So they are rereleasing Titanic in IMAX 3D in a few months (and, curiously, advertising it with trailers that are not IMAX and not 3D, so… good going, movie marketing people). Now, I can already hear the groans from the peanut gallery, but… it’s been fifteen years. Yes, everybody was sick to death of Titanic fever after six months of it, but then again we were all sick of “Wonderwall” because every radio station played it to death back in 1995 (this is when there were still radio stations that you listened to, kids), and fifteen years later it turns out that “Wonderwall” is actually a really good song and our hatred for it was based almost entirely on saturation, and maybe a little bit because the Gallagher brothers were dickheads.
So, fifteen years later, is Titanic a good movie?
Well, it’s worth saying right off the bat that James Cameron is notoriously shit with villains. He can do inhuman monsters quite well, but when it comes to actual humans, his villains are almost uniformly massive disappointments:1 the Evil Military Guy in Avatar, the Evil Terrorist Guy in True Lies, and of course, Billy Zane, Titanic‘s Evil Rich Guy, who is easily the worst part of the entire movie. He just feels completely superfluous to the plot, mostly because he is completely superfluous to the plot, which is a romance set within a disaster movie. A movie about a boat crashing does not need a villain, and especially does not need a villain to make stupid jokes about Picasso paintings.
And yes, the adorable Irish ragamuffins in steerage class and their quaintly adorable working-class party kind of stick in the throat a bit. Particularly of late, the “it’s better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable” moral is taking a beating, mostly because people have come to recognize that it’s generally a lot easier – or at least simpler – to be rich and also moderately okay than poor and also happy. Of course, given that this is turn-of-the-century times when societal morals for women meant that being rich meant, for all intents and purposes, societal imprisonment and very little personal agency, it’s certainly less unbearable. Also, Kate Winslet would have to be married to Billy Zane’s character, so I take it back: Billy Zane does serve a purpose in this movie, and it is to help us rationalize Kate Winslet’s choices.
But for the most part, this is about whether the Kate and Leo romance works as well as the boat-sinking aspect of the film does. After all, I trust nobody will argue that the boat-sinking part of the movie is anything other than excellent. Even in early 1997 when people were considering murder of Leo fangirls as justifiable homicide, they were willing to admit that the actual boat-sinking part was stunning, and it holds up today. Cameron’s ability to instill drama and excitement into what could easily have been a foregone conclusion2 remains one of his signal achievements as a filmmaker, and the little codicils he throws in (the old couple embracing on the bed, the band playing on, et cetera) could have been cheesy, but aren’t.
And the truth: yes, the Kate/Leo pairing works. It worked then and it works now. Maybe in 1996 people were willing to argue that these two weren’t major acting talents and instead just lucky kids. It was not a good argument even then, what with Winslet’s turns in Heavenly Creatures and Sense and Sensibility, as well as DiCaprio’s in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Basketball Diaries. But nowadays, Kate Winslet3 has an Academy Award and two Golden Globes and gets nominated for something like, every other year and when she isn’t getting nominated Leonardo DiCaprio is, and when he isn’t he’s busy being Martin Scorcese’s new go-to guy. And they were very nearly as good back then.
Yes, the dialogue is clunky, but good actors can sell clunky dialogue because good actors know that in real life, clunky dialogue is what most people say all the time. Tons of movies have clunky dialogue and yet survive on the strength of the actors delivering it: good actors sell clunky dialogue with Method and commitment, because inelegance and cliche is what we fill our lives with even when we don’t want to admit it and instead want to pretend that we are all Vicious Circle-level wits all of the time instead of people who quote The Simpsons at one another. Most people who complain about clunky dialogue are writers or want to be writers, and they dislike an artificial entity like a script engaging with the messiness of real life – and further, on some level they disapprove of relying on actors to find the reality in the lead and the wheat in the chaff. But it’s still an option. In Titanic, Kate and Leo sell the shit out of the clunky dialogue, turning what could be trite or stiff into what is real, and that is an achievement. The two of them make this movie work, and to give them full credit for the film’s success as a story is only deserved.
So, in conclusion: yes, it was and is a good film. Did it deserve to win Best Picture? No, not even close – after all, 1996 was the year of Boogie Nights, Contact, The Sweet Hereafter and L.A. Confidential, all of which are better and have a distinct lack of a terrible Billy Zane villain. Heck, even The Full Monty is stronger, and that movie was a formula before the formula existed. But most of them are not as ambitious as Titanic was, and it is understandable that ambition counts for something in Hollywood.