In this edition of Legend Has It, grab your scuba gear because it’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s birthday today, and we’re diving deep into his record-breaking blockbuster movie Titanic.
Here’s the real-life story: On the night of April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic, the world’s largest, most luxurious, and greatest ocean liner ever built, sank into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. Approximately 2,225 people were aboard, and less than three hours after the Titanic hit an iceberg, more than 1,500 of those passengers perished. A frigid tragedy. A murky, watery mass-grave filled with unimaginable sadness and disbelief.
Now here’s the 1997 Hollywood story: On that doomed ship, there were two young lovers, one beautiful Rose (Kate Winslet), and one honorable Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). And the love these two found aboard ship was enough to fill theaters everywhere for months, making 1997’s Titanic the world’s top-grossing film of all time, and the first to break US$1 billion in revenue. It was nominated for a whopping 14 Oscars and won 11, including Best Picture.
But what made Titanic so popular? Maybe it’s that audiences can’t resist a “primal” love affair. It’s like, “Life or death. Or better yet, sink or swim. What’s it going to be?” Titanic kept us glued to our seats, as Rose and Jack dodged iceberg chunks, then bullets from a scorned fiancé (actor Billy Zane). Duck!
Which brings us to the action-disaster aspect to Titanic. Director James Cameron’s quality filmmaking brought this film to “next level” status, managing to successfully tie both first-rate “action” and “disaster” elements into a piece of romantic historical fiction. Not easy! Call it cinematic synergy, but Titanic became so much more than the sum of its parts. The audience went wild, and let’s find out why.
6 Amazing Facts About Titanic
1. It’s Decently Authentic
Top of mind these days is CGI (computer generated imagery). But the interior of the replica ship in Titanic really does magically flood during filming. The set was the intended victim of gushing water, crashing tables with pristine chinaware, etc. Call it “flood trashed.” Further, remember all that shivering from our leading lady Rose? Also authentic. The ship is sinking and she’s darting around trying to save Jack, escape her fiancé, and meanwhile not drown. When that chilly 60 degrees Fahrenheit water meets her skin, all acting bets are off. She’s suddenly actress Kate Winslet who was genuinely cold. But this trembling authenticity was perfect for her role, so we forgive her character break. She even got hypothermia!
2. James Cameron is a Quadruple Threat
Acclaimed director James Cameron also took on the writing, producing, and editing of Titanic. Call it his cinematic “baby.” There’s something to be said for an all-star filmmaker who has intense emotional investment in his work. Wearing a lot of hats? An understatement. Titanic reigned as the world’s most lucrative film, until James Cameron usurped it with his own film, Avatar, in 2009.
3. Leo Had a Wish
Who can imagine anyone else but Leonardo DiCaprio playing the gorgeous, heartwarming, and harmlessly mischievous vagabond Jack Dawson? Apparently, some studio execs. Legend has it that bad-boy actor Johnny Depp of future swashbuckling The Pirates of the Caribbean fame turned down this saltwater escapade. But what did Leo turn down in order to do Titanic? None other than 1997’s risqué Boogie Nights. Leo ideally wanted to do both.
4. The Theme Song Was Destined
Most cinephiles know that Celine Dion’s epic theme song “My Heart Will Go On” was not originally slated. And film and music lovers everywhere find this fact downright preposterous. The blasphemy! But rest assured that the universe is on your side. Flash-back to 1998’s “VH1 Divas Live” television concert and watch Celine Dion remind a hushed audience about the date. Wait, the date? Yes, as Celine Dion prepared to sing her epic Titanic power ballad, she stated that it was April 15th, the same date of the infamous Titanic disaster, which had taken place 86 years earlier. How astounding. Who knows if the VH1 execs were aware of this mystical scheduling possibility beforehand, but Titanic fans everywhere reveled in this pixie dust serendipity.
5. Water Was a Good Luck Charm
Cue James Cameron’s earlier aquatic film, The Abyss, from 1989. It’s promising, and showcases the director’s ability to absolutely captivate an audience with plot and underwater visuals. Here’s guessing this flick helped him with Titanic. Also cue Billy Zane who goes from playing a Pacific Ocean villain in the Australian flick Dead Calm, also from 1989, to villainous fiancé in Titanic. Aquatic movies aren’t common, and how magical that these two major Titanic players had some decent “aquatic” cred coming into the Titanic filming.
6. History Was Respected
The jury is always out on film genres like biopics, epics, and the like. How much is fact vs. fiction? By many accounts, Titanic aimed to be truthful and strove to bring the past into the present. Evidence: James Cameron went on a deep-water expedition to visit the actual Titanic wreck. That’s a stupendous nearly 15,000 feet down. Some of that footage ends up in the final cut. Also, remember that fancy carpet lining the Titanic’s hallways? Cameron had the same company from 1912 weave the carpet for the 1997 film. Impressive. For as huge of a film as Titanic was, no detail was too small. Bowler hats off for everyone involved in the grand making of Titanic, including the amazing Leonardo DiCaprio.
I was once an exec for The Economist magazine. Nowadays, I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger from the New York City area. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.