The first time I saw Titanic, my father left the theater in the middle of the movie to get a haircut. I didn’t notice he was gone. I wasn’t conscious of any reality but Titanic, even though I already knew exactly what was going to happen. One of my friends had briefed me on what to expect: Jack and Rose fall in love, the ship sinks, and Jack finds a piece of wreckage floating in the sea and helps Rose clamber onto it, saving her from the freezing death that claims him before the lifeboats return for survivors. But it wasn’t fair, my friend explained: It was obvious to her that there was room for them both.
It didn’t matter that I knew exactly what was coming. I couldn’t think about anything else while the movie played. And even when the lights came up and I realized my father was missing, his absence didn’t seem to matter much. I was 9, but I already understood he had a habit of wandering off when he got bored. I was even used to it. What was new was this feeling: that I had to get back to Titanic as soon as possible. The credits were barely rolling as I began to strategize my next viewing. I knew that the movie had completely devastated me, and I knew that all I wanted was to be devastated again. But why?
Viewers — many of them adolescent and preadolescent girls like me — would go back to Titanic over and over again while it was in theaters. It was the No. 1 movie in the US for 15 consecutive weeks, a feat that has yet to be surpassed, and likely never will be.
Well before it was released, James Cameron’s passion project became notorious as the most expensive movie ever made, with a final budget of $200 million. Then it became the first movie in history to earn $1 billion at the box office. And it achieved this success despite months of advance press claiming that the movie was all but doomed; despite the widespread belief that James Cameron, who previously helmed the Alien and Terminator franchises, had no business trying to tell a story about love; and despite the fact that Titanic, in a way that is now all too easy to forget, is an immensely difficult movie to watch.
When Titanic was released on video in September 1998, its 3 hours and 14 minutes had to be split across two VHS tapes. The same studio heads who were convinced Titanic could only recoup its budget at best (success was almost mathematically impossible) had seen its gargantuan runtime as just one of its many liabilities. Critics also pointed to its ungainly length as proof of its failure to play by the rules: It was a “bloated leviathan,” a “behemoth,” and a tiresome epic that, according to the Washington Post’s Desson Howe, left viewers “thinking the unpardonable thought: ‘OK, sink already.’”
Titanic’s length was also bad news for movie theaters, since it meant they had to schedule fewer showings — and sell fewer tickets — than they could with a normal movie. After screening Titanic for a test audience in Minneapolis, however, executives at Paramount and Fox, which had jointly financed the production, began wondering if Cameron’s folly might not be a disaster of Waterworld proportions. The audience laughed and cheered and gasped at all the right moments, and gave the movie and its characters astoundingly high ratings on the survey cards they filled out after the showing.
“It went well,” a Fox executive said cagily. “Not great, but well.”
When all was said and done, Titanic had cost a little over $1 million per minute of screentime, and it was sometimes hard for studio executives to look at the movie Cameron described as a way to honor the disaster’s victims without wondering just how much this history lesson would end up costing them.
Cameron had been dreaming of Titanic since Robert Ballard located the ship’s remains in 1985 (“I’ll be goddamned!” Ballard exclaimed as Titanic loomed into view, a line Cameron later borrowed for his own characters). After watching National Geographic’s special on Ballard in 1987, Cameron made a few notes: “Do story with bookends of present-day [wreckage] scene...intercut with memory of a survivor...needs a mystery or driving plot element.”
Cameron had always loved diving and deep-sea exploration, and The Abyss, his third film as director and sole writer, had been a love letter to both. But that was fantasy; Titanic was real. And when Cameron first decided to pursue the project, the prospect of going to the wreck of Titanic might have been incentive enough to pitch the movie. When he first met with 20th Century Fox Chairman Peter Chernin to discuss Titanic, in the spring of 1995, he asked for $2 million to fund a deep-sea expedition. It was an amazing sum of money to the Russian scientists and submersible pilots who took Cameron to the wreck. It was nothing compared to Titanic’s final price tag.
When Titanic opened in theaters across the US, on the weekend of Dec. 19, 1997, it became the No. 1 movie in America by the skin of its teeth, edging out the latest James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, by a margin of $3.5 million. But to the executives who had nervously overseen Titanic’s production — and watched its budget nearly double, from $110 to $200 million — this wasn’t particularly encouraging news. For Titanic to earn a profit, executives calculated, it would have to attract viewers in utterly unprecedented numbers: Even if it sold more tickets than Dances With Wolves, the most profitable three-hour-long movie ever released, Fox would still be $70 million in the red.
And to be a success? It would have to somehow repeat its $28 million opening-weekend ticket sales — and stay the No. 1 movie in America — for weeks and weeks in a row, in a way no movie had in nearly a decade. It would have to be more than just a movie. It would have to become a cultural obsession. And it did.
Cameron had once — optimistically, as the final budget reflected — called Titanic "a $190 million chick flick." By Jan. 31, 1998, 20th Century Fox estimated that 7% of all American teenage girls had seen the movie twice. They weren’t the only ones going back to see Titanic a second time, and perhaps a third, though they did receive the most press. In 1997, the average return viewer rate for a theatrically released movie was 2%. Meanwhile, Titanic’s was 20%. In February 1998, a survey found that 76% of Titanic's repeat viewers still planned to see it again. It made more money — $32 million — during its 11th weekend in theaters than it did during its first. (It helped that this weekend also happened to fall on Valentine’s Day.)
