POP CULTURE ESSAY
MAY. 03. 2021.
THE MOST DESERVING BEST PICTURE WINNER
What can be said about the Oscars that hasn’t been said a hundred million times by a hundred different voices online? As a filmmaker and enjoyer of film, I was sort of brought up to respect the Oscars. I may very rarely agree with their choices. Hell, I’ve even been downright outraged by some of their decisions, looking at the snubbing of Adam Sandler for Uncut Gems. That being said, when they are right. They are right. They have never been more right than giving James Cameron’s masterpiece, Titanic the love it deserves. For, in my opinion, no movie in history has earned their Best Picture win more than Titanic did.
Look, you’ve seen Titanic. I really don’t need to go into the plot or the history of the actual ship. It has been beaten into your brain as much as bible stories have been. Hell, most of you probably know it by heart by now. Every line, every shot, every music cue. It is just infused into our culture. For the longest time in the 90’s, it was the culture.
I suppose that it shouldn’t be surprising that there has sort of been a backlash toward the film. The movie is not without flaws, and I will get into it. But when a film becomes that big and becomes so much the focus of discussion in any medium, there is going to be some detractors. So the flaws the film has, become deal breakers when usually they would get a pass. I will say though, with the release of Avatar, the hate towards this film has soften. Even still, I have never and I mean NEVER understood the hate film this movie got. Warts and all.
I was not speaking in hyperbole when I called this James Cameron’s masterpiece, because it is not up for debate. I know some of you may say T2 is his masterpiece, and to you say, some directors have more than one masterpiece. Cameron is one of them. But why is Titanic a masterpiece, the most deserving Best Picture winner, and undeserving of the hate it gets? Let’s chat.
PART 1: I’m the King of the World
I think the best way to start is to talk about the positives of the film. That is because, this is one of the rare films that the positives diminish the negatives to a degree. Allow me to explain. Titanic is the perfect blend of old Hollywood and modern/New Age Hollywood. James Cameron was a clear pupil of Roger Corman. She knows the value of using what you got and making the most of your budget. Luckily for Cameron, he got an open checkbook to make Titanic. Usually this move leads to disaster. But 90’s James Cameron isn’t your average director. As ambitious as he may be, he understands what works and what will draw in the common consumer.
Every second of Titanic is part of the well oiled machine to make the common movie viewer entertained. It was a spectacle in the most unique senses. It is commonly referred to as Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic. Which it is in a narrative context, but from a filmmaking context it is more like the Ten Commandments meets T2. It’s Caligula meets Jurassic Park. It is the old ways perfectly blending with the new ways. Breath-taking practical effects on a scale most unheard of mixed with state of the art digital effects almost done to perfection. It’s kind of like what Star Wars did in the 70’s but done somehow on a far larger scale.
Titanic is the kind of movie where I am constantly at awe that it was even made and that it exists. It seems far too mammoth, far too ambitious to be something that somebody pulled off. But Cameron did it. The crazy son of a bitch actually did it. The last half of Titanic (post Iceberg) is the better half, but it would not be as good without the first half. Neither half is complete without the other, despite being wildly different movies it feels at times. That is almost unheard of. Usually when a film feels like two movies slammed together, it’s a negative. Yet, in Titanic the film never falters or loses its momentum. It stays it’s course to an overwhelmingly satisfying conclusion.
The first half is mostly historical fiction and romance. It’s all set up for the ultimate payoff that is the second half. Cameron wastes no time in getting everything in place and to get the audience engaged with the material. Cameron understood that when making a movie about a tragedy, you should start with the ship and put some respect on it. He actually went down to the actual remains of the fallen ship and used actual footage of it in his movie and made it a plot point. He wanted his audience to understand the scale and importance of what had happened. Everybody going in, knew the ship was going down. But they probably didn’t understand the gravity or the details of it. Cameron fills this in his bookends with Bill Paxton and Gloria Stewart. Now, in a modern lense, it is easy to think this bookend should be cut because the runtime is over 3 hours. Narratively it seems like an easy cut. I’m of two minds about it. One, it would be nice if the runtime was a bit shorter and the story was a bit more streamlined. That being said, without this bookend, the ending would not hit nearly as hard as it does. I will honestly accept sitting through some Titanic backstory and old lady monologues just to get to that perfect ending and for it to have the desired impact.
