Saturday, December 19, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Titanic" (1997)

Scene from Titanic
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: December 19, 1997
Director: James Cameron
Written By: James Cameron
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane
Genre: Drama, Romance
Running Time: 194 minutes

Oscar Wins: 11
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Cinematography
-Best Art Direction - Set Direction
-Best Costume Design
-Best Sound
-Best Editing
-Best Sound
-Best Visual Effects
-Best Original Song ("My Heart Will Go On")
-Best Original Score

Oscar Nominations: 3
-Best Actress (Kate Winslet)
-Best Supporting Actress (Gloria Stewart)
-Best Make-Up

Other Best Picture Nominees

-As Good As It Gets
-The Full Monty
-Good Will Hunting
-L.A. Confidential

And the winner is...

If there's a film from the 90's that doesn't need an introduction, it's director James Cameron's Titanic. It isn't that it's the greatest film of the decade, but its triumphs in many fields results in one of those magical, zeitgeist-defining moments. It's a time where a film isn't just a powerful love story, it becomes a metaphor for the behind the scenes disaster that miraculously achieved greatness. Its box office doesn't lie and Cameron's technical prowess has created something that is both overwhelming and beautiful, and likely to confuse audiences not attracted to the subject. Titanic is a film that competes with the epics from 40 years its senior - reflecting the advancement of technology while also giving a compelling, palpable story to keep it from seeming boastful. It's a film unlike any other from the 20th century.

The story begins with Cameron's viewing of A Night to Remember. Following his work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he decided to give the 1958 film about the Titanic a shot. This lead to a new fascination: tragic romance and sunken ships. While the film wasn't the start of it, Cameron persuaded the studios to let him make the film so that he could deep sea dive and analyze the original Titanic. He built equipment so that the cameras could handle the pressure. While they aren't the best quality, he planned to use it in the film - thus adding an additional wraparound regarding an aged Rose reciting her story to scientists. During his expedition, he spent more time with the ship than any passenger had during its use. He also accidentally damaged the boat in the process. While the initial budget was $135 million, the final budget of $200 million also meant that the film was also far more expensive than the production of the original boat.

Cameron's fascination didn't stop at sea excavations. He became obsessed with the boat and even did thorough research for a total of five years. The story goes that he researched every real life event within the story's time frame and wrote exhaustive notes. From there, he began to add his various details. While the romance and various other characters were fictional, a lot of the film was based on actual evidence. Various characters are seen in the film that were recorded to have been on the Titanic, including the owner of Macy's and his wife. By sheer luck, Cameron was also able to come across the actual blueprints for the ship. While the exterior seen in the film is an incomplete mix of smaller sets and digitally added portions, the interiors were said to have been done entirely to record. In what is likely more of a coincidence, Titanic the film is 194 minutes long; which is the exact same time that it would take the boat to sink. Many of the scenes, including the final boat sinking, were also shown in real time.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet signed on before the script was written. Due to the ship having trouble being built, Cameron had to find a way to be productive. As a result, he filmed the famous nude scene first - which he claimed showed the class oppression and even admired its shaky look. His only regret is that it wasn't seen further in the shot. Since the actors knew that this was their first scene together, Winslet decided to break the ice by flashing DiCaprio. Beyond this however, Cameron was considered a notoriously anal director who constantly picked fights with his actors. In later interviews, he claimed that it was necessary to be hard, as great art was made by the tough. Still, his constant nagging with a megaphone caused many to label his evil alter ego Mij (Jim backwards). During the shooting of the final sinking - filmed in a pool that was three feet deep - Winslet refused to wear a wet suit and ended up with pneumonia. The cast also suffered a major setback when an unknown assailant spiked the food at a cast and crew party with PCP. Beyond all of this, the two leads were split on their views of Cameron. DiCaprio understood his methods, yet Winslet adamantly refused to work with him again, unless there was a large sum of money involved.

