On March 23rd 1998, as James Cameron took the stage to accept his Academy Award for Best Director, it was clear that the blockbuster film Titanic was dominating the Oscars. Titanic had already tied with 1950’s All About Eve for the record of most Oscar nominations, at 14. By the end of the night, it would tie with 1959’s Ben-Hur for most wins, by taking out 11 categories, including the obsessively sought Best Picture award.
Cameron had already established himself as a master of action science fiction blockbusters, with movies such as Aliens, The Abyss and the first two Terminator movies. His ambition reached new heights with Titanic, a retelling of the ill-fated 1912 voyage of the unparalleled passenger steamship, which sank in the North Atlantic after striking an iceberg. Cameron’s films were notorious for going long over schedule and way over budget, and Titanic was worse than most. Originally budgeted at $100 million, the film eventually topped out at about $200 million, more than any other film in history; it also missed its original release date, making the studio executives sweat as they envisioned another Heaven’s Gate (the infamous big-budget flop that sank United Artists in the early 1980s).
Cameron was renown for his dictatorial style, hot temper and obsession with detail. For the reenactment of the historic ship’s sinking, the film’s crew constructed a 775-foot (90 percent scale) replica of the RMS Titanic and put it in a tank containing 17 million gallons of water. Production was done in Mexico, and members of the cast and crew later complained about the harsh conditions, including shooting days of more than 20 hours, much of that time spent standing in cold, murky Pacific Ocean water.
The Titanic left Southampton on 10 April 1912, and stooped at Cherbourg in France and Queenstown in Ireland, before heading westwards towards New York. On 14 April 1912, four days into the crossing and about 375 miles south of Newfoundland, she hit an iceberg at 11:40 pm. The glancing collision caused Titanic‘s hull plates to buckle inwards in a number of locations on her starboard side, and opened five of her sixteen watertight compartments to the sea. Over the next two and a half hours, the ship gradually filled with water and sank.
Passengers and some crew members were evacuated in lifeboats, many of which were launched only partly filled. A disproportionate number of men, over 90% of those in Second Class, were left aboard due to a “women and children first” protocol followed by the officers loading the lifeboats. Just before 2:20 am Titanic broke up and sank bow-first with over a thousand people still on board. Those in the water died within minutes from hypothermia caused by immersion in the freezing ocean. The 710 survivors were taken aboard from the lifeboats by the Carpathia a few hours later.
Released just before Christmas in 1997, the movie Titanic became a monster hit and continued to earn steadily at the box office over the next six months until it became the first movie ever to gross more than $1 billion internationally. Critical response to the film was divided. Many reviews were positive, but some critics praised the visual effects and action sequences, while pointing out the weakness of the screenplay, which Cameron penned himself. Especially praised was the last hour of the three-hour-plus movie, which depicts the epic sinking of the luxury liner. In one particularly memorable panning, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film “reeks of phoniness and lacks even minimal originality.” Cameron famously fired back in a letter to the editor, demanding (unsuccessfully) that the Times “impeach Kenneth Turan.”
On Oscar night, Cameron echoed Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Titanic by shouting “I’m the king of the world!” upon accepting his Best Director statuette. While accepting Best Picture (as the film’s producer), the filmmaker was slightly more subdued, asking for a moment of silence in remembrance of the more than 1,500 people who drowned on the Titanic.