Cameron then swiftly transitions to the heart of the story; Rose played by Kate Winslet. Kate Winslet deserved an Oscar for this role. She elevates pretty standard material to something far greater. It blows my mind to no end that Helen Hunt won for As Good As it Gets. I love Helen Hunt and I like that movie. But Kate Winslet was on a whole other level. The one aspect of the 1998 Oscars the Academy got completely wrong. This film 100% does not work without her anchoring it. You can have all the spectacular filmmaking and cool effects you want in the second half, but without Kate Winslet absolutely killing it, it would be for nothing.
Rose is not the most complex character in the world. Hell, she is not unlike Ariel from The Little Mermaid. A rich girl who finds a dude on a boat, falls in love with him despite the wishes of her parents. It’s not groundbreaking from a writing perspective. But, like I said above, Winslet sells it and elevates the material. An actor's greatest tool is not their voice, it is their eyes. If an actor can tell a complete story with their eyes, they are set for life. Winslet plays the role in a way that invites the audience to engage with the character. To understand the character and more than anything else sympathize with her. This is not easy because Cameron put her in a position of privilege. Even though he had an ace in the hole of Rose actually being broke and needing to marry Cal in order to keep her family in the upper class, he doesn’t play that card at the start. For the bulk of the runtime we are led to believe Rose is just a rich brat who doesn’t want to marry Cal because he is Billy Zane or weird or whatever. She just wants more. It was up to Winslet to make us like and sympathize with her despite her having the upper hand in life. When she is sad, happy, scared, angry, or loving, we feel it with her. It’s hard to say Winslet put this movie on her back, when the behind the scenes crew were busting their ass and doing out of this world work, but her contribution is massive.
James Cameron uses the first half to set up the ship and the romance. We get some historical figures that were huge in the real life story. We get details on the making of the ship and some of the avoidable events that led to its demise which makes it a modern day tragedy. Cameron tells a simple enough love story to get the audience to understand and like it enough for the desired emotional impact of the second half to hit. There is a beauty in simplicity. All the best filmmakers understand this. Yes, it is good to tell complex stories with complex characters when done right. However, sometimes when you are telling a grand tale that wants to reach the most people possible it is okay to keep things simple. Sometimes you can even get the same emotional impact in simplicity as you can in complexity.
Now, we dive into Titanic's strongest aspect. The second half and the absolute tour de force filmmaking on display. Once the ship hits the Iceberg, Titanic transitions into some of the best displays of the craft ever done. The second half of Titanic is all genres wrapped into one. It’s got elements of horror, drama, action, romance and tragedy all in one singular half of the films. It should not work cause that is a crazy amount of tones to balance. However, like I’ve said a hundred times, Cameron is no ordinary filmmaker.
It is almost stuff of legend at this point. The iconic visuals of the ship half underwater half in the sky. Jack and Rose run down the lower hallways of the ship as water explodes in. The montage of the people who would end up dead making their peace with their loved ones as the ships band plays. It’s all iconic in their own individual ways. Not to say, the first half doesn’t have its share of iconic moments. The “I’m the King of the World,” “Draw me like one of your French girls,” and various other moments are all equally iconic. Titanic is a movie with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to moments that stick in the noggin. But what makes the second half stronger to me is just the visuals and how the images on screen just drops your jaw.
James Cameron being an action director first really helped him here. When someone proposes to do a Titanic movie back in the 90’s, I’m willing to bet nobody would think heart stopping action cinema would be involved. But Cameron knows how to smash things and make the smashing gain a visceral response from the viewer. Had he not done T2 or Aliens, the spectacle of Titanic would not pack the same punch. When Jack and Rose are trying to get the key to unlock a gate while water is being filled into their space, it is shot like an action movie sequence. Sparks flying, the epic music, the cuts in the edit, it all shares the DNA of an action movie and it doesn’t feel out of place in a movie where mere minutes ago, Jack was just drawing Rose naked. It should not compute, but it does. Much like most things with me, a parallel can be drawn to the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies. The action sequences in Titanic are like when Raimi did The Evil Dead like sequence in the hospital in Spider-Man 2. Raimi was still showing he had some cred as a horror director and Cameron was showing he still knew his roots with his action sequences.
