“Never underestimate James Cameron.”
Since the beginning of his filmmaking career, James Cameron has faced nearly insurmountable odds and overcame them each and every time, hence the popularity of that opening sentence. (Like Cameron himself, we’ll just go ahead and pretend as if his first film, Piranha II: The Spawning, never happened.) After the success of The Terminator, he was hired to write and direct Aliens, and he made that film during a very difficult shoot in England with a film crew who weren’t familiar with his work, and who all had serious doubts as to whether he was capable of following in Ridley Scott’s footsteps after what he accomplished with Alien. Cameron silenced all of those doubts, as Aliens was a box-office hit that impressed both critics and audiences, earned Sigourney Weaver an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, and inspired lots of imitators (and Aliens-inspired video games) of varying quality to this very day.
When Cameron finally believed that visual effects for films were finally capable of what he needed to portray a more technologically-advanced version of the Terminator, he directed and co-wrote Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Its production and the accompanying visual effects work over a six-month shooting schedule required surgical precision to pull off successfully. Cameron’s action-comedy True Lies used every last dollar of its $120 million budget, as evidenced by the usage of actual Harrier jets in two of its action sequences. Not only was it another hit for Cameron, it gave Arnold Schwarzenegger much-needed success after Last Action Hero bombed in theaters the year before.
(Yes, The Abyss remains a sci-fi classic that has stood the test of time, but its box-office performance wasn’t impressive. Cameron’s need to be an obsessive perfectionist ended up pissing off his cast members, including Ed Harris, who allegedly punched Cameron in the face.)
James Cameron’s reputation as one of the biggest and best directors of action and sci-fi wasn’t enough to keep people from wondering and worrying about what he had planned for his next film. It starred two actors who weren’t household names, and who carried no international box-office appeal. It required a gigantic water tank to be constructed in Mexico for the film’s biggest and most expensive set piece. It kept going over its original budget, to the point where it would end up costing $200 million to complete, which was the highest budget for any film at that time.
That film? Titanic, which opened in theaters on December 19, 1997.
Treasure hunter/explorer Brock Lovett (the late Bill Paxton) and his crew are using their submersible to examine the remains of the Titanic in search of a safe located inside the ship that is said to contain the Heart of the Ocean, a multimillion-dollar diamond necklace. The safe is found and brought to the surface, but there is no necklace inside it, only water-damaged documents, including a drawing of a naked woman wearing the actual Heart of the Ocean dated April 14, 1912 — the day the Titanic crashed into an iceberg and sank. Brock appears on a news broadcast to show the artwork he has recovered, which results in a phone call from someone who tells him that the woman in that drawing is actually her: Rose Dawson Calvert (the late Gloria Stuart).
Both Rose and her granddaughter, Lizzy (Suzy Amis), are flown out to meet Brock and his crew aboard their research vessel, in the hope that Rose will tell them what happened to the necklace and where it can be found. What Rose ends up telling him, his crew, and Lizzy is the story of how she was present on the Titanic for its maiden voyage when she was 17 years old, along with her fiancé, Cal Buckley (Billy Zane), and her mother, Ruth (Frances Fisher). And how it led to Rose (Kate Winslet) crossing paths with poor and nomadic artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), and how he taught her to live her life to the fullest. The two of them fell deeply in love right before the Titanic collided with an iceberg, resulting in irreparable damage that caused the ship to be flooded with the ice-cold waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, and every single passenger fighting for their lives as the ship began sinking to the ocean floor.
For the cast and crew members of Titanic, there was no such thing as an “inside voice” when it came to working with Cameron on most days during production, as he was not shy or quiet or polite when telling them what he wanted and how he wanted it. Not only did Winslet chip a bone in her elbow while filming, but she and several people from the cast and crew would become sick with colds, flus, and kidney infections because of the long hours spent in the cold water tanks. One day, when cast and crew members were dining on set, they quickly realized that something was wrong with their soup; someone had laced it with PCP. If you know anything at all about PCP, and the effect it can have on a person who has ingested it, you know that it can f-ck you up. That is exactly what happened to the fifty people on set who wound up with the drug in their bloodstream, including Paxton. It was said that a crew member was responsible for that incident, and despite a criminal investigation that lasted until February of 1999, the person who actually did it was never found and continues to remain a mystery.
As if this wasn’t enough for Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox to deal with, they also had the added headache of knowing that the budget for Titanic kept getting bigger until it finally reached $200 million. It made them very nervous about the fact that they were both footing the bill (though it was mostly Fox paying for it) for a three-hour-long romantic drama, and made other execs at competing studios wonder just what the hell was going on. Would Titanic end up like Heaven’s Gate or Cutthroat Island, and be the kind of colossal failure that would put a movie studio in financial jeopardy?
