Someday they’ll make a movie about the making of Titanic; an epic story of love and disaster, with an ice-berg called James Cameron and two plucky leads named Kate and Leo. Audiences will gasp at the scale of hubris involved in making a two hundred million dollar movie – and thrill to watch Kate and Leo battle ice-berg Cameron… braving PCP in the clam chowder, sub-zero waters and the shoot to end all careers! The movie will have a happy ending; Kate and Leo survive. But what will future audiences make of us – their forebears – will they grasp why we loved this movie so?
For the first hour and a half it’s a costume drama. Kate is an about-to-combust debutante and Leo is the sexiest man in steerage. They meet because she’s about to kill herself. The claustrophobic stuffiness of moneyed life has pushed Kate to the brink. Leo has seen her on deck a scene before, but it’s when she’s dangling from the railings that he spies his best opportunity. He catches Kate just as she slips, and for the next two hours they’re inseparable. Neither the greatest maritime catastrophe in history, nor Billy Zane’s moustache-twirling villainy can rend them asunder. Shame the ship doesn’t have a Leo-boat to come to its rescue.
James Cameron’s screenplay is so water-tight in its construction he presumably felt dialogue and characterisation were superfluous. There are lines people are asked to speak which no sentient human being would ever utter. The depiction of the Irish steerage passengers is so stereotypical it’s a wonder they don’t choke on four leaf clovers. Nothing really matters to Cameron except that the story keeps moving. His mission: set out the geography of the ship, get Leo and Kate together, have Leo and Kate run the length of the ship; watch the ship sink. Tragic teen-heartthrob romance: check. Gargantuan special-effects orgy: double check.
Leo is still stick-thin in Titanic and right at the apex of his sex-appeal. He looks like the essence of every boy who ever scaled a trellis to reach a girl’s window. His face is just peeking over the edge of adolescence. No young girl’s heart would have a prayer. As written, his character is the perfect mix of quixotic daring and orphan vulnerability. He’s a Jack London type-of-guy, rootless as a sack of potatoes, driven as lightning. Like every hero since being-of-noble-birth went out of fashion, his quest is to out-manoeuvre the higher-ups. Kate loves him because she knows he hasn’t planned anything. Their marriage would last about a day.
Kate has the more difficult role because she has to be loved by Leo – which means every woman in the audience is thinking: why her? If Cameron had picked Gwyneth Paltrow (and he was thinking about it), the movie would have died (because no woman on earth is going to root for Gwyneth Paltrow). But Kate is a different proposition. She looks like someone with an interior life, someone with struggles. Her character has to be someone who’d rather jump off a ship than sit quiet and let her husband make the decisions, and with Kate: you believe it. She spits vivacity. When she hauls Leo into the back of a car to deflower him (and it’s definitely played that way around) he’s the one who’s nervous.
People just needed an epic love story. That’s the simple explanation for the Titanic phenomenon. That, and Leo-mania. And James Cameron’s enduring luck. Nowadays, people can deny they liked it. We can all claim Vichy-France amnesia and say it was others who approved. But you and I know we were there, willing a two hundred million dollar underdog to prevail. It was the spirit of the times: pre-millennium fever. Y2K – the end of the world – remember that? The Titanic story seemed in keeping with the Nineties: a great over-rated ship in distress. We thought 2000 was going to be our Year Zane. No wonder we plumped for Leo.