Theaters that previously worried about losing money on a movie they could screen only two or three times a day started squeezing in showings as early as 8 a.m. and as late as midnight, letting out satisfied viewers at 3:30 in the morning. Adults, people with families, responsibilities, and jobs, flocked to see Titanic. Because for a little while — for 3 hours and 14 minutes, to be precise — the rest of their lives disappeared. Titanic gave people a way to make the rest of their lives disappear, and so they kept coming back, and finding that the world James Cameron had created for them still felt just as real as it had the first time.
What made Titanic not just a movie, but a destination? And what did it take to will such a world into solid reality?
“It is the night before shooting starts,” Kate Winslet wrote in her diary on Sept. 15, 1996, “and here I am, all pin-curled up and hungry, ready to go. Thinking about Rose. She was so young. I need to think about her childhood, her youth, and find my way through the 17 years of her life. I'll never sleep tonight.” The next morning, Winslet added: “No sleep. This is it… My life is not my own and probably never will be — and that's Rose talking.”
During Titanic’s seven months of production, the line between Kate and Rose would sometimes blur — but it had been that way from the beginning. After she auditioned for the part, and Cameron left her waiting as he deliberated casting, Winslet tracked him down on his car phone, reaching him when he was on the freeway. “You don’t understand,” she told him. “I am Rose.” And she was.
Kate Winslet was 20 when she began filming Titanic, and spent her 21st birthday shooting Jack’s death scene. “We were lying there on the raft, sort of shivering together,” she told Rosie O’Donnell while promoting the movie, “and I said ‘Leo, it’s my birthday today.’ And he said, ‘That’s great, sweetie. You know what? I don’t care.’”
DiCaprio himself turned 22 while Titanic was in production. In the same Rosie appearance, Winslet said she and Leo had been “the naughty children on the set,” and remembered how, while filming the scenes where Jack and Rose waited for the lifeboats to return after the ship’s sinking, “Leo would sometimes say to me, ‘Sweetie, sweetie, I gotta pee.’
“I’d go, ‘So have I.’”
They would pee in shifts, taking turns swimming over to another part of the tank — which was about the most romantic gesture anyone could get either of them to recall from Titanic’s set, though people tried. “He doesn’t think that he’s gorgeous,” Kate Winslet told Vanity Fair, around the time Leomania became a bona fide pandemic. “And to me, he’s just smelly, farty Leo.”
When she wasn’t called on to talk about his sex appeal, Winslet sang DiCaprio’s praises as an artist. “He’s gifted from God, as far as I’m concerned,” she told O’Donnell. In another interview, she mused, “Leo is such a brilliant actor. And he doesn’t know it. He really doesn’t know it.”
He had started his career with commercials for Kraft cheese (“Hands off, the Free Singles are for Daddy!” “Aw, but Mom!”), Matchbox cars, Bubble Yum (“Only Yum is the fun that never blows out!”), and Fred Meyer fashions (“You wanna dance?” a girl asks him. “I like your sweater”). He won his first TV roles — after being kicked off the set of Romper Room, at 3 years old — in The New Lassie and Parenthood. He was good at playing junior-high heartthrobs and squeaky-clean sons, but the more he got cast in those parts, the less interested in them he seemed to be.
By the time he was cast as Jack Dawson, Leonardo DiCaprio had already been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role as the title character’s developmentally disabled younger brother, Arnie, in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Initially, director Lasse Hallström had believed DiCaprio was too handsome for the role — a judgment born out by the fact that fan mail for him was already streaming onto the set of Growing Pains.
“When I was doing Growing Pains I had quite a teen following,” DiCaprio said in a 1993 interview. “For a while, I was third in fan mail or something like that. To tell you the truth, I don't like that. Being the hunk-of-the-month annoys me. ... I don't care about being a star. Anybody can be a star with a little makeup and a music video. I'm concerned about being an actor.”
James Cameron knew he wanted DiCaprio to be his Jack Dawson, but DiCaprio didn’t want to be his Jack. When DiCaprio auditioned for the role, Cameron later remembered, he first refused to read a scene with Kate Winslet, then “read it once, [and started] goofing around.” After that, Cameron said, “I could never get him to focus on it again. But for one split second, a shaft of light came down from the heavens and lit up the forest.”
DiCaprio had never played a character like Jack before: one who forced him to be, so relentlessly, in the light. Instead, he had spent his early career playing roles like the heroin-addicted Jim Carroll in 1995’s The Basketball Diaries, and Arthur Rimbaud (“young, gorgeous, and deranged”) in Total Eclipse. “How do you do that?” DiCaprio said of his role in Titanic, even after filming had ended. “I was asking Jim, ‘Can’t we add some dark things to his character?’ And he was like, ‘No, Leo, you can’t.’”
