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Mar 15, 2012
In 1997 the Academy decided to try something new and different when they allowed only 13 year old girls to vote in the best picture category. That is the only explanation I can come up with for Titanic, staring that dreamboat Leonardo DiCaprio winning. This isnít DiCaprioís best work, and wasnít even when it was released. Whatís Eating Gilbert Grape was a much better movie with a much better performance from DiCaprio.
Titanic had disaster written all over it before it was even released. It went well over budget and its release had to be delayed several months. In the end it was the most expensive movie ever made in the 20th century. Titanic clocked in at $200 million, more than seven times the price tag on the previous yearís winner The English Patient. In fact, if 1996 was supposed to be the year of the indy, the Academy seemed to give lip service to the little guys a year later with nominations for Good Will Hunting and The Full Monty, but the big award, as well as a lot of the little ones, went to the most expensive picture in the bunch.
The special effects are quite impressive, but the script is not. Every signature moment, like the "Iím King of the World" crap, comes off as contrived and corny. Plus, do we really need some star-crossed lovers to help tell the story of an ocean liner hitting an iceberg and sinking? To make matters worse, Rose comes off as the most worldly 17 year old alive, quoting Freud, who at the time was only known in the medical community, owning several works by a then-obscure painter named Picasso, and most amazingly of all, owning a painting by Monet that was painted three years after the movie takes place. Rose seems so adept as knowing what will be popular in the future that when her mother complains about being reduced to poverty and having to work her twilight years as a seamstress, I half expected her to tell her mother it would all be all right, since in 20 years Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be elected President and would introduce social security. She also gets to share a table with the guy who built the ship, the guy who commissioned it, and the Unsinkable Molly Brown. This is a plot device that pops up in a lot of historical movies and it drives me nuts. The writer will find some prominent person who was at the start of his career when the movie takes place, and the main characters buddy up to them. And I know all of those people actually were on the ship, but is there any reason to believe that out of 2,000 passengers, the most influential all would have befriended Rose?
None of the characters are very well developed. Jack is the impoverished painter who goes wherever life takes him, but thatís about all we know of him. All we ever find out about Rose is that she doesnít want to get married. As a villain, we get Roseís fiancť Cal, played by Billy Zaneís mascara. The only thing we learn about his is that heís a total jerk. If thatís not enough of a villain, we also get the modern explorer played by Bill Paxton and/ or Bill Pullman who doesnít even pretend to care about exploration. With him itís all about the Benjamins, and the fancy necklace Rose got as an engagement gift (though Cal may have intended to keep the necklace, since it would go so nicely with his eyeliner). Even Jackís suposed best friend, Fabrizio, gets so little screen time Jack ends up going sans wingman in his pursuit of Rose. They only thing we know about the guy is that his name sounds vaguely like a Procter and Gamble product.
In the end all you have is an overrated movie about an overrated historical event. You want a ship going down that takes a lot of lives? Try the Sultana. You want the symbolic end of the Edwardian Era? Try the War to End All Wars (or, say, the death of King Edward VII). You want a ship sinking that proves mother nature will win out over technology? Try the Edmund Fitzgerald. This isnít even the best movie about the sinking of the Titanic. That would be 1958ís A Night to Remember, which depicts the sinking without getting bogged down by some contrived love story. It also has time to touch on one issue James Cameron ignores, the mysterious ship sitting on the horizon which failed to answer the Titanicís distress calls. And thatís just one of many historical glitches in this movie. Titanic boasts one of the longest, if not the longest, goofs pages on imdb. The online movie encyclopedia demurs "There are many minute contradictions of history, both in events and in the technical details of the ship. This film is prey to a large number of factual errors due to the large volume of documentary evidence from the actual event." Well if thatís the case, couldnít Cameron have made use of all that documentary evidence to make his movie more accurate? It seems hard to fathom that he couldnít find room in that $200 million budget for a research team.
Now there are some things I like about this movie. Kate Winslet gets naked. Thatís it. Thatís the list. OK, not quite, the montage of people who decide they cannot make it off the ship and choose a spot to die with dignity is quite impressive, and the opening scene of the ship leaving the harbor is nice, but thatís not enough good stuff to fill a three hour and fifteen minute movie.
My concern here is that if we keep giving statues to overwrought, over budget historical epics that get their history wrong, it will only encourage them. Iíd much rather encourage movies like Good Will Hunting (even if it did spawn the phrase "Oscar winners Ben Affleck and Matt Damon"), L.A. Confidential, and As Good as it Gets. The list of movies from 1997 that were better than Titanic goes on and on. Boogie Nights is probably the best out of the not-nominated group, but Amistad, Donnie Brasco, Seven Years in Tibet, Austin Powers, and Grosse Pointe Blanc are also very good. L.A. Confidential is the true best picture of 1997 because it succeeds in all the places Titanic fails. Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, and Kevin Spacey play the good cop, bad cop, and flashy Hollywood cop, and amazingly they all had their best work ahead of them. Brian Helgelandís script is amazing and doesnít hit any of the flat notes Titanic canít seem to avoid at every turn. Titanic did deserve one award, and shockingly it came in a category that Men in Black ended up winning: Best Makeup. I mean if any cinematic achievement deserves recognition, itís making Billy Zane look like a more whorish Tammy Faye Bakker.
P. S. Mad props to Jon Sicotte for loaning me this movie, as well as Gladiator. I am still on the lookout for Wings, Cavalcade, How Green was My Valley, Going My Way, Gentlemenís Agreement, All About Eve, Around the World in 80 Days, Ben Hur, Sound of Music, Patton, One Flew Over the Cuckooís Nest, Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment, Out of Africa, The Last Emperor, Driving Miss Daisy, and Chicago. If anyone out in TV land can do me a solid, it would be much appreciated.