On February 20th, 1998, the US box office hit $1 billion for the year, the quickest that’s ever happened. Those are big numbers. Huge. Titanic, you might say.
It’s impossible to overstate how much Titanic dominated popular culture in late 1997 and early 1998. The film smashed one box office record after the next – highest domestic total (it currently ranks 6th), most weeks at number one (it still holds that record), most tickets sold (it still holds that one too), the first film to surpass $1 billion. But it’s easy to forget that Titanic was not a slam dunk; it lacked a bankable star and many insiders believed the film would sink on arrival, toppled by the weight of production delays, budget overruns and James Cameron’s ego.
Originally slated for a July 4th weekend release, Titanic began filming in July of 1996 with a budget of $100 million, which seems positively quaint in this era of box-office smashing superheroes, but was a record at the time. Production delays and Cameron’s perfectionism caused the budget to balloon to $200 million, or approximately $1 million for each minute of the film’s run time. 20th Century Fox, rightfully concerned about their investment, asked Paramount Pictures to foot $65 million of the bill in exchange for North American distribution rights. Titanic‘s release was postponed to December. The Los Angeles Times began a daily column called “Titanic Watch”, which chronicled the film’s production woes, from on-set injuries and illnesses resulting from cast and crew members spending so much time in ice-cold water, to a pissed-off crew member spiking a pot of chowder with PCP (more than fifty people were hospitalized, including Bill Paxton).
Ultimately, though, the film’s production issues made little impression on moviegoers and Titanic became the top grosser of all time. It would hold that record until 2009, when it would be surpassed by Cameron’s own Avatar (the crown is currently worn by Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens). Audiences fell for the film’s spectacular special effects, its sumptuous costumes, its….oh, who are we kidding, we fell for Kate and Leo.
At its heart, Titanic is a love story. The film’s box office success came down to audiences buying into this love story, and did they ever. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio had crackling chemistry, and Cameron himself has described the film as “Romeo and Juliet on a boat”. Pre-teen and teenaged girls flocked to Titanic in droves, making a matinee idol out of Leonardo DiCaprio (a role he never wanted, and ultimately transcended); he and Kate Winslet became superstars overnight. As the film’s critical success made it an awards-season favorite, the two attended events together and held each other close, weathering the insanity together; they remain good friends.
Titanic would go on to earn 14 Academy Award nominations (tying All About Eve for the record) and win 11 Oscars (tying Ben-Hur), including Best Picture and Best Director, losing only Best Actress (Helen Hunt swept the awards circuit that year for As Good as It Gets), Best Supporting Actress (ditto Kim Basinger for L.A. Confidential) and Best Makeup (it lost to, and I am not making this up, Men in Black – the legendary Rick Baker has rarely been beaten). Leo wasn’t even nominated for Best Actor, much to the dismay of his fan base.
Was Titanic the best movie of 1997? I’d argue not, but it all comes down to how you measure “best”. The film is a stunning technical achievement, no question. But it also suffered for Cameron’s insistence on overseeing every aspect of its production. His screenplay is clunky, and riddled with anachronisms. And 1997 was a FANTASTIC year for motion pictures – Boogie Nights, Jackie Brown, L.A. Confidential, Wag the Dog, The Game, Good WIll Hunting and The Sweet Hereafter all came out that year (for the record, Boogie Nights is my favorite of the bunch). But Titanic is epic and opulent, the kind of movie Oscar voters – and audiences – adore.
And oh, those costumes…