alycewilson (alycewilson) wrote,

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Triumph in Tragedy

I've been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. Next on my list was the 1997 winner, Titanic, directed by James Cameron and starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Titanic is a romance set on the doomed luxury ship, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. A rich girl and poor boy find each other for a star-crossed romance in what was. at the time, the most expensive film ever made.

The other nominees for Best Picture that year were As Good As It Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting and L.A. Confidential. In addition to Best Picture, Titanic also won best Art Direction - Set Decoration; Best Cinematography; Best Costume Design; Best Director; Best Effects - Sound Effects Editing; Best Effects - Visual Effects; Best Film Editing; Best Music - Original Dramatic Score; Best Music - Original Song ("My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion); and Best Sound.

The English Patient poster

Unless the film is a comedy, viewers know to expect a romance to end with heartache. In this case, however, viewers also knew that more than a thousand people would die. The only character guaranteed to survive was Rose DeWitt Bukaker (Winslet), who is recounting the story. Rose is played as an old woman by Gloria Stuart, who would be the oldest person ever nominated for an Oscar (Best Actress in a Supporting Role).

It's natural for film buffs to be suspicious of blockbusters, as it's often true that popular films achieve success by appealing to the lowest common denominator. Titanic, however, blows expectations out of the water (sorry). At times poetic and at times exhilarating, the movie tells the tale of the doomed ship through the eyes of Rose and her shipboard lover, Jack Dawson (DiCaprio). Engaged to marry another man, Billy Zane's Cal Hockley, a conceited rich man, Rose meets Jack and finds, for the first time, someone who allows her to be herself. So captivating is their story that, as my husband says, you're more than halfway through the film when you remember that the ship is going to sink.

Winslet received a Best Actress nomination for her work, but DiCaprio was skipped, despite inspiring countless teen girls inspired by his performance to go searching for the "real" Jack Dawson's grave. Of course, Jack, like Rose and Cal, was a fictional creation.

It is a testament to Cameron's script (yes, he wrote it in addition to directing) that these characters come alive to the audience. Through their eyes, we glimpse the real tragedy of this epic journey, as Cameron incorporates factual details, such as the fact that the poor passengers of the ship were largely overlooked when it came to filling the life boats.

While he was questioned at the time for his budget, Cameron spent the money well: combining CGI, traditional special effects, settings, costumes and more (including footage of the wreck of the real Titanic) to create a realistic film that would set a new standard for filmmaking.

The film also deserves credit for sparking interest in the historic events, leading to countless museum exhibits, documentaries, and educational books. It is rare for a blockbuster to have such an impact.

On any other year, one of the other acclaimed films nominated might have had a chance. But Titanic was more than just a movie; it was a cultural phenomenon.

Rating: ***** (5 out of 5 stars)

For more on the making of the film, read the film's trivia section on IMDb.

Big films are best when they focus on small stories.

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Tags: movies, oscars

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