This is from a section of my book, due to come out next year, called “Blockbuster Performances.” I argue that despite critics who typically dismiss acting as a tertiary concern of blockbuster movies, in fact strong performances make strong blockbusters, and in particular, the success of Titanic, especially compared to 1997’s only other $100 million+ film, Batman and Robin, proved that excellent acting was more important than “star” casting. Now that Titanic has returned to theaters for its anniversary, it seemed like a good time to give you this (lightly edited) sneak preview. Enjoy!

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Writer-director James Cameron told Esquire in December 1997: “I think of it as an epic romance. I told the studio, this is going to be a three-hour movie. The films I’m trying to emulate are Gone with the Wind and Doctor Zhivago. It is imperative that this epic be intimate” (Griffin 1997, 98, italics in original).

Cameron deserves credit for bucking then-conventional wisdom and casting relative non-stars in his lead roles. This may have helped audiences to feel as “caught up” as they had with the non-stars of Zhivago and GWTW (except for Gable), in repudiation of Sobchack’s “magnitude” argument (1990, 32). Cameron faced his own restrictions of Rose being 17 (keeping her modern incarnation from being too implausibly decrepit) and Jack being her peer (he is written as 19). At the time, there were several TV star-actors who might have been cast as Rose and Jack, had a different producer-director been at the helm. This is not to say that Cameron cast utter unknowns, like Kevin Smith making Clerks (Smith, 1994). If Cameron sought actors who had received Oscar nominations, within the age restrictions, the list was quite short in early 1996 when casting was completed: DiCaprio, Winslet, Juliette Lewis, Uma Thurman, and Winona Ryder. Winslet and Ryder were the only two who’d already been cast in multiple period works, but Ryder had been playing the age of 17 for about a decade. Winslet may have been the actress who ticked the most boxes, but Cameron deserves some sort of credit for setting up those boxes in the first place, and not prioritizing an “It Girl.”

The casting of Kate Winslet as Rose was serendipitous because throughout the film, she never hits a false note. In Laban terms, she moves from a spatial-temporal, highly controlled sustained energy to more free-flowing, flexible movements (2011), as the titular ship moves from order to chaos. If star associations influence meaning, then Winslet’s turns in the heritage genre in Sense and Sensibility (Lee, 1995) and Hamlet (Branagh, 1996) probably helped establish her Edwardian-era propriety and decorousness as Rose, even as they gave critics one more reason to laud Jack’s efforts to “loosen her up.” Russell Carpenter, the film’s director of photography, says on a DVD commentary,

We had shot tests with a number of actresses, and after several actresses, Kate Winslet came in. And she gave her reading, and I’m thinking, if this isn’t Rose, I don’t know who is. Also besides being a great actress and seeming to possess the role of Rose from the first take on, she had a presence and a command, for someone so young, that made you think here was somebody rock-solid all the way through, and who was going to be consistent and there and true to form from day one all the way to the very end. (2005, Titanic DVD, “Crew Commentary”)

Sean Redmond writes that because of Winslet’s emergence in the heritage film, Winslet functions as “the personification or embodiment of idealized white English femininity, but which on another level works to (deliberately) undermine such a ‘constraining’” through Winslet’s “unruly” releases, and indeed both aspects prove crucial to Titanic (2007, 271).

Perhaps influenced by Sharif’s eyes in Doctor Zhivago, eyes are a motif and a performative keynote in Titanic. The only flash-cut flashback is a very brief insert of an extreme close-up of Jack’s eyes as remembered by 101-year-old Rose. Thomas Andrews (played by Victor Garber), the only person who immediately understands the full significance of the iceberg’s impact, is accosted by Rose, who says: “I saw the iceberg, and I can see it your eyes.” Kathy Bates and Frances Fisher lead a group of castaways who stare abjectly, helplessly, as they watch the mighty ship sink, bearing epic-historical witness to dramatic, world-shaking upheavals in the way of David Lean’s actors. Rose bears similar witness throughout the film. As written, Rose is not as often dumbstruck as Yuri Zhivago nor as chatty as Scarlett O’Hara, but her moments of wonder are cannily synched with her great dismay at the vicissitudes of history: Rose stares as her mother ties her corset and remands her daughter, “We’re women, our choices are never easy”; Rose watches from the floating wood detritus as scores of humans die around her and after she flips over to see a similar number of stars, the heavens to where everyone around her is departing; Rose’s eyes hold the screen during two 84-year transitions.