“I just wasn't used to playing an openhearted, free-spirited guy,” DiCaprio told the Los Angeles Times shortly after the Titanic premiere. “I've played the more tortured roles in the past. It was difficult to be someone closer to 'me' than anyone else.”
“His character doesn’t go through torment,” Cameron later said of the role, “and Leo previously, and subsequently in his career, was always looking for that dark cloud. ... [It was] only when I convinced him [this] was actually the harder thing to do that he got excited.”
Titanic represented a new challenge for James Cameron, too. It wasn’t his first romantic movie (try listening to the love theme from The Terminator sometime), but it was the first movie he had ever made where a love story served as the primary dramatic engine. When he pitched Titanic to Fox Chairman Peter Chernin in 1995, Cameron — who had cracked into the big leagues after making 1984’s The Terminator, and had seen his sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, become the highest-grossing movie of 1991 — found himself in the odd position of trying to sell studio executives on exactly the kind of movie they didn’t think he could make.
"They were like, 'Oooooohkaaaaaay,’" he later told Paula Parisi, author of Titanic and the Making of James Cameron. “‘A three-hour romantic epic? Sure, that's just what we want. Is there a little bit of Terminator in that? Any Harrier jets, shoot-outs, or car chases?' I said, 'No, no, no. It's not like that.'"
Yet James Cameron was, in a sense, a natural choice for the helm of a romantic epic: He knew how to translate love into action. From the beginning, his heroes and heroines had been made powerful by their ability to love, and by love’s ability to instill in them greater strength than any opponent could hope to defeat. The Terminator ends with Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) speaking gently to her unborn son as she drives into a mounting storm; in Aliens, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) balances a little girl on one hip and a flamethrower on the other; and in Judgment Day, the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), programmed to protect the adolescent John Connor, tells John “I know now why you cry” as he destroys himself to save the future of humanity.
“Building Better Worlds” is the space conglomerate slogan on display in James Cameron’s Aliens, but it could just as easily apply to the worlds Cameron builds in his movies — or rather, the worlds he allows to come into being, by stripping away the rules as they have always previously applied. In The Terminator, Terminator 2, and Aliens, this idea seems to go hand in hand with getting rid of men — and Titanic follows this example. Even if men aren’t actively oppressing women, Cameron’s movies suggest, they still have a way of holding women back from doing what they need to. Even if all you want is to save John Connor, you’re still a product of Skynet. The best protection you can offer the world is to leave it.
Before filming even began, Cameron knew his $110 million budget projection was only an educated guess. To begin with, Fox would have to build a brand-new studio from the ground up, something neither it nor any other major movie company had done since the 1930s. No one knew how much it cost to do that kind of thing anymore — to say nothing of the price tag for conjuring the past with computer-generated effects so brand-new that their final cost was also impossible to estimate.
But if anyone could make Titanic work, Fox executives felt, it was James Cameron. He had made Terminator 2, from script to premiere, in 13 months: He shot the movie six days a week, and on the seventh day, he edited. (Crew members somehow found enough time away from their grueling production schedule to make shirts reading “You can’t scare me, I work for James Cameron.”) He liked to say he had won his first directing gig — for Piranha II: The Spawning, the sequel to a Jaws knockoff — because he convinced producers he could make mealworms writhe on command. (He had called “Action!” and then electrified them with an AC current.) He had a reputation as a miracle worker, and he encouraged it. How else could you convince a roomful of businessmen to give you the money you needed to project your dreams and nightmares directly into the American mind?
The question was just how much this dream was going to cost. Cameron asked for $125 million to make Titanic. Fox Chairman Peter Chernin balked, and told Cameron he could make the movie he had first pitched as “Romeo and Juliet on a boat” if he could have it ready for a July 1997 release, and keep the budget to $110 million. Cameron, perhaps believing this might really be possible at the time — and perhaps also figuring it was better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission — said he could do it, offering to forfeit $4 million of his own salary to squeeze under the line.
Almost as soon as Titanic went into production, it began to go over budget. In 1996, shooting a typical action blockbuster — a Batman Forever or a Tomorrow Never Dies — cost an average of $100,000 to $150,000 a day. Titanic averaged between $225,000 and $300,000 — and this was after construction ended on the brand-new 40-acre movie studio Cameron needed to film it. He had considered locations all over the world, and ultimately decided on a spot 15 miles south of the border, in Rosarito, Mexico. Workers needed 10,000 tons of dynamite to blast a hole in the coastline big enough for the 17-million-gallon open-air tank — the largest ever built — that Cameron needed to hold his ship. And in a detail that becomes noteworthy when the movie in question is so concerned with the politics and hierarchies of labor — and Titanic never for a moment lets you forget that the captain’s pleasure in his “unsinkable” ship is powered by the sweat of the stokers in the hold — Cameron shot Titanic in Mexico in part to keep labor costs down. (“This is NAFTA at work!” Fox’s Tom Sherak told journalists who visited the set.)
Less than halfway through its seven-month shooting schedule, the movie had gobbled up nearly three-quarters of its budget, and showed no signs of slowing down — and Cameron seemed unwilling to make it slow down. So, Paula Parisi writes in Titanic and the Making of James Cameron, the studio did its best to persuade him.
