By John H. Foote
The nineties cinema, closely, for me resembled that of the seventies. Audacious, bold, inventive, with an array of established filmmakers doing the finest work of their careers and emerging artists challenging them for greatness. Long ignored for an Academy Award as Best Director, Steven Spielberg would win twice in the nineties, just five years apart, while Clint Eastwood finally was welcomed to the elite with an Oscar as Best Director for his classic western Unforgiven (1992). The western was back in vogue with both Dances with Wolves (1990) and Unforgiven winning Oscars for Best Picture, ending a long famine for fans of the genre.
The Weinstein brothers brought the independent cinema to the forefront and reinvented the campaign for the Academy Awards with their own studio Miramax. Savages to deal with, crooked, liars both, they were brilliant at their jobs, no one could deny that, and despite the horrors of working with them, Miramax was where everyone wanted to be.
Quentin Tarantino exploded into the film world with first Reservoir Dogs (1992) and then his masterpiece Pulp Fiction (1994), its influence still felt 20years later.
In all, the nineties were astonishing in the number of masterpieces the decade would yield.
And so many great characters: John Dunbar, Tommy DeVito, Hannibal Lector, Clarice Starling, Vincent Vega, Clay Shaw, Forrest Gump, Andrew Beckett, Sera with an e, Ben, Matthew Poncelot, Francesca, Marge, Private Ryan, Ellie Arroway, Viola, Truman Burbank, Derek Vineyard, Cole, and so many others.
Granted I might miss a few, but here are the greatest 30 for me.
30. TITANIC (1997)
That Irish lilt in the score instantly defines the film, that haunting musical score of Titanic might be the greatest movie score ever composed and yet, like Jaws (1975), was deceptively simple.
It has grown on me over the years. Though the weaknesses in the screenplay are still gaping holes, the acting carries the film and there can be no denying the craft and the passion with which James Cameron created the film. An old-fashioned film at heart, a romance set against a great historical event, for me Titanic has been like a fine wine, improving with age. Like Cecil B. DeMille, Cameron may not bring a ton of depth to his films, but he does put on a helluva show.
I missed the press screening for Titanic, wanted to see As Good As It Gets (1997) instead, but opening day saw the film with a packed audience. The awe and wonder were clear for the very beginning as the great ship filled the frame like a living thing. And yes, little schoolgirls tittered with delight every time Leonardo DiCaprio sauntered on screen, just the coolest cat since Jack Nicholson and with God given gifts that made the most inane dialogue sound fresh and authentic. As his love interest, Kate Winslet was somehow even better, bound into tight fitting corsets, engaged to a man she despises, prepared to hurl herself off the back of the ship rather than marry this clod, she is saved, as she later says “in every way” by DiCaprio. Sparks fly the first time they lay eyes on each other, and the build to their love is beautifully handled by the young actors, and yes, director Cameron.
Jack (DiCaprio) is a young artist who wants to go home, back to America, and wins his steerage class tickets in a poker game minutes before the ship is to leave. Rose (Winslet), marrying into obscene wealth, is in first class with her boorish husband to be Cal (Billy Zone), her mother, and Cal’s dangerous bodyguard. The lovers meet by chance when Rose is about to dive into the North Atlantic and Jack talks her down but then truly saves her when she slips. At first he is accused of trying to rape the girl, but Rose defends him and makes clear he was the hero of the scene. Jack is handed $20 dollars and invited to a dinner in the first class dining room with them. He is very aware, as is Rose, he will be the target of ridicule.
He and Rose begin spending time together, walking the decks, talking about their dreams and she is given the chance to see his writing. Rose is horrified she has to marry Cal to save she and her mother from destitution, and the more time she spends with Jack, the angrier she becomes at her plight. She realizes Jack is as free as a bird, flat broke, but happy with his life, each new day begins with hope, and though wealthy, she cannot say that.
As the Titanic speeds towards that fateful iceberg, Jack and Rose are falling in love. The famous, unsinkable Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) loans Jack a tux for the dinner and he shows up, movie star handsome, but sill the wealthy snobs, including the mother of Rose, find sport in picking on him. They find he is unbeatable, answering every snide question with the perfect answer, and charming them at every turn. When he leaves, Rose sneaks away to go with him to what he calls a “real party” being thrown below in steerage. Wild dancing, and the most fun she has ever had greets her below the decks, and later they again get away to the cargo level where they make love in the back of a car. “Put your hands on me Jack” she tells him, making clear her lust for him equals his for her.
From the moment the ship strikes an iceberg, which tears apart the hull of the so called “unsinkable” ship, the film moves in real time.
Jack is accused of stealing a precious diamond from Rose, who initially believes the lie, but eventually realizes he did nothing of the sort and searches the ship to where they are holding him. She finds him, cuts him loose of the handcuffs and they make their way through the fast-sinking ship, through the water so cold it hurts. We see acts of arrogance, heroism, cowardice, madness and cruelty as the ship continues to go down and passengers are loaded into the too few lifeboats. Those in second class and steerage appear doomed as they are locked into their compartment level.