Behind the scenes, things weren't looking too well either. Cameron had trouble convincing the studio that he was doing a great job. With a $65 million increase in budget, they were growing skeptical - as it was officially the most expensive film of the 20th century. At over three hours, it was also going to eat into profits. Still, his overly cocky demeanor threatened to give up his salary and quit, but only on the grounds that they kill him. He stayed on, but the pressure grew as word got out. What was initially a July release was delayed due to the special effects not being ready. In fact, the editing room featured a razor blade with a note claiming that it was only for use if the film was a disaster. Cameron had no pretension of the film potentially being one. However, his composer James Horner gave him an extra boost when he secretly wrote "My Heart Will Go On," later sung by Celine Dion. Cameron didn't want any music in the film, but was turned around upon hearing it - believing that a popular song would elevate the film even more. Winslet has claimed to not be a fan of said song.

The film eventually got a December release, of which was met with a tepid praise, earning $28 million on opening weekend. While not an impressive total, the film maintained its place at the top of the charts for 15 straight weeks, itself a record that hasn't been beaten. Titanic's biggest one day sale happened on Valentine's Day 1998. It would eventually become the first film to gross over a billion dollars in history. Thanks to a rerelease 15 years later, it would become the second film (after Cameron's Avatar) to cross the two billion dollar mark. Many historians claim that the success was caused by a variety of reasons. Women loved the doomed romance between Jack and Rose. Men were stereotyped as crying during the film, attributed to relating to Jack's adventurous side. Cameron claims something deeper, believing that the scope as well as the story was something that united friends to watch the film and bring them to the theaters to experience it. This pattern held up, even after the film became the first to be released on DVD and VHS while still being shown in theaters. The film also spawned American women's fascination with Leonardo DiCaprio. The film's success lead to additional midnight showings and even caused theaters to ask for new reals due to excessive use.

Much like the film's other successes, Titanic was a titanic at the Oscars. With 14 nominations, it tied with All About Eve for most nominations by a single film. With 11 wins, it tied with Ben-Hur and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King for most wins. Cameron became the first director of a Best Picture winner to have produced, directed, written, and edited the film. Gloria Stewart and Winslet also became the first duo to be nominated for playing the same person in the same film. At 87, Stewart was also the oldest nominee in history. The film also became the Best Picture with the most wins without an acting win or a screenplay nomination. Following the film's resurgence in 2012, it was also the first and only film to win while also being post-converted to 3D. This was the ceremony at which Cameron famously won and declared "I'm king of the world!" - a line improvised by DiCaprio in the film. It was said to make him look more despicable. Titanic isn't the first film to win while depicting Titanic however. That goes to Cavalcade, of which the ship appears briefly in.

The film's legacy may seem hard to respect by today's blockbuster-minded standards. The film's status as being the first billion dollar movie looks a little unimpressive by how many as of 2015 have achieved it. Even then, few films in the proceeding decade (including Best Picture winner The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) grossed a billion. It wasn't until Cameron's follow-up Avatar that the model shifted, choosing to make profits from 3D surcharges. Avatar out grossed Titanic and became the first film to gross two billion dollars; though general attendance still is in Titanic's favor - as it is considered the fifth highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation. The film's accuracy lead more epics in the century to come to be more detailed - even though many believe the film to have borrowed many elements from A Night to Remember. This even resulted in astrologist Neil DeGrasse Tyson to complain in 2012 about the constellations being off. Yes, those were later changed to be scientifically accurate. Even in its rerelease, the post-conversion process inspired Steven Spielberg to use the same company and techniques for a planned rerelease of Jurassic Park. The film inspired Winslet to take on smaller movies as well.

Titanic is a film that feels like it will live on forever. If not in its actual quality, then in its surprising and unsurpassed successes. From Cameron's annoying control to the iconic music, the film is full of infinite details worthy of dissection. It is a film that captures a simple romance in one of history's most tumultuous times. Is it the best film ever? Depending on what you want out of it. Even then, Cameron's winning formula reflected that the film could connect with audiences and kept the attraction to romantic epics alive, if only for a little longer. It may not make sense to modern audiences why it was as big as it was, but it's one of the last big success hurrahs of the 20th century, and thus makes it impossible to ever challenge. Much like the characters, it's a film that only wants to be king of the world. If you go off of 1997 and 1998's obsession with it, then it probably was.

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