Titanic was initially perceived as a disaster waiting to happen—again. During production, rumors circulated about problems on the set, an obsessed director, and production budget overruns. The unprecedented commercial success of the film changed all that. Released in December 1997, Titanic was the first movie to gross more than $1 billion worldwide. Reviewers subsequently recast the record-breaking cost of production ($200 million) as a sign of the film's quality. Director James Cameron was heralded as an auteur and a stickler for historical authenticity. The film went on to win 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Critics and scholars offer various explanations for the film's extraordinary popularity with audiences: the mix of genre elements; the lavish visual style; the narrative frame linking past and present; the teen heartthrob status of Leonardo DiCaprio; the savvy marketing of the soundtrack, including the hit song by Celine Dion; and nostalgia for the big-budget epic romances of the past. Although there may be no single explanation for the Titanic phenomenon, the film's appeal to both female and male viewers is significant. Titanic is representative of a contemporary production trend in Hollywood: female-centered action-adventure films designed to woo female viewers without alienating male viewers, the genre's core audience.
In the film, Rose's (Kate Winslet) oppression as an upper-class woman is opposed to Jack's (DiCaprio) freedom as a working-class man. One scene in particular captures the sense of freedom that Jack has and Rose wants. Jack, along with Fabrizio (Danny Nucci), a friend from steerage, climbs up on the bow of the ship in order to experience the exhilaration of speed and movement as the Titanic sets out for America, full steam ahead. As pistons engage, dolphins leap, and heavily synthesized music swells, Fabrizio, the hopeful immigrant, shouts excitedly that he can “see the Statue of Liberty already,” while Jack throws his arms open wide and declares himself “the king of the world.” This is a sensation scene, designed less for advancing the narrative than to evoke the feelings associated with being alive—with being a male body in the world, specifically. The extent to which that body might be oppressed by virtue of its class status is elided in the film. Instead, oppression is located with Rose and the constraints of her experience as a woman on the “upper deck.”
Rose's attempts to fight back against gender oppression are linked with the women's suffrage movement in America. In one scene, Rose and her family members dine with Ismay (Jonathan Hyde), managing director of White Star Lines, and Andrews (Victor Garber), Titanic's designer. Ismay boasts that Titanic is “the largest moving object ever made by the hand of man in all of history,” while Andrews, of a more modest demeanor, displaces the credit due to him for having designed the ship by referring to the grandiosity of Ismay's idea: “He envisioned a steamer so grand in scale and so luxurious in its appointments that its supremacy would never be challenged.” Rose reacts to the idea of “supremacy that can never be challenged” by doing just that. She lights a cigarette—the sign of a suffragist in 1912 America—as a subtle challenge to the patriarchal supremacy implicit in Ismay's idea. Ruth (Frances Fisher), Rose's mother, immediately chastises her for lighting up, while Cal (Billy Zane), her fiancé, snatches the cigarette out of her mouth and extinguishes it. Ruth and Cal are melodramatic villains, upholding oppressive gender ideologies that the film will work to overcome.
In addition to adopting the attitude of the suffragette, Rose gradually begins to manifest the physical freedom associated with the working-class man. She is transformed into an action heroine—literally becoming like Jack in a type-scene repeat in which she is allowed to become “king of the world” on the soaring bow of the ship. In another scene, Jack is not only trapped within the sinking ship, he is melodramatically trapped within the trap, handcuffed to a pipe on a lower deck that is quickly filling with water. It is up to Rose to save him, which she does, in the nick of time. In another scene, with Rose in the lead, she and Jack attempt to outrun a deluge but are swept underwater and deposited against a locked gate. Miraculously, a steward appears and, with trembling hands, tries to unlock the gate, once again invoking the narrative question central to suspense: will he release them in the nick of time or will he be too late? When the steward drops the keys and flees in a panic, Jack dives underwater and recovers them, escalating the suspense. “What one is it, Rose?” he cries, abiding by the gender politics of the film, which resist letting the male character take over at the expense of the female hero. Rose cleverly identifies the correct key in the nick of time.
In the final scenes of the film, Cameron prepares us for the possibility of Rose's death but also invites us to “let go” via the sensory and emotional experience of film entertainment. “The former world has passed away,” announces a priest as passengers kneel and pray while struggling to hold onto him. The next shot depicts the body of a young woman in a diaphanous white gown floating weightlessly in her underwater grave. This image is followed by shots of the ship tipping upright, stern over bow. One after another, passengers let go, screaming, and slide down the deck of the ship, in a manner reminiscent of an amusement park ride. This effect continues as the ship snaps in two. The stern plunges and then is upended once again, giving passengers (and members of the audience) the roller coaster ride of their lives.
The connection between death and film entertainment as conduits for “letting go” is confirmed as Jack climbs over the railings of the ship and positions himself “overboard,” as it were, inviting Rose to join him. “Give me your hand. I've got you. I won't let go,” he exclaims. The ship bobs momentarily, as if waiting for Jack and Rose to secure themselves in their seats, and then begins its final, spectacular plunge. “This is it!” Jack declares. This is the moment toward which the film has been building: the moment of death, facilitated by the film's most thrilling special effects. The ship plunges vertically into the water and disappears from the horizon for the last time. Pulled along in the ship's wake, Jack and Rose struggle to hold onto each other, but are forced to let go. Making their way to the surface, Jack guides Rose to a piece of floating debris and helps her onto it while remaining nearby, submerged in the icy water. He then enlists her in promising that she'll “survive,” that she'll “never give up, no matter what happens, no matter how hopeless,” that she'll “never let go.” Clutching Jack's trembling hand, Rose agrees to “never let go.” The irony, of course, is that in order to keep her promise to survive, she must eventually “let go” of Jack in death. She releases him into the icy depths, and viewers into the experience of pathos and heightened emotion.
Rose is eventually rescued and delivered to the safety of America's harbor. From her position on Carpathia's steerage deck, gazing on the Statue of Liberty, she declares her new name, rejecting the values of her repressive past. As Rose Dawson, she will lead an emancipated life, doing all the things she had once asked Jack to teach her—”to ride like a man, chew tobacco like a man, spit like a man”—all of which depend on the freedom of the non-corseted body. That she does indeed lead a nontraditional life for a woman, a life of adventure, is evidenced by a collection of framed photographs gathered next to her deathbed: Rose deep-sea fishing, Rose piloting an airplane, Rose riding a horse, and so on. The photos are offered as proof that she has experienced the exhilarating sensations associated with being “king of the world.”
See also: Melodrama, The Women in Film