Gloria Stuart deserves credit for her nuanced portrayal of the elder Rose; although Stuart is often predictable, she sustains a low-energy bemusement, a certain knowing-better, cat-that-ate-the-canary quality that serves the narrative and the Rose character quite well. One of the two 84-year transitions occurs during Rose’s recumbent nude portrait for Jack, where the camera closes up on Rose’s eye (the spin echoes the end of the most famous scene of Psycho [Hitchcock, 1960]) and dissolves toward a wily older Rose, and the other occurs as a revivified Rose blows a life-saving whistle, cueing the film’s hard-cut to an extreme close-up of older Rose opening her eyes just before she says “Fifteen hundred people went into the water…” The effect is by now familiar for students of the epic: the audience feels itself doing as much as it would ever do in history. Only the highly accomplished acting of a Leigh, Sharif, or Winslet can effectively draw audiences into this feeling, and it is the most indispensable feeling of the modern-historical epic.

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If there is a often-lamented weakness amongst the performances of Titanic, critics have cited Cal, played by Billy Zane, as too “cartoonish” or “one-dimensional,” the sort of villain that twirls a mustache while tying a woman to train tracks (Keller 2006, 192). Zane saw his own character as three-dimensional, as he attests: “Cal was just a product of bad programming. He wasn’t a bad person. He was just an example of [a] flawed system forged by fathers and forefathers that suddenly landed in his lap at a time of unavoidable social upheaval and shifts in art and business and commerce and labor and…Cal was just caught out. He just spent too much time invested in an archaic system” (2005, Titanic DVD, “Cast Commentary”). Cameron added, “Cal wasn’t really intended to be crazy per se or even anomalous for his time, he was really intended to represent the kind of male-dominated worldview that was extant at that time” (2005, Titanic DVD, “Director’s Commentary”). Cal seems excessive, which by 1997 is both a virtue and a problem. One way of reading Zane’s performance as Cal is as the film’s weak link, the type of acting that was misjudged as too ancient-world, too histrionic, too close to Sobchack’s paradigm. Such a reading seems to prove that ancient-world epics and modern-historical epics merit different sorts of performances. Another reading suggests that Cal’s excess was made to seem like a cartoonish relic of 1912 precisely to contrast Jack and Rose, to make the lead lovers seem more recognizably contemporary and cosmopolitan.

Some reports credit DiCaprio as an acolyte of the Meisner acting style (Keller 2006, 188). Meisner is a sort of subset of Method acting that advises the actor to listen to his scene partner above all things. Whether or not Leonardo DiCaprio uses it, his work in Titanic exemplifies both the strategy and its effectiveness; audiences believe in his unwavering love for Rose and particularly her potential, and thus Rose believes in herself and her potential. As he had in Romeo and Juliet (Luhrmann, 1996), DiCaprio proves persuasive at being in love and sacrificing anything for love. If DiCaprio hits any false notes in Titanic, they probably come when Jack is less attached to Rose, e.g. “Whatever we do, we’ve got to do it fast.” In terms of the heritage genre, DiCaprio-as-Jack’s constancy is consonant with Clark Gable’s work as Rhett Butler and, to a lesser degree, Omar Sharif’s work as Yuri Zhivago. In the real world, where men often seem to desire women to remain the girlish figures they once were, the appeal of epic romances lies partly in their presentation a more female-friendly, time-friendly version of attraction that is then spread out over vast distances of time and space. And of course, actors must sell this; audiences have to believe that Rhett, Yuri, and Jack really love these people, and with something resembling the Meisner style, this mostly happens.

