If James Cameron’s Titanic, which arrived in theaters on December 19, 1997 — 25 years ago today — is associated with anything, it’s the word “big.”
It’s about a big ship that hit a big iceberg. To make the film, Cameron built a big ship in a big tank. It had a big running time, of three hours and 30 minutes. It had a big budget, at $200 million, the biggest in history up to that point, and it was a big hit, becoming the first movie ever to make $1 billion at the box office, leading the weekly box office from December until the following April, and remaining the highest-grossing film for more than a decade (when it was beaten out by Cameron’s own Avatar in 2010.
It won a large number of Oscars — 11, a tie with Ben Hur for the most ever — and it certainly gave its director a big ego, declaring from the Oscar stage “I guess this proves size DOES matter,” even though the film itself had its heroine verbally call out “the male preoccupation with size.” The film was simultaneously a critique of manly hubris and a shining example of it.
But the biggest decision that guaranteed Titanic’s success was the casting of the two leads. Neither Leonardo DiCaprio nor Kate Winslet was a particularly huge star when the movie was being put together in 1996, but their chemistry was electric, and they’re clearly both still thriving a quarter century later.
Titanic combined what was then cutting-edge technology with a historical tale from eight decades previously, with an epic vision and classical star-crossed romance with roots as old as Hollywood itself.
The film starts with a framing device in the then-present day, with treasure hunter Brock Lovett (Cameron perennial Bill Paxton) exploring the Titanic’s wreckage, in search of the Heart of the Ocean, a diamond necklace thought to have sunk with the great ship in 1912. He finds not the necklace but a drawing of a naked woman wearing it, dated the day of the ship’s sinking.
102-year-old Rose (Gloria Stuart) reveals that the woman in the picture is her and proceeds to tell her story for the next two-plus hours: Rose (Winslet) was a patrician WASP from Philadelphia, depressed and engaged to a man she hates, where she meets Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a lower-class man who won his way onto the ship in a poker game.
The rich girls and the poor boy have one of the movie’s great romances until, of course, the ship hits the iceberg, and most of the film’s second half is a long, sustained action sequence that is Cameron’s specialty.
Watching it now, the film is clearly corny as hell in spots, and a particular line of Winslet’s early on — “to me, it was a slave ship taking me back to America in chains” — will land with an absolute thud to modern ears, especially coming from a rich white lady. In the end, rather than leave generational wealth to the granddaughter who cares for her, Rose tosses the Heart of the Ocean into the ocean, where it’s likely that some future explorer or treasure hunter will one day discover it.
The film’s contempt for old-money WASP types is essentially limitless, depicting each one of them as mustache-twirling villains, with Billy Zane’s boorish Cal Hockley especially coming across as an evil cartoon character.
But overall, the film’s splendor holds up, thanks to some of the greatest cinematography and special effects work in history as does the great love story between Jack and Rose. In addition to being two of the most beautiful people ever to grace a movie screen, these two people are both natural movie stars. They weren’t quite as young as their characters (Winslet, playing a 17-year-old, was 22 when the film was released, while DiCaprio was 22, playing the 20-year-old Jack.) But they were, compared to how we know them today, very young.
It can also be easy to forget that, until the moment it was released, Titanic looked a lot like it might be a flop that would end James Cameron’s career. It went over time and over budget, blowing through its planned release date in July 1999. But then, of course, it arrived to mostly rave reviews and burned up the box office for months.
Titanic won Oscars for Picture, Director, original song (for Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” score (for James Horner), and a clean sweep of the technical awards. And 1997, let’s not forget, was a very strong movie year, with Good Will Hunting, L.A. Confidential, and As Good as It Gets among its Best Picture competitors. The only Oscar categories it lost in were Best Actress (Winslet), Best Supporting Actress (Gloria Stuart), and Best Makeup (it lost, defensibly, to Men in Black.)
With James Cameron in the midst of another comeback, with Avatar: The Way of War, it’s clear that Titanic is the film that will be mentioned first in his obituary.