is for us today.  Without remembering the human toll, it simply becomes a historical curiosity and the event loses its importance.

The forward story is an old-fashioned tale about the poor lower-class kid who falls for the bird in the gilded cage, an upper-class woman who is facing a vacuous life of marriage to a man who sees her as a possession.  I don’t care what the critics say, I believe that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet create one of the great movie love stories of modern times.  It’s garish, corny and over-the-top and I love them both.

The youth of these two actors marks the film as kind of a time capsule.  Here were DiCaprio and Winslet, both in their 20s, young and beautiful, both at the start of brilliant careers.  Titanic featured only a small sampling of what they could do as actors. Winslet’s list of credits since Titanic are impressive; never seated in the comfortable spot of playing victims, her list of credits includes a long roster of strong women – some good, some bad, culminating with an Oscar for playing (against type) a former Nazi in Stephen Daldry’s The Reader. DiCaprio would avoid the traps of using his good looks to cash an easy paycheck. By the time of Titanic, he was already known for his Oscar nominated work in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and now has a roster that includes playing everything from J. Edgar Hoover to Howard Hughes and working under the direction of great directors like Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, and would win an Oscar for The Revenant in 2016. He and Winslet would work again, playing husband and wife in Sam Medes brilliant 2009 marital melodrama Revolutionary Road.

But even with all that, what of the backlash?  Why has Titanic earned detractors?  What element is pushing some critics and moviegoers away?  I really don’t know.  I can suppose that the movie isn’t hip or cool enough.  Maybe the overplay of the melodrama is too outsized.  I don’t really know what has pushed people away, all I know is that it hasn’t pushed this critic away.  It’s big, it’s overcooked, it’s hokey and I love every minute of it.  It has great drama, a great love story.  Is it faulty, sure, but what would the ship of dreams be without a leak or two?

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.