by DURGA CHEW-BOSE
dir. James Cameron
James Cameron’s Titanic immediately prompts a series of awkward poses and bulky pomp: Rose’s half-cupped hand resting shyly on her forehead as Jack draws her naked, or the flimsy way in which she touches the brim of her boarding hat, or their kiss on the boat’s bow — gawky and oddly angled — or Jack and Rose’s post-coital embrace, his boyishly sweaty head resting on her maternal bosom. The entire film plays out like puberty — self-conscious and smug, as if clocking in future nostalgia, now.
And yet, we all watched it and we all remember it well. And for those didn’t and still haven’t, that reluctance, by some means, has joined the spectacle too.
Made for 200 million dollars, the story is of course quite simple. Wandering artist, Jack, spots engaged society girl, Rose. He’s told he cannot have her. Their meet-cute, so to speak, transpires during her failed suicide attempt off of the boat’s stern. As the ship sinks a few days later, and the two clutch its railings, Rose reminds Jack, “This is where we first met.”
Their friendship soon turns to courtship and Rose’s mother forbids her daughter to see him, reminding Rose of their family’s dire financial troubles as she tightly laces her corset. Rose defies. The ship hits the iceberg. Jack and Rose go down with it, and as they wait for the lifeboats to return, Jack asks Rose to promise him that she’ll survive, that she "won’t give up."
Plot aside, nothing provokes our nostalgia quite like images of what Leo and Kate looked like then. Despite some bad roles, they’ve both continued to rise and work with great directors, but something about their pairing as Jack Dawson and Rose Dewitt Bukater remains crystallized. They are the Prom King and Queen of 90s disaster movies; Ben and Liv a distant second.
DiCaprio used to be much smaller. He didn’t fill out his shirts and his head was not yet square. His jaw line was sharp and flanked the contour of his heart-shaped face. As Jack, when he’d bite into a roll of bread or gulp a glass of beer, or smile breathlessly at Rose, one could see it most in his jaw. His eyebrows were devilish and no matter what he was thinking, there was always a chance it wasn’t good, though almost certainly fun. He threatened charm and mischief, both — that’s what 90s heartthrobs did. A fortune of personality! Funny props in photo shoots! Rare flashes of teeth!
Like Annie Hall, Jack hails from Chippewa Falls. And like Annie Hall, the way he pronounced his hometown endowed him with a preparedness that outdid anyone else on the boat. We trust him from the very start: “You jump, I jump.” For all we know Chippewa Falls is the land of boy scouts and tomboys. La-di-da, la-di-da...
At the time, Kate was a relative unknown. I have a distinct memory of reading a mini-piece in Seventeen where Winslet was asked questions about her co-star. We weren’t yet interested in her. Un-American, she was the opposite of Claire Danes. Kate didn’t appear dreamy and dopey, or stare longingly out of windows or stand willowy against door thresholds. She was neither long-winded nor wary. She wasn’t another Winona or a tongue-tied sweetheart like Gwyneth. Her hair was not flat. She was not a 90s waif. She didn’t seem to harvest much angst.
So who exactly was Kate Winslet? On a 1998 cover of Rolling Stone she’s wearing an unbuttoned peacoat, lace bra, and pleated skirt. The whole thing looks cheerless and uncoordinated. But inside, Winslet seems happier: one shot sultry, the other one goofy and grungy with coastal messy hair and a white Lifesaver (get it?!) cased in her cushiony lips.
As Rose, Winslet looked incredible; especially so in the second half of the film, post-berg, ice cold. Most actresses (and women) do. Think Julie Christie in Dr. Zhivago, Uma Thurman in Beautiful Girls, Joan Allen in The Ice Storm, and Kate, again, in Eternal Sunshine. Cheeks naturally narrow, lips darken, skin gets slightly severe with occasional blushes. Even in that first scene where she meets Jack on the stern, her hair appears extra red and ribbony. If you’ve never played with or petted cold hair, not wet just cold, I highly recommend it. The smell of morning shampoo and cold air is dreamy.
Her dresses, diaphanous with filmy layers of beaded constellations, with cinched waists and framed necklines, were somehow intended for lapping seawater, or to float up beside her as she wielded an axe, rudderless and storming through rising tides and flickering lights. Winslet’s great at expressing urgency and obligation. Her brow furrows, her eyes dart. I bet she’s great at charades.
Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She last wrote in these pages about the director Barbara Loden. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and twitters here.
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Durga Chew-Bose on Titanic
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