Fast-forward to the weekend of December 19, 1997, when Titanic finally opened. The film took in only $28 million during its opening weekend and a lot of people became convinced that this movie would sink like its namesake. However, word of mouth for Titanic turned out to be astoundingly positive, and would immediately spread like wildfire. People kept going back to theaters to see Titanic over and over and over again, and they couldn’t stop talking about it and telling others that it was an epic event that had to be seen to be believed. The largest number of people who were repeat viewers of Titanic? Adult women and teenage girls. They couldn’t get enough of the film, its sweeping love story, the passionate relationship between Jack and Rose, and the fact that Jack was played by a heartthrob like Leonardo DiCaprio. It still remains one of the biggest and clearest examples of how successful a fictional property can be when it grabs the attention and devotion of women and girls, and also of what happens when men can’t help but incessantly talk sh-t about something that they see being loved and enjoyed by girls and women. Whether it’s Titanic, or Twilight, or Scandal, or a remake of Ghostbusters with female leads. For nineteen weeks in a row, Titanic remained the number-one film at the U.S. box office, until it was finally dethroned by Lost In Space. It remained in theaters until October of 1998 and earned over a billion dollars worldwide.
It is easy to look at Titanic and admit that it is a very expensive, straightforward, and occasionally corny love story that unashamedly wears its heart on its sleeve about the story it tells. That’s why Titanic won the hearts of so many audiences who saw it, and why it continues to be held in such high regard.
Whether you loved Titanic or hated it, it is nearly impossible to deny that no matter how amazing Cameron’s direction may be, none of it would’ve worked as well as it did without Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Billy Zane. If you’re going to watch any three-hour-long love story, you not only have to care about the characters separately, but you have to be swept off your feet when the two of them pair up. Jack and Rose’s scenes together are both charming and wonderful, as she learns about his experiences traveling around the world with nothing but his art supplies and the clothes on his back, and he learns about how trapped she feels as she prepares to enter a loveless marriage purely to escape poverty. It also doesn’t hurt that they’re both attractive and have incredible chemistry together, even when they’re drunkenly spinning each other around on the dance floor, which makes it all the more heartbreaking that the two of them don’t get their Happily Ever After.
As for Zane as Cal Hockney? Cal is arrogant, condescending, ruthless, manipulative, and downright abusive when he feels that Rose isn’t behaving in the way he expects her to. Zane does a superb job of chewing the scenery, and showing that he knows exactly what kind of film he’s in, and that he knows he’s playing the kind of villain that a Hollywood epic like Titanic, and one that is a clear throwback to other classic Hollywood epics, needs. There is no confusion that Cal is the villain of this story, and Cameron doesn’t hold back in making sure that the audience knows this. (Bonus points to Zane for this anecdote about the table-flipping scene between him and Winslet, and letting the world know that he’s a trained professional who doesn’t feel the need to give improvisation or Method acting a bad name.)
One other thing that contributed to Titanic being the success that swept the nation? Two words: Celine. Dion.
Remember when VH1 was known for showing music videos? And when those music videos were mostly comprised of soft rock and mainstream pop songs by artists like Michael Bolton, Sheryl Crow, and Sarah McLachlan? Well, when “My Heart Will Go On” was released, it not only got lots of radio play, it also got plenty of rotation on VH1. Which helped it to become one of the biggest and most popular songs of all time, and also contributed to the soundtrack of Titanic selling millions of copies worldwide.
The success of Titanic also resulted in Celine Dion (played by Ana Gasteyer) getting her very own talk show (in a recurring skit on Saturday Night Live), where she never hesitated to remind her guests and her audience of her vocal skills.
The rest, as they say, is history. Titanic made over a billion dollars at the box-office, and then reached the $2 billion-dollar-mark in 2012 when it was re-released that year to mark the 100th anniversary of when the actual Titanic sank; DiCaprio and Winslet’s careers reached A-list status thanks to the film’s success (they would later reunite onscreen for the film Revolutionary Road); the film won eleven Academy Awards (including Best Director and Best Picture, and Cameron was mocked for his self-congratulatory acceptance speeches when winning both); and twelve years after the release of Titanic, Cameron defied expectations once again with the release of Avatar. It became the highest-grossing movie of all time, inspired Cameron to write and direct more sequels set in the same universe (while also dealing with backlash from the Native American community for comments he made about the Lakota tribe in 2010), and also inspired Hollywood to hop onto the bandwagon of releasing many of their films in 3D (despite the fact that most films released post-Avatar weren’t filmed for 3D, and didn’t look that great when converted for 3D), and expecting customers to pay slightly higher ticket prices to see them in that format.
Earlier this week, a tweet went viral where someone asked how a movie like Titanic became the highest-grossing movie of all time, and why would people even flock to movie theaters just to watch a boat sink. There were more than enough quote-tweets to answer that question: Because people were horny. (Yes, that was an actual response.) Because people loved seeing Leo and Kate. Because Cameron was hell-bent on using all his skills as a writer-director to entertain audiences with a rich girl-meets-poor-boy romance that occurs in the middle of one of the greatest tragedies in all of history. Because there are lots of people who love historical romances (and if Titanic didn’t prove this to you, Outlander and Bridgerton should’ve done so by now.) Because there’s so much more to cinema than superhero movies. Those were only just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the responses to that original viral tweet. So let this be a reminder to never underestimate James Cameron, and to not underestimate how much people really do love and appreciate Titanic, then and now.
P.S. If you’re still debating, after all these years, why both Jack and Rose didn’t get on top of the door while floating in the water so that they both could have survived? Just know that Keke Palmer feels your pain.
It’s too late beloved. I cracked this case yeaaaars ago https://t.co/KkzJMqspfu— Keke Palmer (@KekePalmer) December 17, 2022
Titanic is now streaming on Pluto TV.