There are two sequences in the movie I absolutely must highlight when it comes to Titanic. Because they are, what the kids would call it, "peak cinema". The first being, the Iceberg sequence. Holy shit, what a sequence. It is shot, edited and acted to perfection. It does the impossible. It takes a situation where the audience clearly knows what is about to happen and makes them second guess it. Something as universal as the Titanic hits an Iceberg, is called into question because of how the film is shot and presented to its audience. Like every time I watch the movie, I still get the knot in the stomach that maybe, just maybe, the ship will miss the Iceberg. Maybe it’ll pull an Inglorious Bastards and re-write history. If only, if only. Most filmmakers would just have the ship hit the iceberg because it is a means to an end. However, Cameron wanted that sequence to be almost Hitchcock in its approach. Why not put the audience on the ship with the crew and make them hope it just misses the ice? It is perfect.
As good as that sequence is, it is not my favorite sequence. If you look up the soundtrack on any streaming platform you’ll have a kick-ass soundtrack that is one of the best ones ever composed. James Horner killed it. The Celine Dion song included. I said what I said. It’s a score so good it deserves its own article. But on that soundtrack is a song entitled; “Unable to Stay, Unwilling to Leave.” That song is used in the scene I’m talking about. Cal tells Jack, he has a lifeboat waiting for both of them. So Rose gets into the lifeboat. After a bit of a confrontation between Jack and Cal, the soundtrack takes over as Rose is lowered. This is one of my all-time favorite moments in all of cinema. It is a scene that has stuck with me since I was a kid.
What makes this scene a masterclass of cinema is because it is the essence of cinema. It’s a bit of a throwback moment to silent films before talkies. It’s a scene that tells a complete story with little to no dialogue. It’s just raw acting, score, shot composition and editing. In any film school worth its salt, they will tell you a film is truly successful when it can be played with no sound and you get the whole story by just how the movie is made and how the actors are using their bare bones expression. It’s a quick 30 second scene but it is so effective, we get a complete story in just 30 seconds. The music alerts your brain that this is a somber moment. A tragic moment. Then the visuals add a layer onto this by showing Rose slowly getting further away from Jack, the insanity of the decision she is about to make in hopping off the boat, by showing families being ripped apart by the situation and people facing their own certain death. Rose is completely safe at this moment. She is about to get away. But she can’t let him go. She can’t take the chance that is the end. She needs her closure to her own story. Winslet kills this scene. Just pure emotion and she tells the story with a look and you just see the wheels turning in her head and we come to the same conclusion she does in real time.
I also love that it is completely her choice. She didn’t get the bit of dialogue between Jack and Cal where it is revealed Jack will most certainly die. Jack gives her no indication that this will happen. It is her choice. Yes, she is risking her life for a dude. It’s a bit more complicated than that, you’ve seen the movie, you know what I am talking about. But I love that Cameron gives his female leads their own agency. He is one of the few who did that at the time. It’s a wonderful scene and it should be studied in all film schools at least once.
I have been gushing about this movie for a long stretch, and I am about to get into the negatives, but before I do. I have one last, very big positive. I love that Jack and Rose are on the ship until the very last second. I know it is convenient as hell and rather unlikely, but that is sort of missing the point. Cameron opts for the viewer to be a part of the full Titanic experience. After seeing Titanic, the viewer has a good sense of what it was like to be on that ship from start to sink. This propels Titanic to a truly unique cinematic experience in that it is a percentage of a rollercoaster ride.
This aspect isn’t just showcased in the second half. The amount of attention to detail to being historically accurate is astronomical. The set and production design is one of the best ever. The way Cameron utilized digital effects and mixing it seamlessly with the actors and props, was a game changer. I can’t stress enough that in all aspects of the technical side of filmmaking, the movie is flawless. The bulk of the issues some may have come from the narrative angle. Speaking of which…
Part II: I Put the Coat on Her!
Titanic is not without flaw. No Best Picture winner nor any film, except Troll 2, is without flaw. As much as I adore this movie and do truly believe it is the Best Picture winner of all-time, I do have some qualms with the film as a whole. In the vein of fairness I will delve into them. However, I can’t be any more blunt, none of these flaws diminish the film in any tangible way. In fact, most of the flaws are easy to write off or even negated by other components of the film. But here are my issues with Titanic.
I’ll address the elephant in the room at the start. Leonardo DiCaorio kind of sucks in this film. Look, I love DiCaprio. I really believe he deserved an Oscar nomination for Django Unchained and I especially believe he deserved the Oscar for The Wolf of Wall Street. He is a phenomenal actor. However, I am willing to bet anything that if people were to ask DiCaprio about his performance in this movie, he would either say it’s not his best or he didn’t like it. DiCaprio was so young here and he was still trying to find his footing as an actor. As a dude with minimal experience doing roles of this magnitude, this was about as good as it was gonna get. Yes, he was amazing in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, but that was a whole different animal and circumstance completely.