One night in the fall of 1996, 20th Century Fox President Bill Mechanic visited Cameron onset during his 2 a.m. lunch hour, a schedule necessitated by the movie’s endless night shoots. “From a financial standpoint,” Mechanic told him, “this film is wildly out of control. Nothing is going to change that. All we can do now is contain it. So here are some scenes we’d like you to cut from the shooting schedule.” Cameron studied the list of scenes, and immediately refused to cut any of them.
“If you want to cut my film,” James Cameron told the president of Fox, “you’ll have to fire me, and to fire me you’ll have to kill me.” Then he stormed off set. The scenes stayed in the picture. Mechanic had little choice but to relent: No other director could manage all the moving parts Titanic required.
When Cameron asked Peter Chernin to fund his submersible expedition to Titanic, he wanted not just to see the wreck himself, but to film it in a way that would allow viewers to feel they were there with him. Doing so would also allow him to do Bob Ballard one better: Ballard may have found the ship, but he had only been able to capture video of it with his underwater remote operating vehicle, Jason. (Ballard had also initially wished to keep Titanic’s location secret.) Cameron might not be shooting Titanic first, but he was going to do it right. His engineer brother, Mike — the only Cameron boy who finished college — developed a titanium-encased film camera capable of independently withstanding the pressure of the ocean floor, and of capturing images of Titanic as it had never been seen before. Each dive would cost $25,000, and could record only 10 minutes of film.
Some of the footage Cameron brought back from Titanic appears in the movie. Some is recreated. But what Cameron also seems to have brought back from those dives was a new sense of humility about the task before him.
After his second trip to Titanic, Cameron told Paula Parisi, “I just sat there, and I just started to cry, thinking about the dive and everything I’d seen and experienced.” Later, he wrote in James Cameron’s Titanic: “That night I realized that my project, my film, was doomed to failure if it could not convey the emotion of that night rather than the fact of it.” More and more, it seemed to him that he could only let viewers experience Titanic’s sinking by letting them fully experience the ship itself — and he could only do that by recreating it.
“I wanted to be able to say to an audience, without the slightest pang of guilt: This is real,” Cameron wrote of Titanic. “This is what happened. Exactly like this. If you went back in a time machine and stood on the deck, this is what you would have seen… Second Officer Lightoller would be over there … and Wallace Hartley would be leading the band in a lively waltz just there, a few yards away … [and] slaloming between these immovable pylons of historical fact are Jack and Rose.”
In this way, Cameron wrote, “The film comes full circle, from being a film about Titanic, to being a love story that happens merely to be set on Titanic, back to being about the emotional truth of Titanic after all. By feeling the fear, the loss, the heartbreak of Jack and Rose, we finally can feel for the 1,500.”
After seeing Titanic for the first time, Harry Knowles compared the experience to traveling to the past through self-willed hypnosis, like the hero of Somewhere in Time. Titanic experts who visited Cameron’s set had the same experience in the flesh. Cameron’s devotion to history was exacting, and at times excruciating: Every possible detail, from the davits used to lower the lifeboats to the carpet in the first-class dining saloon (recreated, all 18,000 square feet of it, by the same company that had manufactured the original), was identical to what Titanic’s passengers would have seen. When the furniture being artificially aged for a scene recreating the wreck didn’t look quite right to Cameron, he spent a day and a half working on the props himself. (He was supposed to be finishing the screenplay at the time.)
“Cameron wanted real wallpaper and things like that," the movie’s head of physical production, Fred Gallo, recalled. "I said, 'Why don't you build the sets and have them paint on the wallpaper? No one will ever know.'”
But Cameron would. Thousands of props, from ashtrays to teacups to forks, had to be stamped with the White Star Line emblem, even if it was impossible for viewers to see. The costumes alone cost $8.4 million. The chandeliers couldn’t be Lucite, Cameron decided, because then they wouldn’t chime ominously as the ship began to tilt; they would have to be crystal, just as they had been in 1912.
“There should be a little brass sign right here that says ‘Push,’” Cameron said apologetically to Ken Marschall, as he led the Titanic expert through a doorway on D deck during a set visit.
“It was one delight after another,” Marschall said of his time on Titanic. But he didn’t have to work there.
"You don't just join one of his films," editor Mark Goldblatt said of James Cameron. “You sign on for a tour of duty." On Titanic, two-thirds of the shoot had to be done at night, and even the cast sometimes worked 20-hour days. “Nothing could have prepared me for it,” Kate Winslet later said. Night after night, as Titanic sank again and again, she and Leonardo DiCaprio had to struggle through water pumped in straight from the ocean. “I bet people will think it's heated,” she wrote in her diary, “but it isn't.” The crew watched actors vigilantly for signs of hypothermia. (Later, they would begin heating the water, even though Winslet had believed the cold would make her performance more authentic).
"I chipped a small bone in my elbow, and at one point I had deep bruises all over my arms," Kate Winslet told the Los Angeles Times once Titanic’s arduous shoot was over. "I looked like a battered wife."
