You might have thought it the height of Hollywood hubris for James Cameron to assume Titanic could steal the Valentine’s Day crown from Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman World War Two lovelorn Casablanca (1942). But bear in mind Casablanca had replaced Doctor Zhivago (1965) as the movie’s greatest love story and that, in turn, had superseded Gone with the Wind (1939).
Each followed a similar recipe – cataclysmic event, except Casablanca epic in scope, except Gone with the Wind memorable song, except Clark Gable introducing relative newcomers, perhaps most of all fabulous screen charisma between the male and female leads. Titanic, of course, has a late twentieth century vibe, more action than drama as the lovers, often pursued, hurtle from one potential disaster to another, and are within a lifejacket and a large enough piece of flotsam of a happy ending.
But where Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) exhibited world-weary cynicism and Zhivago (Omar Sharif), though his occupation, achieved maturity, Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) are little more than blossoms blown on the wind, as innocent as a fresh coat of paint. Jack grows up fast, fast enough to hold his own among the upper class, strong enough to whisk Rose away from a life of servitude to a male ideal.
In some respects, to use the modern idiom, she is the ultimate Final Girl. On several occasions, she rescues him, plunging through the rising torrent to find him and cleave his handcuffs with an axe. She risks far more than he. Vengeful fiancé Cal (Billy Zane) and his ruthless henchman (David Warner) would easily chuck Jack overboard given the chance.
In essence, the story is light. Spoiled brat saved from a half-hearted suicide attempt, Jack embraced by Cal as a means of humiliating him, various attempts to smear Jack, Rose finding a freedom below stairs she never expected, shown a world of opportunity beyond her ken, taking the lead in sexual matters, lightly mocking Jack for blushing at her nudity even as she shamelessly and confidently strips.
And told against the backdrop of a ruthless caste system, where only the “better” people can survive and millionaires see “winning” as the embodiment of entitlement. Cameron holds up a mirror to the supposedly classless America and a world of enterprise where lifeboats are viewed as an obstacle to beautiful design. The two outsiders, Rose’s mother (Frances Fisher) and Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) are opposites, the latter, by dint of inheritance pushing her way brusquely into society, the former meekly trading her daughter for a life of privilege.
And the romance is given a twist when cold-blooded Cal proves to be as obsessed by Rose as Jack, the several times offered safe passage turning it down to pursue her, and not in the end as an object to be collected but as the subject of his restrained passion.
But you would need extraordinary acting to keep you glued to the screen when there were so many other astonishing visuals and even at the distance of a quarter of a century the power of DiCaprio and Winslet just blows you away. Sure, there is a bit of will she-won’t she, but once we’re past that it’s romance as a breath of fresh air, DiCaprio mixes devil-may-care with adoration, Winslet bristles, succumbs and then takes the lead, the sheer exhilaration of it all the bulwark against the drama of the slowly sinking ship.
It’s a fabulous scenario, Cameron careful to allow other elements to float into place, the officers assuming sacrificial stance, the hunt for the mythical jewel that kicks off the tale and provides meaningful coda.
I’m sure it helped that DiCaprio and Winslet were mere rising stars, otherwise I doubt if someone with more box office clout would have stood for the endless hours/days/weeks in freezing cold water (I don’t think you could heat it up even in a studio setting) and without their genuine travails it would not have worked so well.
It’s worth noting that DiCaprio went on to become – along with Brad Pitt – the last of the genuine stars and that he forsook the easy route of romantic lead for more interesting and complex characters and embraced an association with Martin Scorsese that took him to darker places than the likes of Paul Newman or Harrison Ford ever dreamed. Winslet, too, has enjoyed a memorable career, perhaps entranced too often by the arthouse, but you can hardly argue with one Oscar and six nominations.
On a personal note, I realised I had passing acquaintance with two of the actors. When I worked backstage at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, I would often come across Jonathan Hyde (the arrogant Ismay). One role he played quite astonished me. Not so much the role (and I can’t remember what it was) but, if you like, the preamble. When audiences entered the theatre they were faced with the sight of Hyde sitting on stage in full costume and in character, as if this was Method Acting taken to an extreme, waiting for the play to begin.
I was at university with Ron Donachie (the master at arms). We both studied Drama at Glasgow University. This course was never intended to produce actors, and mostly it set students on a path to theatre management and the like, including a friend Anne Bonnar who went on to head up Creative Scotland. But, of course, it was always a route into acting if that was your ambition. Ron Donachie and another friend Duncan Bell (British television series Heartbeat) took the opportunity. Needless to say, my stint at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was enough to convince me that acting was not my forte.