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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

James Cameron's Titanic

The fictional Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) posed nude for a drawing by
Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio). Seldom has a work of art played such
an important role in another work of art.
James Cameron, Oscar night, 1998
A little over a year ago, I posted my list of top ten American movies ever made (06-17-12). There I listed James Cameron's 1997 epic blockbuster, Titanic, as number six. As anyone in the movie industry will tell you, $200-million in the hands of even as talented a filmmaker as Cameron, does not guarantee a great work of cinematic art (or even a profit at the box office). Cameron was as cognizant of this axiom as any of his nervous financial backers at 20th Century Fox or Paramount Pictures. (It took two major film studios plus a substantial hunk of Cameron's own cash to finance the massive, over-budget undertaking.) It would not be exaggerating in the least to say this awareness was crucial in Cameron's meticulous approach to the work of art he wrote, co-produced, co-edited, and directed himself. The film was technically, historically, dramatically, and aesthetically right "on the money." It was right on the "money" insofar as the box office was concerned as well, the first film in history to gross more than $2-billion worldwide since its release.

Cameron directing as the Titanic sinks. Titanic didn't sink in theaters.
Cameron was not the first filmmaker to assume such a "starring" roll in his own production. D. W. Griffith did it first in Birth of a Nation. For all practical purposes, David O Selznick did everything but play Scarlett in GWTW. Kubrick took similar control of Dr. Strangelove, as did Orson Wells in Citizen Kane. Besides writing, producing, directing and editing, Wells actually did take on the starring roll in his picture. All four made my top-ten list. The quirky Woody Allen has been a similar "one man band" as well. You might even say this could well be a the surest approach in the search for cinematic perfection. One has only to argue with oneself.

Despite Cameron's best directorial efforts (or perhaps because of them)
the ship itself became the Academy Award winning star of the movie.
Despite what Titanic's opening credits might suggest, the movie was not a one-man show. DiCaprio, Winslet, Billy Zane, and Kathy Bates, to name just a few, played important "supporting" roles in Cameron's masterpiece, though none were deemed as Oscar worthy (Cameron's screenplay and DiCaprio were not even nominated). As the eleven Oscars garnered by the movie suggests, the art of filmmaking continues to be "art by committee" (Cameron carried home only three gold statues). Only two other films have ever done as well, and only Cameron's own Avatar (2009) has since exceeded Titanic at the box office. Such "winners" at movie awards ceremonies have often been known to thank the "little people" who have made their success possible.

Cameron's full-scale movie set, built along the Baja coast, was as titanic as
the ship itself. His "ocean" held 17-million gallons of water. Only two decks
along the ship's starboard side were functional.
Gloria Stuart as the 101-year-old Rose
Cameron rose above such trite, deprecating gratitude, but he would have extended the length of his three acceptance speeches by several hours had he not done so. The initial underwater photography at the wreck site was groundbreaking, as were the full-size and scaled models crafted by his art directors, Peter Lamont and Michael D. Ford. Post-production special effects were nothing less than breathtaking. The soundtrack and hit song (My Heart Will Go On), from the movie won similar accolades. It's a notable tribute to Cameron's managerial strengths that of all the many awards heaped upon Titanic, virtually every one went to those on his team behind the camera. Only 87-year-old Gloria Stuart (best supporting actress, Screen Actor's Guild), who played the aging, present-day Rose, won an acting award.


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