Filming underwater close-ups, where Winslet had to be weighted in a tank while completely submerged, terrified her. Cameron, she wrote, “wouldn't have made me do that if I didn't say, ‘No, I'm okay.’" But even though it was a highly supervised set, with safety divers everywhere, she sometimes felt like she was drowning.
“Take after take,” Winslet wrote in her diary, “I reminded myself that I wanted to be part of this. I will not admit defeat.”
No one would. Titanic’s budget continued to swell as Cameron continued to fall behind schedule, and its release date was pushed back from July to December. Fox shunted Speed 2 — which some executives had higher hopes for, anyway — into the summer release slot Titanic was meant to fill. It flopped, and Titanic plunged ahead, its budget once rising by $20 million in the space of two chaotic weeks. “I cannot think of one crew member who didn't say, 'I've had it,’” first assistant director Sebastián Silva said. “But no one walked."
As far as Cameron’s temper went, Kate Winslet said, “the actors got off lightly. I think Jim knew he couldn't shout at us the way he did to his crew because our performances would be no good.”
“Any idiot could figure this out!” This, Paula Parisi wrote, was a standard Cameron response to crew members who couldn’t make his vision a reality fast enough. He raged at workers and he raged at executives and he seemed sometimes to want, more than anything, to simply be able to do every single job on Titanic himself.
When the ice arrived, in hundred-pound blocks, Cameron picked up an ax and started chopping, preparing it for the scene where it was to splinter off the iceberg and fall onto the deck. “Getting over their initial disbelief,” Paula Parisi wrote, “the crew followed suit. ... Giving up his ax, Cameron stepped back and watched for thirty seconds, then he just couldn’t stand it anymore. He pushed a puny guy aside, taking his ax. It was just too much fun.” Cameron, Parisi wrote, was “showing that he knew full well the film was going to be hard work, but no one would work harder than he would.”
Maybe. But Titanic, Parisi also observed, “was a factory,” and it had only one product: Cameron’s dream. Cameron’s recreation of the ship itself contained 300 tons of steel, bolted together, at a breakneck pace, by 30 laborers. The wardrobe department needed 8,000 separate articles of clothing to dress the extras for the Southampton scene alone. Every time Cameron sank the first-class dining saloon, and raised it again for another take, crew members spent the next workday drying carpets, righting furniture, collecting 1,800 pieces of flatware off the floor, and recreating Titanic all over again. Titanic had one boss and hundreds of workers, and though it amassed superlative after superlative in terms of monetary costs well over a year before it even reached theaters, its cost in terms of human labor may be yet more staggering. What does it feel like to surrender seven months of your life, for nearly every waking hour of the day, to one man’s vision? What does it do to you? What makes you stay?
For the laborers and extras hired in Rosarito, it probably had something to do with the pay; for the crew, it probably had something to do with the prestige; for the cast, it probably had something to do with the exposure. But among the cast and crew members who described not just the tortuous process of making Titanic but their own dedication to the film, a shared conviction is always present: They were doing something real, and they could feel it.
“One thing that’s very important to me in life,” Kate Winslet said while Titanic was in production, “is [that] through having a relationship with somebody and loving that person and being allowed to feel the whole emotion of love despite all of the risks, you can find out who you are. And when Rose meets Jack she cuts through all of the class and money nonsense and connects with something real and alive and passionate in his soul. And when I read the script I was in floods of tears, because it takes you to the point where you would do anything — absolutely anything — to stop that ship from sinking.”
If Titanic felt real — if it was real — then perhaps this painfully conjured time travel was the only way to make Jack and Rose, and the love between them, become real as well.
James Cameron spent the summer of 1997 in an at-home editing room darkened by blackout curtains, faceting the dream he had now poured years of his life into. In late July, he took a day off to marry Linda Hamilton, his girlfriend of seven years, in a backyard ceremony. The next day, he went back to his editing suite, and back to Titanic.
“Taped to his editing machine,” Entertainment Weekly reported in November 1997, “is a suicide device — a razor blade with the simple instruction ‘Use only if film sucks.’”
On TitanicShack — one of the many websites and forums that sprang up after the movie’s release as outlets for people confronted by the grim fact that they couldn’t spend every single day in the theater, watching Titanic again and again — fans wondered why the movie had such a hold on them. Some felt as mystified as the movie’s harshest critics did about just why they couldn’t stop themselves from returning to Titanic:
I've seen this movie 13 times (and yes, I must go back, if only because 13's unlucky! :-) Why do I, a thirty-something, sane woman keep going back? Because I love this movie — everything about it — and I know they'll letterbox it when it comes out on video and it just WON'T be the same on my tiny 19-inch tv screen.
Someone told me a story about a woman in the States who was kicked out of the theatre for reciting every line with the movie. She had ticket stubs to prove she had seen it 84 times!! Now that's a bit excessive!!!!
I can't really pinpoint why I keep going back. All I can say is that this movie gets to me every single time... The life lessons it teaches are many, but there is one theme in particular that all humankind never tires of hearing: love really is the greatest power of all.
