Today In History – December 19, 1997: Titanic Sails Into Movie Theaters

Fifteen years ago today, on December 19, 1997, Titanic sailed into movie theaters and into the hearts of film lovers everywhere. The epic motion picture about the sinking of the most unsinkable ocean liner ever built went on to win 11 Academy Awards and returned a cool $2,185,372,302 at the box office. The film, directed by James Cameron at a cost of $200 million, held the record as the highest grossing motion picture in history until another James Cameron blockbuster, Avatar, surpassed it with a box office gross of $2,782,275,172 in 2009.

Titanic led to international stardom for the young leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The two actors were both in their early twenties when Titanic was filmed and their successful star turns opened the door for major careers in motion pictures.

DiCaprio played Jack Dawson, a poor, working class young man from Wisconsin, who made his way to Paris, and won two third class tickets on the Titanic in a poker game. Rumor has it that a headstrong Di Caprio was less than enthusiastic about Cameron’s straight forward depiction of Jack and refused to read a romantic scene at the audition, but Cameron felt DiCaprio could convincingly portray the character and gave him the role.

“He read it once, then started goofing around, and I could never get him to focus on it again. But for one split second, a shaft of light came down from the heavens and lit up the forest. Look, I’m not going to make this guy brooding and neurotic. I’m not going to give him a tic and a limp and all the things you want.”

Winslet was cast as Rose DeWitt Bukater, a seventeen year old heiress from a wealthy, mainline Philadelphia family. Rebellious Rose was about to be forced into a marriage with an older man in order to save her family from financial ruin after the death of her father. Her romantic interlude with Jack, a man of lower social status, sets the stage for the human story behind the maritime disaster.

Just 22 at the time, Winslet was determined to win the part. After her screen test, she sent director Cameron a single rose with a note “From Your Rose” attached and called him repeatedly on the phone to campaign for the role.

Perhaps no one touched the hearts of the Titanic’s audience more than wonderful, 87 year old Gloria Stuart, who made her return to motion pictures after several decades of retirement. Stuart was a major star in the golden age of Hollywood during the 1930’s and 1940’s and she was chosen to portray a 101 year old version of Kate Winslet’s 17 year old Rose.

James Cameron explained why Stuart’s performance allowed the audience to make the connection between Stuart’s centagenarian Rose and Winslet’s teenage Rose:

“Stuart was just so into it, and so lucid, and had such a great spirit. And I saw the connection between her spirit and Winslet’s spirit. I saw this joie de vivre in both of them, that I thought the audience would be able to make that cognitive leap that it’s the same person.”

Few movie goers will ever forget Leonardo DiCaprio shouting “I’m the king of the world” from the bow of the Titanic as the doomed ship speeds through the waves. James Cameron also shouted those words to a theater full of Hollywood royalty when he received his Best Director Oscar. Titanic was king of the motion picture box office world for more than a decade and still rates as an all time Hollywood classic.