Let me tell you about the first time I watched Titanic.
I was 25 years old, visiting my family for Christmas. The word was already out about Titanic which was released December 19, 1997. So we all headed down to the local megaplex and settled in for a three hour epic that we all knew ended in disaster.
The film is a fictionalized romance of two passengers on board the RMS Titanic. Poor Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and rich Rose (Kate Winslet) fall in love during the famous ship’s ill-fated maiden voyage.
There’s also a bit about a present-day sunken treasure hunter (Bill Paxton) and 102-year old Rose (Gloria Stuart) and a diamond.
As we left the theater we all felt that same way. “That was pretty good.” And then something remarkable happened. We went on with our lives. Something a lot of other people and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were apparently unable to do.
News stories reported women seeing Titanic dozens of times. I remember one of a woman who was seeing it for the 80th time.
Not only did it become the highest grossing film of all time, it received a record 14 Oscar nominations, winning a record 11 awards.
For a long time whenever anyone would ask me what Oscar-winning film I thought didn’t deserve to win, I always said Titanic. As I’ve watched best picture after best picture for The Oscar Project I think I have a few others I might add alongside. But I think I can say for the first time that I understand Titanic.
Let me present a fictional imagining of how this all went down inside the head of one Mr. James Cameron.
It begins with James Cameron’s fascination with the Titanic. Who knows how someone could become fascinated with the Titanic before the movie Titanic came out. Maybe he was browsing through “volume T” of his Encyclopedia Britannica one breezy Sunday afternoon doing some research on “time travel” for Terminator 3 and flipped the page and WHAMMO! He was hooked.
Being a guy who makes movies perhaps he thought “I should make a movie about this! I know! A documentary!”
Yes, a documentary it would be. He would make sure he would get every microscopic detail right. Painstaking attention would be paid to recreate the majestic ship, right down to the wallpaper and silverware. It was there the visions first popped into his head of building the entire ship 90% to scale and then sinking it in a tank 90 feet deep and over 800 feet wide filled with 17 million gallons of water piped in from the Pacific Ocean. Yes, a documentary like no one has ever seen before!
Young James (he was like 42 or something) began planning, doing meticulous research. With each passing day his excitement grew. He drew sketches, filmed concepts and hired a team of computer animation experts to help make this the most realistic representation of the sinking of the RMS Titanic since the sinking of the RMS Titanic.
Everything was going swimmingly (get it!), he was halfway through with production when one night, I think it was a Tuesday, James woke up in the middle of the night in a cold, cold sweat.
He realized there in his Rambo pajamas something he had completely forgotten. Movies are supposed to make money! “Oh no! What have I done?” he thought. “Who would ever want to see a documentary where you just watch the Titanic sink for two hours?!? Well, maybe iceberg enthusiasts, but that’s about it!”
He began to ponder, “Who likes to go see movies?” He thought and thought but nothing was coming to mind.
Then it came to him. The answer to his problem hit him like a bolt of lightning.
“13-year old girls!” He stopped. “But what do 13-year old girls like?” He slapped his palm to his forehead. The answer was so obvious how could he have not seen it.
“13-year old girls like cute boys and fancy dresses and sappy love stories! If I make a documentary about the Titanic with all those things then they’ll come in droves!”
So he jumped out of bed, made himself some breakfast, just cereal, nothing too heavy, and started writing the script. Just before he finished his bowl of cereal he was finished.
“A masterpiece!” he shouted.
And that’s how it all happened probably I think.
So I get it now… Titanic is a documentary about the sinking of RMS Titanic made for 13-year old girls.
I was surprised that the content got it a PG-13 rating. I had forgotten how much of Kate Winslet there is on screen. It’s not a little flash here or there. It’s full-fledged nudity. Probably shoulda been R but Cameron needed the PG-13 rating to make this work. Even back then the guy must’ve had a lot of clout.
The documentary part is actually pretty good. The minute-by-minute accuracy in the recreation of the sinking is stunning. The disaster effect is really remarkable.
It was visually unlike anything anyone had ever seen on film before. I am certain that was what the Academy kept drooling over. The glamour and splendor is fantastic. You really feel like you have a sense of what it was like on that ship.
Considering the film is 20 years old, the CGI is astounding. There is a little bit of wear around the edges but all-in-all the effects mostly hold up very well.
The only bad, cheesy 90s CGI moments are the people. We’ve mastered it now, but 20 years ago it was dicey to get the movement right. Even though they’re all in the background at a distance it doesn’t look natural. But there are only a couple of scenes so it’s easy to overlook.
The film is shot expertly. The lighting is absolutely beautiful and the majesty of the ship is stunning. Truly remarkable.
It’s for all of those reasons that I don’t really have a big problem with James Cameron winning the Oscar for best director.
He really did build a 90% scale model of the Titanic.
He really did sink it in a giant tank with 17 million gallon of Pacific Ocean seawater.
He really did reenact the minute-by-minute sinking of the ship (albeit compressed for time).
But the other personality of this film, the love story made for 13-year old girls, is why I have a major problem with it winning best picture.
And it all stems from that gawd-awful script. I joke (sorta) about Cameron writing it in less time than it takes to eat a bowl of cereal but the end product speaks for itself.
As I took notes while watching this film (which filled 4 handwritten pages), I got less than halfway through the first page when I wrote the following…
“If I detailed every moment of bad writing this article would never end.” – Me
I won’t do that to you, I promise. But I will specify the three areas of the script that are to blame for its horridness.
- The dialogue.