As it continued its dominance of Americans’ hearts and minds, almost anything Titanic touched became a guaranteed moneymaker. The J. Peterman catalog began selling what it advertised as a “fairly enormous” $198 Heart of the Ocean necklace, and quickly ran out of stock (disappointed customers could, however, content themselves with a $19 knockoff called “the Jewel of the Sea,” at least until Fox sued the company that made it). Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” became the world's best-selling single of 1998, and pushed the Titanic soundtrack to the top of the charts, too. (Cameron had initially resisted including any song over the closing credits, feeling it was akin to commissioning a pop single for the soundtrack to Schindler’s List. But Horner and Dion cut a demo in secret, and won him over.)
Even — maybe especially — after the movie was gone from theaters, any piece of media that summoned its world would suffice for fans. James Cameron’s Titanic, a glossy coffee table book detailing the movie’s production, shot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list, and candy-hued unauthorized biographies of Leonardo DiCaprio began appearing in bookstores, and in smitten girls’ backpacks.
"There's a lot of me in Jack, definitely," James Cameron told Rolling Stone in 1998, in an interview in which he also discussed his recent separation from Linda Hamilton. She had been his fourth wife, and his Sarah Connor. "Actually,” Cameron clarified, “I shouldn't say that. Jack is the guy I wished I could have been. I wished I had the courage and the openness.”
Reading the Titanic screenplay, it’s easy to tell which character Cameron wished he could have been: Even the simplest descriptions of Jack find a way to be adoring. One of Jack’s sketches “captures [Cora and her father] perfectly, with a great sense of the humanity of the moment.” Jack’s sketchbook is “a celebration of the human condition.” As Jack stargazes before his first conversation with Rose, he is thinking not just any thoughts, but “artist thoughts.” And as Rose begins to fall for Jack, we listen in on her first impressions of him: He “is so open and real...not like anyone she has ever known.”
Remembering the iconic “king of the world” scene — one he later reenacted, to near-universal disdain, at the 1998 Academy Awards — Cameron described the kind of power, the kind of joy, that even the experience of commanding a vast and imposing structure — a ship, a movie set — couldn’t necessarily allow you to feel.
“You see the power of [Titanic],” he said of the scene, “and you see the satisfaction of the officers who run the ship, and their domination of the elements. And then I take that energy and I give it to Jack. He’s an artist. He’s a guy who’s able to have his heart soar. It’s his ship, man. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have a dime. This is his ship, and his moment. He owns the moment.”
To survey (and enjoy) the power of the vast system he commands, the captain — “a great patriarch of the sea” in Cameron’s script — must stand on the bridge and look at Titanic itself. But Jack, because this is not his ship and not his dream, can stand at Titanic’s prow as it cuts through the water, feeling the sun on his face, and watching the dolphins that leap and swim “for the sheer joy and exultation of motion.” He can fully experience Titanic’s power because he feels no need to convince himself he commands it — and then he can give it to Rose.
"I've been part of a film that's broken cultural boundaries,” DiCaprio reflected in 2004. “I went to the middle of Brazil, in the rainforest, and the Indians there knew [Titanic]. It's surreal.”
From the beginning, it was clear Titanic’s success transcended borders. When it finally left US theaters in the fall of 1998 — staying on the big screen even after it was released on video — it had made $600 million domestically. In the process, it became the highest-grossing movie in US history, shattering the record held by Star Wars: Episode IV. (George Lucas took out an ad in Variety where Han and Leia posed like Jack and Rose to publicly congratulate Cameron, perhaps with some sense of relief: Heavy is the head that wears the big-gross crown.) Titanic would go on to earn $2.2 billion worldwide.
In a March 1998 article titled “Fan Sinks into Titanic Obsession,” the Associated Press reported that a 12-year-old girl named Gloria had gone to see Titanic, at the only movie theater in the town of Castelfranco Emilia, Italy, every single night since its release, and that she would go on watching it until she couldn’t anymore. She had seen it 50 times so far and wasn’t tired of it yet; the theater no longer charged her admission, and — recognizing that the love of an adolescent girl is nothing to be trifled with — saved her favorite seat for her every night.
“Jack is cuter than Leo,” Gloria clarified, for anyone who wondered.
Reached for comment about “her daughter’s obsession,” Gloria’s mother was unconcerned: “She's not doing anything bad,” she said.
But some Americans weren’t so sure. The unslakable desire for all things Titanic that had suddenly taken over the world was often referred to, simply, as “Leomania,” and sometimes it seemed less like a fixation than a disease. Not since the Beatles came to the US had so many nice girls been so electrified by such overwhelming boy-craziness — and perhaps not since the rise and fall of James Dean had an actor captured so many girls’ hearts while actually acting.
At the Golden Globes in 1998, a month after Titanic opened in theaters, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio stood on the red carpet, looking both stunned by their newfound fame and suddenly younger than ever — less like characters from a historical epic, and more like the king and queen of the biggest prom on earth.
“It’s gotta be bigger than you expected,” Entertainment Tonight host Bob Goen says. “You probably expected it to be big, but nothing like this.”
“We expected it to be something,” DiCaprio says. “I had no idea it would be this magnitude. I mean, it’s truly overwhelming.”