Playing an object of affection is potentially more difficult, as the character must be both worthy of constant love and also changing, evolving, becoming their best self. Julie Christie never has enough screen time to sell this as Lara; Vivien Leigh is paradigmatic and brilliant as Scarlett; but Kate Winslet arguably achieves something more as Rose, convincingly portraying a woman (girl) who can fall rapturously in love in a day and somehow transform the loss of that love into a greater, more independent destiny. Titanic producer Jon Landau described the film’s first preview screening: the production gave cards to the test audience to the effect of we know it’s too long, please tell us what to cut. Landau said that they were surprised that audiences wanted more of the ship’s sinking cut; they preferred to preserve Rose and Jack’s love story (2005, Titanic DVD, “Crew Commentary”). This says something about not only the quality of Winslet and DiCaprio’s performances, but the need for high-quality performances even when spectacle is the supposed first order of business. Though some consider Titanic a disaster film, it is no coincidence that the two main things separating it from most of that genre’s films are actor performances and box-office performance (not unlike Jaws [Spielberg, 1975]).

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According to Winslet, she and DiCaprio spent five days sitting and talking with Cameron about their roles. She says that Cameron resisted the fact that she and DiCaprio “thought it would be interesting to have a little bit of the bittersweet quality to this relationship. You know it couldn’t all be so predictable. It was too on the nose to have the rich girl meet the poor guy and it all ended in hearts and flowers and they just fell in love with each other gazing across the deck of a ship. We wanted it to be more edgy than that.” Winslet speculates that Cameron was not happy with a 20-year-old and a 21-year-old questioning a script he’d been writing for years, but “Leo and I quietly never gave up that fight, and lo and behold, it’s there, we got it into the movie” (2005, Titanic DVD, “Cast Commentary”). According to Winslet, in response to their remonstrations, Cameron gave them five new pages on the morning that they were to film their first stroll together on the first-class deck.

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This scene bears closer scrutiny, partly because it sets the tone of the rest of the film, partly because its melodramatic aspects distinguish it from other 1997 blockbusters, and partly because its “authors” seem to be some stochastic combination of Cameron, Winslet, and DiCaprio. The five-minute scene begins with Jack explaining his parents’ death and “tumbleweed”-like life before his rather stilted, formal, why-did-you-want-to-see-me question. Editors, directors, and writers of blockbusters are taught to “come late, leave early,” and when editing a three-hour-plus film it must have been tempting to start this scene with Rose’s declaration “I want to thank you…” But the filmmakers – including Cameron, who, unlike many directors, insists on an editor credit – were wise to keep this bit of character work for Jack, partly because it extends the story decades into the past which aids the “epic” scope, partly because it makes viewers understand Jack as more than an agent of enabling Rose, and partly because DiCaprio does fine work with the lines. DiCaprio-as-Jack lets himself be vulnerable, jokey, and a little awkward, in contrast to the formally elegant wealthy passengers seen walking by.

The dialogue is particularly effective after Jack says, “What I was thinking was, what could have happened to this girl to make her think she had no way out?” Rose replies, crossing to the handrail as though to signify her back against a wall, “Well, I…it was everything, my whole world, and all the people in it. And the inertia of my life, plunging ahead and me powerless to stop it.” Even her mouth is more open than it was in all her previous scenes, her (figurative and literal) stiff upper lip giving way to lighter releases. Rose presents her wedding ring to Jack, which would seem an awkward gesture from many actresses, but Winslet has saved her lighter movements for a distraught Rose, making the casual display seem natural.

Whether or not DiCaprio uses the Meisner style, he listens well here, keeping his eyes glued on Winslet even as Jack answers, “Look at that thing, you would have gone straight to the bottom.” DiCaprio gives a very slight nod and respectful squint on this line, carefully balancing humor and his recognition of her distress. The (attempt at) humor helps; Hitchcock famously told Truffaut to leaven increasing drama with moments of humor, to keep the audience invested (1985). Rose wants out of her own life; Jack wants her to have that, but he also wants her. DiCaprio-as-Jack is not as vulnerable as Sharif-as-Zhivago, but by contemporary standards of “action heroes” (discussed at length in Chapters 6 and 7), DiCaprio deserves credit for a certain weakness and indirectness. In this scene, the actor is not afraid to have his character be afraid to express his attraction to Rose.