It starts bad, it ends bad and in the middle it is also bad. It has moments drenched in ham-handed irony…
“We’re the luckiest sons of bitches in the world,you know that?” – Jack
(Ship’s Horn Blares)
“Picasso! He won’t amount to a thing. He won’t, trust me.” – Hockley
It also leans heavily on hackneyed melodramatic blather.
“I’d rather be his whore that your wife!” – Rose
“You could just call me a tumbleweed blowing in the wind.” – Jack
The worst of the blather comes from the inane Hockley. He spouts lines like a silent movie dastardly villain (“Look at me, you filth!”) so much I half expected them to start appearing on title card.
And because nobody likes subtlety…
“Jack, this is where we first met.” – Rose
But the most mind-numbing dialogue comes from our seafaring Romeo and Juliet. (Get it? Romeo…Rose. Juliet…Jack. He just switched the gender. Genius!)
“Jack!” – Rose
“Rose!” – Jack
The staggering number of times Jack and Rose refer to each other by name is more than just an annoyance (especially when they start shouting it repeatedly near the end). It’s evidence of just how devoid the script was of anything more interesting for them to say.
- The characters.
The characters are stupid, one-dimensional and phenomenally uninteresting.
For instance, each upper class passenger fits into one of three categories.
- Pompous and friendly but oblivious
- Rude and snobbish
- Evil and controlling
The lower class doesn’t fare any better when it comes to stereotypes. Down below decks all the foreign peasants party raucously, drink heavily, dance wildly, arm-wrestle and revel to fiddle and bagpipe music all while bonding with their families.
It’s one cliché after another, a parade of unimaginative cookie cutter characters.
- The plot.
There are too many plot holes and plot conveniences to cite them all. But here are some of my “favorites.”
- On a ship with 2,200 people on board Jack is the only one around when Rose tries to throw herself overboard.
- (Which, by the way, there was never established enough of a reason for her to attempt suicide)
- Jack happens to wear the same size tux as “Unsinkable” Molly Brown’s son who isn’t on the ship
- (So why does she have his tux?)
- As the ship is sinking and Jack and Rose are trying to escape the lower decks as it floods they run into multiple locked gates but crew members keep refusing to unlock them.
- (Why? It’s absurd. The ship is sinking. Do they think they’re going to get fired for letting the third class passengers on deck?)
- During that same sequence of escaping they hit another dead end so they literally, and unexplainably, burst through a wall like they’re the Kool-Aid man.
- (This movie would have catapulted to the top of my greatest film’s list if they had shouted “Oh yeah!” But alas, they didn’t.)
So, apart from the insipid dialogue, the stupid characters and the absurd plot it’s really great!
Am I hard on this movie? Hell yes I’m hard on this movie! It made $2 billion, was nominated for 14 Oscars and won 11. That’s insane! With that kind of commercial and critical success it should be the greatest movie ever made! But it most certainly isn’t.
It confounds me the same way that movies like Twilight do. I understand that it’s made for a specific demographic (one of which I am not) and they flock to the theaters to see it. And if Twilight won the Oscar for best picture I’d be pretty dumbfounded by that too.
But just like Jack and Rose, the Academy fell in love…with Titanic.
Well, not the entire Academy.
The way nominations work for Oscars is that actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors, costume designers nominate costume designers and so on. In 1997 the screenwriters did not nominate this screenplay.
In the history* of the Oscars there have been only three best picture winners who’s screenplays were not even nominated.
Hamlet (1948), The Sound of Music (1965) and Titanic.
Lawrence Olivier adapted Shakespeare’s Hamlet word-for-word. The Academy wasn’t sure what to do with that.
The Sound of Music wasn’t nominated because the Academy doesn’t know how to evaluate screenplays for musicals. Of the 7 musicals to win best picture, only Gigi also won best screenplay. And that was a terrible film so it’s clear musical scripts confuse them.
Let me share with you what I call…
“The Selby Oscar Screenplay Rule”
- A film can be nominated for best picture without it’s script also been nominated.
- A film can win best picture without also winning best screenplay.
- But a film cannot win best picture if its screenplay wasn’t even good enough to be nominated.
“It’s possible for me to make a bad movie out of a good script, but I can’t make a good movie from a bad script.” – George Clooney
Well said, George. Well said.
I’m not the only one who doesn’t love this movie. There are tons of reviews out there trashing it far worse than I did just now. There are two worth mentioning. One is from 5-time Oscar-nominated director Robert Altman (M*A*S*H*, Nashville, The Player, Gosford Park).
“Titanic I thought was the most dreadful piece of work I’ve ever seen in my entire life.” – Robert Altman (Roger Friedman, March 23, 2002. “Altman: Titanic Worst Movie Ever”)
But my favorite comes from film critic Brandon Judell.
“If when you see this film, you believe it’s credible, God bless you and your unfortunate offspring with their damaged gene pool.” (Critics Inc./America Online, July 9, 2001)
But what can I say? The Academy had a bad case of Titanic fever than year and backed up a dump truck full of Oscars for the movie.
It’s not like there was a shortage of great movies that year. L.A. Confidential, As Good as It Gets, The Full Monty and Good Will Hunting were all up for best picture and any one of them would have been a more suitable winner.
All four of their scripts were also nominated. I would have gone with L.A. Confidential, the winner of best adapted screenplay.
I remember Sean Connery being sort of a douchebag when he announced the best picture winner. He opened the envelope and did a double-take. Not cool, 007, not cool.
*Post 1936. Before that the categories were really screwy.