Titanic is a 1997 American epic romance and disaster film directed, written, produced, and co-edited by James Cameron. Incorporating both historical and fictionalized aspects, it is based on accounts of the sinking of the RMS Titanic and stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as members of different social classes who fall in love aboard the ship during its ill-fated maiden voyage. The film also features Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bernard Hill, Jonathan Hyde, Victor Garber, and Bill Paxton.
Cameron’s inspiration for the film came from his fascination with shipwrecks; he felt a love story interspersed with the human loss would be essential to convey the emotional impact of the disaster. Production began on September 1, 1995, when Cameron shot footage of the actual Titanic wreck. The modern scenes on the research vessel were shot on board the Akademik Mstislav Keldysh, which Cameron had used as a base when filming the wreck. Scale models, computer-generated imagery, and a reconstruction of the Titanic built at Baja Studios were used to re-create the sinking. The film was co-financed by Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox; the former handled distribution in North America while the latter released the film internationally. It was the most expensive film ever made at the time, with a production budget of $200 million. Filming took place from July 1996 to March 1997.
Upon its release on December 19, 1997, Titanic achieved significant critical and commercial success, and then received numerous accolades. It was praised for its visual effects, performances (particularly DiCaprio, Winslet, and Stuart), production values, Cameron’s direction, musical score, cinematography, story, and emotional depth. Nominated for 14 Academy Awards, it tied All About Eve (1950) for the most Oscar nominations, and won 11, including the awards for Best Picture and Best Director, tying Ben-Hur (1959) for the most Oscars won by a single film. With an initial worldwide gross of over $1.84 billion, Titanic was the first film to reach the billion-dollar mark. It remained the highest-grossing film of all time until Cameron’s next film, Avatar, surpassed it in 2010. A number of re-releases since 1997 have pushed the film’s worldwide total to $2.249 billion, making it the second film to gross more than $2 billion worldwide (after Avatar). It was also selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 2017 for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.
- Kate Winslet as Rose DeWitt Bukater: Cameron said Winslet “had the thing that you look for” and that there was “a quality in her face, in her eyes,” that he “just knew people would be ready to go the distance with her”. Rose is a 17-year-old girl, originally from Philadelphia, who is forced into an engagement to 30-year-old Cal Hockley so she and her mother, Ruth, can maintain their high-class status after her father’s death had left the family debt-ridden. Rose boards the RMS Titanic with Cal and Ruth, as a first-class passenger, and meets Jack. Winslet said of her character, “She has got a lot to give, and she’s got a very open heart. And she wants to explore and adventure the world, but she [feels] that’s not going to happen.” Gwyneth Paltrow, Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Gabrielle Anwar, and Reese Witherspoon had been considered for the role. When they turned it down, Winslet campaigned heavily for the role. She sent Cameron daily notes from England, which led Cameron to invite her to Hollywood for auditions. As with DiCaprio, casting director Mali Finn originally brought her to Cameron’s attention. When looking for a Rose, Cameron described the character as “an Audrey Hepburn type” and was initially uncertain about casting Winslet even after her screen test impressed him. After she screen tested with DiCaprio, Winslet was so thoroughly impressed with him, that she whispered to Cameron, “He’s great. Even if you don’t pick me, pick him.” Winslet sent Cameron a single rose with a card signed, “From Your Rose”, and lobbied him by phone. “You don’t understand!” she pleaded one day when she reached him by mobile phone in his Humvee. “I am Rose! I don’t know why you’re even seeing anyone else!” Her persistence, as well as her talent, eventually convinced him to cast her in the role.
- Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson: Cameron said he needed the cast to feel they were really on the Titanic, to relive its liveliness, and “to take that energy and give it to Jack, … an artist who is able to have his heart soar”. Jack is portrayed as an itinerant, poor orphan from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, who has travelled the world, including Paris. He wins two third-class tickets for the Titanic in a poker game and travels with his friend Fabrizio. He is attracted to Rose at first sight. Her fiancé’s invitation to dine with them the next evening enables Jack to mix with the first-class passengers for a night. Cameron’s original choice for the role was River Phoenix, however he died in 1993. Though established actors like Matthew McConaughey, Chris O’Donnell, Billy Crudup, and Stephen Dorff were considered, Cameron felt they were too old for the part of a 20-year-old. Tom Cruise was interested, but his asking price was too high. Cameron considered Jared Leto for the role, but Leto refused to audition. Jeremy Sisto did a series of screen tests with Winslet and three other actresses vying for the role of Rose. DiCaprio, 21 years old at the time, was brought to Cameron’s attention by casting director Mali Finn. Initially, he did not want the role and refused to read his first romantic scene (see below). Cameron said, “He read it once, then started goofing around, and 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.” Cameron strongly believed in DiCaprio’s acting ability and told him, “Look, I’m not going to make this guy brooding and neurotic. I’m not going to give him a tic and a limp and all the things you want.” Cameron envisioned the character as being like those played by James Stewart or Gregory Peck. Although Jack Dawson was a fictional character, in Fairview Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where 121 victims are buried, there is a grave labeled “J. Dawson”. The real J. Dawson was Joseph Dawson, a trimmer in the engine room. “It wasn’t until after the movie came out that we found out that there was a J. Dawson gravestone,” said the film’s producer, Jon Landau, in an interview.
- Billy Zane as Caledon Hockley: Caledon is Rose’s arrogant and snobbish 30-year-old fiancé, who is the heir to a Pittsburgh steel fortune. He becomes increasingly embarrassed by, jealous of, and cruel about Rose’s affection for Jack. The part was originally offered to Matthew McConaughey, and Rob Lowe has also gone on the record as having pursued it.
- Frances Fisher as Ruth DeWitt Bukater: Rose’s widowed mother, who arranges her daughter’s engagement to Cal to maintain her family’s high-society status. Like many aristocratic passengers portrayed in the film, her disposition is elitist and frivolous. She loves her daughter but believes that social position is more important than having a loving marriage. She strongly dislikes Jack, even though he saved her daughter’s life.
- Gloria Stuart as Rose Dawson Calvert: Rose narrates the film in a modern-day framing device. Cameron stated, “In order to see the present and the past, I decided to create a fictional survivor who is [close to] 101 years, and she connects us in a way through history.” The 100-year-old Rose gives Lovett information regarding the “Heart of the Ocean” after he discovers a nude drawing of her in the wreck. She shares the story of her time aboard the ship, and speaks about her relationship with Jack for the first time since the sinking. At 87, Stuart had to be made up to look older for the role. Of casting Stuart, Cameron stated, “My casting director found her. She was sent out on a mission to find retired actresses from the Golden Age of the thirties and forties.” Cameron said that he did not know who Stuart was, and Fay Wray was also considered for the role. “But [Stuart] was just so into it, and so lucid, and had such a great spirit. And I saw the connection between her spirit and [Winslet’s] spirit,” stated Cameron. “I saw this joie de vivre in both of them, that I thought the audience would be able to make that cognitive leap that it’s the same person.”
- Bill Paxton as Brock Lovett: A treasure hunter looking for the “Heart of the Ocean” in the wreck of the Titanic in the present. Time and funding for his expedition are running out. He later reflects at the film’s conclusion that, despite thinking about Titanic for three years, he has never understood it until he hears Rose’s story.
- Suzy Amis as Lizzy Calvert: Rose’s granddaughter, who accompanies her when she visits Lovett on the ship and learns of her grandmother’s romantic past with Jack Dawson.
- Danny Nucci as Fabrizio: Jack’s Italian best friend, who boards the RMS Titanic with him after Jack wins two tickets in a poker game. Fabrizio fails to board a lifeboat when the Titanic sinks and is killed when one of the ship’s funnels breaks and crashes into the water, crushing him and several other passengers to death.
- David Warner as Spicer Lovejoy: An ex-Pinkerton constable, Lovejoy is Cal’s English valet and bodyguard, who keeps an eye on Rose and is suspicious about the circumstances surrounding Jack rescuing her. He dies when the Titanic splits in half, causing him to fall into a massive opening. Warner had appeared in the 1979 TV miniseries S.O.S. Titanic.
- Jason Barry as Tommy Ryan: An Irish third-class passenger who befriends Jack and Fabrizio. Tommy is killed when he is accidentally pushed forward and shot by a panicked First Officer Murdoch.
December 19, 1997
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