$200 Million Titanic Triumphs

Without Stanwyck, It’s Still Gargantuan

I’ve been down on the Titanic with Barbara Stanwyck so many times, it’s hard to imagine doing it again without her. Alas, the new, colossal and mega-expensive ($200 million is the official tab, but insiders inform me the cost is more accurate at $275 million and counting) Titanic could use a little more of the luster Stanwyck, Clifton Webb, Thelma Ritter, Richard Basehart and Brian Aherne brought to Jean Negulesco’s 1953 version. But as one of the deadliest years in movie history drags 1997 to a welcome end, this whopping extravaganza still lives up to its title. It is titanic in almost every way.

On a navy blue night in April 1912, the most glamorous luxury liner in the world struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic only five days into its maiden voyage and sank to the bottom of the sea at 2:20 A.M., claiming the lives of more than 1,500 people (estimates still vary). It was the most famous nautical tragedy of all time, and in 3 hours and 15 minutes (without intermission), you relive every harrowing, horrifying, panic-stricken minute of it. The controversy and fascination surrounding this epic disaster has inspired countless movies, books, television shows, documentaries and even a Broadway musical. But the story has never been told with quite the same lavish attention to detail as this gargantuan movie, brilliantly written and directed by James Cameron.

A new twist has been added: The film opens with an underwater research and recovery team led by Bill Paxton plunging 3,821 meters beneath the ocean in search of lost treasures. A pressurized launch shows us the first-class passenger lounge, the boat deck, hull interior and cabin contents as robot technology searches for artifacts. Then the actual tale of the unsinkable “ship of dreams” is recounted by a 104-year-old survivor (Gloria Stuart), and the real story begins. As a girl, she was an unhappy aristocrat engaged to a handsome, cruel and arrogant millionaire (Billy Zane) and was rescued from a suicide attempt by a third-class passenger who had won his ticket in a poker game. This upstairs-downstairs romance, as played by the ungainly Kate Winslet and the gooey-faced Leonardo DiCaprio, takes up most of the film’s first two hours and runs out of steam fast (the fictional passenger stories were more interesting in the 1953 black-and-white version, in which the doomed lovers were played by Audrey Dalton and Robert Wagner). But never mind. Mr. Cameron uses the romance between Ms. Winslet’s reckless socialite and Mr. DiCaprio’s aspiring, penniless artist from Wisconsin as a bridge between class structures to introduce us to everyone else on board, from the immigrants on their way to a new world to such illustrious high-rollers as John Jacob Astor, Isidor Straus (founder of Macy’s) and the unsinkable Molly Brown, not to mention such vital participants as Capt. E.J. Smith, on his retirement voyage, and Bruce Ismay, the ship’s owner who greedily demanded more speed to get headline publicity for the ship.

It takes two hours before this sucker hits the iceberg, but the final third of the film is worth the wait. Mr. Cameron doesn’t miss a trick. From stokers trapped in boiler rooms behind airtight doors, to women and children pushed into lifeboats, to the brave musicians trying to bolster the spirits of the hysterical passengers, you are slam-dunked into the heart of the ensuing chaos. Everything from the actual crystal and china to the exact position of the ship as it toppled forward and cracked in half, sending hundreds of screaming passengers sliding into the icy darkness of a watery grave, is re-created before your stricken eyes. The story is not comparable to Trans World Airlines Flight 800 because we actually know what happened in this tragedy, and Mr. Cameron has faithfully and accurately restaged it with so much awesome noise and confusion that it really looks like hundreds of lives were lost during the filming.

You get actual footage aboard the remains of the Titanic , a full-size reproduction of the actual ship the way it looked in 1912, and a real sense of what it was like to be a passenger on every deck. The final hours on the wreckage is like Dante’s Inferno, with 1,000 extras crashing through flames and shattered glass into the paralyzing foam. You do not leave this titanic experience saying, “So what?” You stagger away from it dazed but knowing, by god, you have finally been to the movies.

Some critics took one look at the budget and condemned it before the first screening (“No movie this expensive can survive our wrath!”), but now that they’ve seen the cumulative result of years of back-breaking artistry, most of them are putting Titanic on their 10-best lists for 1997. I still miss Barbara Stanwyck (nobody screamed like Babs), but this Titanic is nevertheless totally exciting, a marvel of technology, yet poundingly human and heartbreakingly passionate, a high-water mark in screen entertainment that is positively overwhelming.

Good Brooks, Great Nicholson

Another gem in the year-end dross is James L. Brooks’ wry romantic comedy As Good as It Gets , about a most unusual subject-New Yorkers who help each other in times of crisis! Jack Nicholson gives his juiciest and most heartfelt (i.e., understated) performance in years as Melvin Udall, a vicious, mean-spirited, offensive, arrogant, prejudiced curmudgeon who writes trash novels in his Greenwich Village apartment.

Melvin is a piece of work. Fussy, eccentric and antisocial, he’s also churlishly homophobic, which makes life a nightmare for his neighbor across the hall, a gay artist named Simon Nye who has frosted hair and wears purple shirts open to the navel (a delightful change of pace for the charming, open-faced and eternally boyish Greg Kinnear). When Simon lands in the hospital after a mugging, Melvin ends up reluctantly taking care of his scruffy dog Verdell (“Set up, suckered in, pushed around,” mutters Melvin under his breath), and the dog falls in love with its unlikely new master. The only person who is patient enough to put up with Melvin’s wounding tirades is a waitress named Carol (Helen Hunt, making an effortless, star-making transition from TV to the big screen), who serves Melvin a daily artery-clogging breakfast of bacon, sausages and eggs at his neighborhood greasy spoon. To make a long story short (something the filmmakers have failed to do), three disparate New Yorkers with nothing in common are brought together through the plight of an ugly little dog, finding compassion they never knew they had. Melvin starts liking life when he finds a doctor for Carol’s asthmatic son and ends up taking in the limp-wristed Simon as a roommate, and all three characters discover their power to love and be loved in the most unlikely places.

Like every film this holiday season, As Good as It Gets is too long, and for a comedy, it’s maniacally slow. But the joy in Mr. Brooks’ script has some of the same sweetness as his wonderful film Broadcast News in the unexpected ways people relate to each other through natural instincts. When the characters spout a funny or angry punch line, it feels real, even awkward, like it’s the first thing out of their minds. It’s the kind of movie that used to be created for sarcastic character actors like Clifton Webb and Monty Woolley. Mr. Nicholson’s Melvin is so anally retentive, he even programs car music for road trips. Finding charm he never knew he had, he turns sexy in a clumsy, rude way, as unsure of himself as he is of others, but ready to give sex a try even at his victims’ expense.

In a superb cast that also includes Shirley Knight and Cuba Gooding Jr., everyone shines. But it is really good old Jack-boy who steals the center spot from start to finish. He’s played so many devils, it’s nice to see him as a reluctant, suspicious saint, even with a tarnished halo. When Ms. Hunt nails him with the question “Have you any control over how creepy you allow yourself to get?” the look of genuine quizzical concern that raises his brows tells a thousand stories. With eyes like thimbles of rum, he’s a grab bag of tics and needs and foolish grins-a walking stethoscope searching for a heartbeat. Living up to the title of this endearing, offbeat comedy, he is truly as good as it gets. Jack is like the proverbial little girl with the curl-when he’s bad, he’s either hammy or bored (but always interesting), and when he’s good, there is nobody like him on the screen today.