Cameras flash, a helicopter drones above them, and fans shriek just outside the frame. “Did you hear them chanting ‘Leo, Leo, Leo’ over there?” Goen asks.
“Give ‘em a wave, Leo,” cohost Mary Hart says. “Come on.”
Leo lifts his hand, and a scream rises up before him: All the shrieks merge into one, reach a crescendo, and then fall back into a lull of adoration. And the two stars look out at the sea that surrounds them: a rising, surging, uncontrollable force, just as powerful as the Atlantic.
Kate Winslet was in Morocco filming Hideous Kinky during the early stages of Titanic publicity, and when she returned, something strange happened: Despite some standard-issue morning show fawning, interviewers generally treated her like an actor, asking her about craft, about the cold, about her work. She wasn’t forced into the role of James Cameron’s new starlet. Leo was.
Leomania continued to spread across the globe. In March 1998, 22 people were almost trampled when a mob of 5,000 screaming fans formed at the premiere of The Man in the Iron Mask in London. (“I don’t envy him this at all,” DiCaprio’s costar Jeremy Irons said.) Girls around the world collected Leo photos, memorized Leo trivia, and built Leo-themed websites — many of which still quietly offer their forgotten troves of Leo trivia, pictures, and quotes (both fabricated and real), and contact information for enemy “anti-Titaniacs.”
Nancy Jo Sales, commissioned to profile DiCaprio as he partied in New York following Titanic’s release, found a Leo lookalike when Leo himself proved elusive, and chronicled the overwhelming attention even a forgery inspired.
“We ran out to the limo,” Sales wrote. “People were running after us, smashing their faces against the windows after ‘Leo’ climbed in. ‘It's her 16th birthday; can't we get a picture?’ People were taking pictures — of the car.” As the limo pulled away, Troy, the counterfeit Leo, “looked dazed. ‘Being in that situation is really stressful,’ he said unhappily. ‘I don't like being Leo anymore.’”
Sometimes — as with the $19 “Jewel of the Sea” — a half-convincing imitation would satisfy fans, even if they knew it was nowhere near the real thing. After a TitanicShack poster named Natalie wrote, “There is a coffe [sic] shop at this mall in V.A. that boast [sic] a Leo-lookalike employee,” a commenter hungrily responded: “natalie, what mall??? what city??”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s criteria, Leomania can be classified as a level 3 crush pandemic. At biohazard level 2, a disease “can cause severe illness in healthy adults through direct contact with infected material,” but a level 3 biohazard can become airborne. Leomania was like that: It spread through a general cultural miasma, and no one was safe. Once you saw his face, you could come down with Leomania at any moment — and this was exactly what happened to me. I had believed I was immune to crushes, and one morning I woke up with the fever, the bubons, and the need to spend hours waiting for pictures of Leo to load on a computer with a dial-up connection.
More than anything, I hated that the way I felt was apparently exactly the same feeling millions of other girls had. I hated doing the same thing as everyone else, let alone feeling the same thing as everyone else, especially when those feelings left me with the sensation that I was going to collapse and explode in a shower of white light, like a star going supernova. Was everyone feeling this? And if we were, then how were we all still alive?
“Experts say that the pure passion that pre-adolescent girls have for their idols represents a time in their lives that is brief, intense and — once it's run its course — gone forever,” Frances Grandy Taylor wrote in the Hartford Courant in March 1998, in one of the countless articles and TV segments that tried to help parents understand Leomania. The “gone forever” part must have seemed particularly comforting.
When the unafflicted tried to make sense of the phenomenon following the movie’s release, they tended to focus on Leo’s looks and his celebrity, and of course they weren’t wrong. Like all adolescent crushes, he was perfect and remote: He couldn’t hurt you, couldn’t reject you, couldn’t disappoint you. And as Jack Dawson, he was pure fantasy: so handsome as to seem almost unearthly; an androgynous angel who wanted only to love you, to worship you, and to be the idea of a romantic partner, one with whom reality could never try to compete. He was a dream, the argument went, and that was why adolescent girls — who were overwhelmingly presented in the media as the driving force behind Titanic’s success, regardless of whether this was quite true or not — kept going back to the theater for more. It was wish fulfillment. But what were we really wishing for?
More than any Cameron protagonist before him, Jack Dawson is heroic for his ability to love. He can watch the world as he knew it fall apart around him and not feel that everything he believed in — hierarchy, order, masculinity — is being yanked out from under his feet, because he never felt much of a need to believe in it, anyway. When Jack turns up in a tuxedo to accompany Rose to dinner in first class, he first exaggerates the aristocracy’s manners just enough to make them seem absurd, then captivates some of the wealthiest people in the world with stories of the kind of freedom they can barely allow themselves to imagine. Rose’s life, as she has lived it so far, has taught her that she is an object to be bought and sold: All women are, and the best you can hope for, as a woman, is to be the most expensive object, sold to the richest buyer. Jack saves Rose from literal death — twice — but he also saves her from the society- and self-imposed prison of believing that she can only ever inhabit the role she was born into.