It’s not that DiCaprio is unwatchable in this. Kate Winslet, to her credit, helped him through the bulk of the film. She is so good, that she elevates a pretty lackluster performance from DiCaprio to watchable and the two of them do have chemistry so it helps. If Winslet was even a tiny bit off her game, DiCaprio’s inability would really be on display. It’s hidden behind some memorable dialogue and moments. On the flip side of that coin, Winslet being so damn good, also puts a magnifying glass on how lacking DiCaprio was doing. So it becomes a bit more obvious who is making this work. But to DiCaprio’s credit, it’s not all awful, he does have moments. But in a 3 hour flick and you are one of the leads, moments really ain’t gonna cut it.
On the complete other side of the spectrum. I don’t know if Billy Zane is awful in this movie or if he is being just perfect in this movie. It is undoubtedly purposefully campy and he is doing what is on the page. I can’t lie to you guys, I love his performance in this movie. I have a soft for over-the-top performance when done right. That being said, his performance is so outlandishly cartoony, it doesn’t quite gel with his surroundings. It’s like a cartoon character popping his head in on some real and dire situations. Rose is a well fleshed out character and so much attention to detail was put into the production into making the movie historically accurate, that Billy Zane’s level of camp is just off. But I do think he does have some genuinely good moments. I think his unironically strongest scene is when Cal gives Rose the heart of the ocean. It’s the only time Zane is sort of on a leash and he gives a very human performance. But mostly it’s him twirling his monocle and doing shoot outs.
Speaking of which, the shootout scene is so insane that I can’t believe it actually made the cut. The movie is mostly tight and not too crazy. Then all of a sudden, Cameron wanted a shoot out scene and made it. I have no idea why in a movie where a ship is sinking and several people are about to die from drowning in the ice cold Atlantic Ocean, why attempted murder had to be a plot point. As much of a cartoon character as Cal has been up to that point in the film, there is narrative logic in him trying to shoot Jack and Rose. It was just an excuse to get Jack and Rose to the bottom of the ship again. I don’t know a good alternative reason to get them down there, but I don’t think it would be hard to beat out a Titanic Shootout.
The runtime is also a tad much and it does keep it from being a film I can constantly run back to. The bookend sequences could have been trimmed. I understand why Cameron had the scene where the hippie asshole dude explained to Old Rose the play by play of the ship sinking, but it is kind of unnecessary. But if Cameron was going to go for an epic film, a long run time was to be expected. Plus, dude really isn’t in the business of making short feature length films. Believe me, Titanic is far from his most self-indulgent outing.
Part III: Iceberg Dead Ahead.
Yup. That’s all the criticism I have for the movie. I will even readily admit that I think Billy Zane’s performance and character is a mixed bag more than a negative. It serves its purpose. With all of this being said, let’s put a bow on this long monster of an article.
Why is Titanic the most deserving Best Picture of all-time? Well the reasons I have stated about. That includes the good and the bad. With all of these aspects in mind, let me explain in a much broader sense. On a base level what is the function of Best Picture? In a general sense it is to award the best movie of that particular. But I think on a subliminal deeper level, it is the one film out the year that perfectly defines the year in which it was released. The films we could put in a time capsule and should aliens discover those films they would better understand where we were at the time with our art. Help them better understand humanity's artistic side.
I argue that not only does Titanic serve as a time capsule for where we were cinematically the time where it won the award, it is the perfect film to explain and showcase the power of cinema as a whole. To put it simply, there is no other movie that achieves what Titanic does. There is no movie that seamlessly blends the roots of old Hollywood, with the current climate and future of cinema. It tells a story that is as old as time, told in a super accessible way. It tells a piece of our history in one of the most tragic events to ever happen. It has a score that transcended film and blew up the airwaves in the later half of the nineties. It was a cultural phenomenon that will never ever truly be duplicated. Titanic was the last of its kind. Look at the current climate of movies, is there anything like Titanic where it blends all mixtures of Hollywood? It’s all CGI or just lowkey films. It’s just one of a kind. So, sadly when the conversation has become what movie should be the highest grossing film of all-time; Avengers: Endgame or Avatar? In my opinion, the correct answer was the 3rd option. The option that held that record for a solid period of time. Because I think at the end of the day, Titanic’s legacy and longevity is solidified because it achieves so much. As much as Celine and Rose’s heart may go on, the legacy of Titanic will go with it.