Almost ignoring Jack, Rose frets about 500 invitations having gone out, the pressure from Philadelphia society, and the dream-like feeling of screaming in a crowded room with no one looking. Laban discusses a metric of resistance to gravity, part of a spectrum that moves roughly from boundness to flexibility (2011, 53). Here Winslet-as-Rose demonstrates that while she was “bound” in her previous heritage genre scenes, she still had a reliable relationship to gravity; now talking to Jack, her nascent flexibility may come to defy gravity, or, as Jack puts it, take her “straight to the bottom.” One of the central appeals of Titanic, perhaps something that can only be done on a blockbuster scale, is having one’s materialism and hating it too; the film luxuriates in exquisite, painstakingly recreated sets, and then uses expensive special effects to destroy them and underline an anti-materialist theme. Performative style supports this cognitive dissonance on a meta level: the film’s first hour in 1912 privileges the heritage style, through Winslet, DiCaprio, and many other actors, only to provide the pleasure of upending it into chaos and desperation in the film’s final hour.

On the first-class deck, Jack says “Do you love him?”, and Rose asks for him to repeat it. It all plays on Kate Winslet’s face: the suspicion of Jack’s motivations, the societal propriety, the indecision over how the answer will change her nascent relationship with Jack. This play of emotions well justifies her non-answer, which sets up the next little spat, where she tells him good-day and good-bye. If it is true that Cameron had not included this sort of frisson in the initial script, Winslet and DiCaprio were wise to insist on it, and they play it quite convincingly even when the lines are over-determined, as in Jack’s “Now who’s being rude?” Compared to other parts of the film, the scene has a non-rehearsed, spontaneous quality, which both sells the love story and helps to distinguish Rose and Jack from many of the starched-shirt passengers. Their acting here elaborates the film’s major themes.

One charge leveled against Titanic is that it was not exactly replicable (unlike, say, Die Hard [McTiernan, 1988]) or that if the film did have influence, that was seen less in blockbusters and more in Hollywood’s wave of films for teen and “tween” girls like She’s All That (Iscove, 1999) and 10 Things I Hate About You (Junger, 1999). Perhaps, but it is also true that James Cameron has been something of a pioneer director of female-centered films that bear many blockbuster trappings, or put another way, are somewhat geared toward males, like Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). James Clarke notes that like most Cameron leads, “Rose is looking to control her destiny in a world dominated by men” (2014, 117). In this context, one might see the prodigious success of Titanic as helping establish the possibility of Athenian blockbuster franchises like Twilight and The Hunger Games, discussed in Chapter 9, which also rely heavily on performative proficiency from their female leads. Yet I would argue that Titanic is even more influential than that.

1997 turned out to be a crucial year for performances in big-budget films because of the differing fortunes of the only two films of 1997 with budgets over $100 million: Batman and Robin (Schumacher, 1997) and Titanic. At the dawn of the “blogger” era, Batman and Robin was released to what seemed like universal contempt, led by Harry Knowles’ incipient site. The idea of “fans” reacting against the hegemonic studios was powerful enough that in the wake of Batman and Robin, People and Newsweek magazines contacted Knowles for interviews. The “bat nipples” on Batman’s costume were derided, while particular scorn was reserved for the casting: Arnold Schwarzenegger and George Clooney were considered one-dimensional and plastic, unable to access whatever gravitas the Batman characters had in the better comic books. Batman and Robin, relying on conspicuous “star casting,” failed to earn back its budget in domestic rentals (it cost $125m and earned $107m); Titanic, without major stars, became the highest-grossing film of all time (in non-adjusted dollars). The message was there for those predisposed to hear it: avoid cheesiness and the wrath of fans, do not cast stars for the sake of casting stars, and instead cast “right for the role” actors for adaptations of great adventure literature.