Jack and Rose stick together despite Cal’s attempts to find them and take Rose away. But as the water plunges into the ship, Cal lies to get aboard a lifeboat and manages to save himself and the child he lies about to save himself.
The ship does indeed sink, and Jack and Rose are left in the sea with thousands of others, she on a massive door, he in the sea, right beside her. One of the great complaints about the film was that there was more than enough room for the two of them on the door, but he never gets on.
Jack perishes, freezing to death in the icy Atlantic waters and Rose is saved. In her pocket is the diamond Cal claimed Jack took, in his pocket. He is saved too but they never notice one another on the other ship, and she avoids him the rest of the voyage.
We move forward through time and Rose, now an ancient old lady, has come aboard a discovery ship dropping down to the Titanic to study it and look for the precious necklace she had so long ago. We see the photos of her life, doing everything she and Jack talked about, seeing he was always with her. She lived her life for the both of them. Now back over the spot where the ship went down, she walks to the back of her ship and drops the diamond into the sea, giving her heart back to Jack, going back to bed where I believe she dies.
Titanic was a monster hit at the box office, incredible numbers for months, never really fading out of the weekend race. Repeat viewings were frequent as young girls got their DiCaprio fix, learning every line in the film and sniffing without shame at the end of the film.
Celine Dion recorded a song to play over the end credits, “My Heart Will Go On”, which was also a huge hit and helped the film as well, though I suspect it would have been just fine without the song.
Nominated for 14 Academy Awards, the most since All About Eve (1950), it seemed the studios were going to celebrate one of their own in 1997, perhaps fighting back at the independent cinema, which had stormed the Oscars the previous year. Critics awards in Boston, LA, Chicago and New York honored L.A. Confidential (1997) as the year’s best film, a richly deserving film noir that had been nominated for nine Academy Awards, but by awards night there was no chance for any other film but Titanic. The singular big shock was that Leonardo DiCaprio was snubbed for Best Actor, in a year lineed with fantastic performances from some of our greatest actors of the last 40 years. Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Robert Duvall, and Dustin Hoffman were the nominees for Best Actor, Matt Damon the only newcomer to the nominations. The 14 nominations included Best Picture, Best Actress (Winslet), Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Gloria Stuart), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Original Score, Best Song and Best Makeup. Titanic tied the record held by Ben-Hur (1959) with a whopping 11 wins, losing only for Best Actress and Supporting Actress and Best Makeup. Marring the night’s celebration was James Cameron’s self-serving acceptance speeches, it seemed every time he took the stage his foot found its way to his mouth, even managing to trivialize those who perished on the ship.
Still, for all his arrogance, he really did create a monumental film. Diving down to the ocean’s floor to the ruins of the great ship he managed to shoot footage incorporated into the film, to create ghostly images of the ship being beautifully restored by the movie magicians. The ship appears to be coming to life again in some scenes, and the aerial shots of Titanic truly do look magnificent. Cameron restored the doomed vessel to its former glory in the film’s early scenes, in every way.
DiCaprio became an actor on this film, overcoming a terrible script and infusing his character with emotion, with realism. I believe every moment of him in the film, even the focus of his eyes when sketching a nude Winslet in front of him on a couch. And Winslet, still just 21 at the beginning of a career that would see her come one of her generation’s greatest actors. Now, at this stage in their careers, they have both won Oscars and had multiple nominations, but this is where it began, trial by fire with James Cameron. Is there a greater romantic moment than the scene where Jack waits for her under the clock, dressed as he would be in a peasant’s clothes as Rose climbs the stairs to be with him and those long dead aboard the Titanic? Together at last, tears flow.
Cameron directs the film just as he should have, handling the epic sequences with the right dose of excitement and sadness, and the intimate moments with the characters superbly, letting the actors handle it. Kathy Bates is a wonderful Molly Brown, and Frances Fisher is a perfect mother for Rose, an absolute snob yet not far removed from being as destitute as Jack and she knows it. The only howler of a performance is Billy Zone as the pompous ass Cal, a coward, who seems to be wearing as much mascara as Rose! Terrible performance but easy to overlook.
Titanic was a great big popcorn MOVIE that came along at the right time to be clear that Hollywood still made such films. It was likely one of the reasons New Line agreed to make The Lord of the Rings trilogy four years later, each film a year apart. It took two major Hollywood studios, Paramount and Fox, to finance the film, and to break even it had to become the highest grossing film of all time. Nope, no pressure opening day.
Lucky for Cameron it did. Since Titanic and his Academy Awards, he has made a single film, the groundbreaking Avatar (2009), and is said to working on at least three sequels, the first due next year. Finally.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.