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  'Titanic' Weighs Anchor With Record-Tying
11 Oscars at Academy Awards

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 23, 1998

For the movie "Titanic," for director James Cameron, and for the millions who've seen it and loved it, it was a night to remember.

The drama of the first and last sailing of the RMS Titanic, and its rendezvous with an iceberg, fate and immortality on the night of April 15, 1912, won a record-tying 11 Oscars at the 70th Annual Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. That tied it with 1959's "Ben-Hur" as the most honored film in Oscar history.

The evening capped the most successful 14 weeks in movie history, as "Titanic" also became the most financially successful film of all time.

Yet as recently as last July, many were predicting a mega-flop.

The movie was problematic from the start, a romantic drama set in the past, without proven stars and with an immense budget, in a genre that hadn't been successful in years. Soon the news got worse: the film was behind schedule and over budget. That inspired a spate of stories about the most expensive film ever made – at $200 million – and the impossibility of ever earning all that money back. By spring the movie was in such trouble and had attracted such a chorus of naysaying that it was pulled out of the lucrative but heavily competitive summer market, postponed and set back for a Dec. 19 release date.

In retrospect, that was probably the smartest move the marketers of 20th Century Fox ever made. They removed the film from a crowded summer market where "Men in Black" had proved its dominance, and moved it into far calmer waters, letting the fear of panic diminish and letting the director finish his editing in peace.

The film was finally previewed in Japan, where an early Variety review brought forth some astonishing news: Hey, it's a pretty good movie. And since then, with a North American box office of $500 million, overseas box office of $750 million and 14 straight weeks of finishing No. 1, it has proceeded to become the most successful film ever made, at least in 1998 dollars.

It's one of those rare films – the last one was probably "Forrest Gump" in 1994 – that became more than mere movies, but authentic cultural phenomena, gist for the cocktail party chatter.

And people have been asking why ever since.

There are more than a few reasons. One, certainly, is the Leo factor. Though its young star Leonardo DiCaprio wasn't widely known at the time, he had connected with a certain core audience. His dynamism, insouciance, beauty and electrifying youth had clearly resonated with a young, largely female audience, teenage girls who'd responded to him a year before in "William Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet,'" the punk rock R&J that turned into a box office bonanza. That's the audience that responded first and most passionately to the film. Would a Leo-less "Titanic" have sailed so smoothly and so far? Probably not.

But a second reason has to be the movie's spectacular special effects. These might be called "effects that aren't": Instead of showing us things we know to be fantastic – exploding planets, prehistoric monsters, an alien made of liquid metal who regenerates after every impact – the movie's genius has been more muted, directed toward showing us what we know to have taken place.

That sense of catastrophic reality is the most powerful thing about the film, far more convincing than other versions of the same calamity. Using not only a three-quarters-scale mock-up built in a tank in Mexico but also the very latest in computer morphing techniques, James Cameron makes you feel a particular wet, icy terror as the big ship slides under the waves. It seems like the end of an era, as Edwardian pomp, robber baron smugness and a rigidly hierarchical society are pulled beneath the dark water.

And still a third reason is the peculiar resonance of the Titanic disaster itself. After all, there have been other, worse marine disasters. But there is something powerful in the combination of hubris and tragedy on a clear, cold night on a sheet of liquid glass. The unsinkable ship was sunk somewhere in the 72nd hour of its life, and it took with it a confidence that man could master his universe. It also took with it a glittering world where the rich were the movie stars, since movies hadn't really been invented yet – it was like an asteroid hitting the Academy Awards. It remains one of the truly vivid events of the century, in and of itself fascinating for the clarity of its lesson and the glamour of its victims.

Perhaps all three of these things taken together suggest the true reason for the film's astounding success. And that is that it has used the most sophisticated modern filmmaking techniques to make the most old-fashioned kind of movie in years.

Unlike last year's "The English Patient," with the facile postmodernism in its novelistic time-shifting that was keyed to woo elite audiences well versed in complex narrative strategies, "Titanic" appears to have been conceived upon the old pre-marketing structure from a Hollywood long since past: It's built upon the model that old studio heads made their fortunes from – something for everyone.

Most modern films are marketed toward segments of the market as ferreted out by market research departments of considerable sophistication. They pander to this crowd or that crowd to the exclusion or even the contempt of others. Even some of James Cameron's films have operated in this way: His two "Terminator" films, for example, were so ultra-violent and jazzy, and edited at such a frenzy, that they were aimed straight into the male teenage id. Full of guns, car wrecks and chases, with their sci-fi backgrounds, they were like million-dollar adolescent fantasies.

But "Titanic" is different. It's much closer to "Ben-Hur," the 1959 movie it was attempting to replace as the all-time Oscar champion. Like "Ben-Hur" but unlike so many other, more recent films, it seeks to bring us together, not drive us apart. The film strikes broad, elegant chords, celebrating the power of community and mourning ancient, perished values like heroism and sacrifice. It offers a hero from each stratum of society, including a brash youngster named Jack Dawson, an oppressed young woman yearning to be free of society's fetters, a majestic older woman who has survived all the world has thrown at her and flourished; a heroic, professional crew; and a number of people who face death with a gallantry that has all but left the world.

Its villains are equally universal: the caprice of the universe and the greed of men. One of the jokes going around has been a variation on this one: "Why do so many people care about a movie when they know how it's going to end?" But that, of course, is nonsense: Yes, they know the ship will sink, but the considerable tension in the movie is generated by wondering which of the fictional characters will live. That isn't known. That's called storytelling.

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Academy Awards nomination list courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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