“'Titanic' is starting to sail out of movie theaters,” conservative commentator Betsy Hart wrote in 1998, “but it may have left a wake of devastation in its path in the hearts of teenage girls everywhere.” As heartbreaking as the movie’s ending was, Hart found that she was “saddened much more” by the thought of “the millions of teenage girls” who had helped make the movie a hit, and who had been duped into thinking that “the intense sentiment and easy sex over a few days that formed the romantic centerpiece of Titanic is the kind of love they should strive for.”
“It's little wonder,” Hart concluded, that “our society has so many young people that need so much rescuing.”
“He saved me,” Old Rose says of Jack, near the end of Titanic, “in every way a person can be saved.” When I think about Titanic now, I often wonder if Leomania changed the very emotional makeup of a generation of girls. How many of us felt our first flush of romantic desire, of attraction, of arousal, for Jack Dawson? And was it possible for this imprinting — this firstness — to inoculate us with the belief that we, too, could be loved and respected and liberated this profoundly? Was everyone afraid of us because we were being taught, in a way that seemed somehow dangerous, that we were worthy of such love? And did this belief seem so dangerous because it allowed a generation of girls to see not that they needed to be rescued, but that they could rescue themselves? Because what Rose means when she says Jack saved her, of course, is just that: He saw her and loved her as she was, and allowed her to discover her own strength.
“It’s not up to you to save me, Jack,” Rose says, after she has tried to pull away from him, and he has tried to come back to her.
“You’re right,” he says. “Only you can do that.”
Still, the popular understanding of Titanic’s appeal was generally a lot like Betsy Hart’s: It was Leomania, it was escapism, it was romantic fantasy, it was fluff; we would grow out of it.
This analysis has always been obviously wrong in at least one more way: Titanic is not a fun movie to watch. You aren’t escaping from anything so much as putting yourself through an emotional ordeal: a decathlon of passion, dread, terror, numbness, and finally cathartic hope. You, yourself, have survived something by the end of Titanic; you have sat immersed in death, in dying, in questions about your own behavior in such a situation, and have asked yourself to believe in love in the face of all this — and perhaps have been able to. For that experience, we were willing to go back to Titanic over and over again. And if we’re focusing on the girls in the audience, then please — let’s really think about them. Who were these girls, and why were they there? Why was I?
When Titanic was in theaters, girls of 9 and 10 and 11 and 12 and 13 shaped their lives around it, and fell in love not just with Leo, but with the whole story they had first found him in. We had a sense, maybe, that life as we knew it was not so different from Titanic: that we, too, lived in a world where society might have to fall apart completely before we could be liberated from the roles that gender and class and race forced us to occupy.
In Titanic, Rose is freed not because her mother and her fiancé die (they don’t), but because a microcosm of the world as she knows it collapses around her, and in that moment she realizes its rules no longer dictate her existence. They were never really real, of course — but now that she has seen the spectacular defeat of every system the society that raised her guaranteed would work forever, she can no longer even feel its laws governing her.
Something breaks when you no longer believe that anyone, anywhere, can build an unsinkable ship. And if you can’t put your faith in a system like a ship — or a government — you have to start directing all your trust, all your love, to the people around you. Titanic poses the question of what we can hold onto when the structures and beliefs we have built our lives on founder beneath us, and one of the answers it allows us to reach is: each other. We hold onto each other.
Recently, a writer friend told me that this year, as the world has started to feel like it’s falling apart, he has found himself turning again and again to W.H. Auden’s closing lines in “September 1, 1939”:
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
In the past year, I have developed the same kind of relationship — have been taking the same kind of refuge, grasping for the same kind of wisdom — with Titanic.
When I first fell in love with Titanic, at 9 years old, I wanted to be Jack as much as I wanted to be loved by him. I wanted the freedom he enjoyed: freedom that seemed to give him the ability to love so deeply and so selflessly. It was the kind of freedom the world around me said a girl could never have. But the world had also told Rose that, and she had found that freedom, in the end.
Yet no matter how vast James Cameron’s abilities were, his imagination — big enough to bring a lost ship back to life; big enough, even, to let the viewer feel some sense of what 1,500 lost souls really means — still couldn’t conjure a vision so radical that it could let Jack survive.
If it were possible for James Cameron to imagine masculinity doing anything, in the long term, but infecting everything around it with violence and arrogance and greed and destruction, then Jack could have survived. If Cameron were able to imagine a world beyond the hierarchy of patriarchal control — instead of just spectacularly destroying one — then Jack could have survived. If he could have imagined possibilities for men beyond either blindly following the patriarchy or dying for its sins, then Jack could have survived. But instead, Jack has to die, and to love Rose in the only way a world of patriarchal masculinity, even one reduced to flotsam, will allow: by giving his life for hers.
Beyond even Titanic’s unresolved questions about masculinity, the one radical possibility James Cameron seems unable to imagine is one in which partners can lovingly empower each other through a life lived together. This is where we have no choice but to do what he couldn’t: to imagine such love, and live it. To focus on nurture, and let go of heroism. To know that love is the only way through. To say: Get on this board, you idiot. There’s room for us both.
Sarah Marshall's nonfiction has appeared in the Believer, the New Republic, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015 Anthology.