From the Archives: TITANIC
April 18, 2012
My original review of James Cameron’s “Titanic,” now soaking audiences in 3-D re-release
TITANIC: DOWN WITH THE SHIP (March 1998)
BY PETER KURTH
I sat glued to the Academy Awards on Monday for the first time in years, waiting to see if Hollywood would go all the way at the Titanic orgy by endowing this billion-dollar piece of junk with all 14 of the awards for which it was nominated. It isn’t easy seeing Hollywood congratulate itself for three hours straight, whether you’re watching Titanic in the theater or the Oscars on TV. I watched both for this report and I’m heading for the lifeboats.
Actually, I wanted to review Titanic without having seen it, because I think it would make a better story. There can never have been a movie — or a ship — so over-publicized as this. The only thing I didn’t know about Titanic before I saw it was that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet end up having sex in the back seat of a car.
That’s right, a car. Just before Titanic hits the iceberg. That is to say, way into the movie. Way, way into the movie.
Other than that, I knew everything there was to know about this film through osmosis. I knew that Leonardo dies in the end and that Kate doesn’t. I knew that Kate goes on to become a potter and free spirit in the form of Gloria Stuart. I knew that Leonardo teaches Kate how to lob goobers from the side of the ship. I knew that Kate gives someone the finger in a particularly thrilling scene, even though she’s supposed to be an upper-class girl from 1912. I knew that Titanic had been filmed so cleverly you’d never know how scrawny Leonardo is, even though he spends at least a third of the movie soaked in water.
I knew, of course, that the ship finally sinks. I’d already seen it a thousand times on TV, rising on its bow, cracking in half, and flinging a lot of shrieking people from the poop (or whatever). I’m here to tell you there’s no difference between seeing this movie and not seeing it, except that seeing it allows you to quote some of the worst dialogue of “all time,” as everyone keeps saying about this witless potboiler:
“A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets” (Gloria Stuart, as Kate grown up).
“You could just call me a tumbleweed blowin’ in the wind” (Leonardo).
“They’re fascinating. Like in a dream. There’s truth without logic. What’s his name again?” (Kate, gazing at a couple of Picassos she’s hauled on board).
“Swim, Rose! I need you to swim!” (Leonardo to Kate, having survived an aquatic vortex that would have sucked the Statue of Liberty from her pedestal and lapsing into 90’s psychobabble while hundreds die around him).
I could go on, but what’s the point? With regard to history, never mind the laws of the sea, Titanic is the silliest thing since Demi Moore in The Scarlet Letter. The only nice thing I can say about it is that Celine Dion’s nasal wailing number doesn’t start till the final credits roll, so you at least have a chance of escaping that disaster.
Celine Dion? Get us off this ship!
Mind you, I think the Motion Picture Academy was mean not to nominate Leonardo for an Oscar along with everyone else in Titanic. I don’t blame him for not showing up. In earlier times, of course, when Hollywood had style, Leonardo would have been cast as the soda jerk in an Andy Hardy movie or as Doris Day’s little brother in By the Light of the Silvery Moon. But he’s no worse than anyone else in Titanic, and it’s his picture, after all. Ask any teenager.
There’s no point in complaining that Leonardo, as a struggling artist from Wisconsin at the turn of the century, is unconvincing. He’s not there for verisimilitude, any more than director James Cameron’s much-hyped recreation of HMS Titanic bears much resemblance to an actual ship. You’ve never seen such spacious quarters in steerage, and whenever Kate and Leonardo go out on the deck to spit, squabble or flap their arms while balancing on the prow, there’s not another soul in sight. Two thousand people on board and these idiots have the deck to themselves.
To the Academy’s credit, it nixed Titanic in the acting and screenplay categories — the very things that make most movies worth watching — but if we’re giving Oscars to software, it only makes sense. At one point, Oscar-winners from previous years were lined up on bleachers for a grotesque “Family Portrait.” Most of them looked like shut-ins or escapees from the nursing home, and when Cameron, clutching his umpteenth award, cynically called for “a few seconds of silence” to honor the victims of Titanic, he was the only one who wouldn’t shut up. Everyone else had sunk to the briny deep.