On April 10, 1998, my sister came to visit me in Los Angeles. That was her 18th birthday, and while she was ostensibly heading to Los Angeles to visit her older brother, the real reason she made the trip was to assert her newfound independence: She was gonna get a tattoo.
My sister was a bit of a hellion in high school, and the tattoo—of a butterfly, across her stomach—would be the physical representation of her rebellion, an open rebuke to the parents who didn't understand that she was An Adult Now, man.. In other words, she was like every other teenage girl. Wary of her procuring her tattoo in our tiny Illinois hometown—the resident Mattoon inker was a morbidly obese bearded man named "Toad"—I drove her to a professional in Venice. Afterward, she looked vaguely ill. Not knowing what to do with her, I decided to kill a few hours with air conditioning, and we went to go see Titanic at the Mann Village in Westwood. "This movie's going to be stupid," she snarled. We all do lots of snarling in high school. We sat in the theater in silence for three hours. At the end, I looked over at my sister. She was bawling. She composed herself, wiped her eyes and blew her nose. "Don't you tell anyone about this." I didn't. (Until now, I guess.)
Titanic, which is getting the requisite 3-D re-release tomorrow, is one of the most famous stories in Hollywood history. James Cameron, a megalomaniacal tyrant obsessed with a singular, massively expensive vision, spent years working on the film, going wildly overbudget with no movie stars, to the point that ultimately two studios had to co-finance and release the movie. (A Premiere magazine article before the film's release quoted one effects supervisor on the film as saying, "Cameron has gone Kurtz.") The movie was the joke of the industry for months before it was released. But then it was released. The film debuted to a decent $28.6 million gross its opening weekend and then ... it simply became the only movie on earth that mattered. Titanic increased its gross the next weekend—which never happens—and stayed the No. 1 movie in the country for a staggering 15 consecutive weeks. By the time my sister saw it in April, four-plus months after it was released, it was the No. 3 movie in the country. It wouldn't drop out of the top 10 until the middle of June. The equivalent of this now would be Mission: Impossible 4, which comes out on DVD in two weeks, still being the No. 1 movie in the country this weekend, and remaining in that spot even when all the big summer movies come out. Titanic, quite simply, was a revelation.
And it was a revelation, in clear and overwhelming terms, because of teenage girls. No one could have imagined that when the film was being made; Cameron had a reputation for strong female roles (Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, Sigourney Weaver in Aliens), but this was a big muscular tentpole special-effects movie from the guy who made his career alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cameron knew what he was doing, though: He was going after the teenage girl all along. Leonardo DiCaprio, thinner back then but already weird, battled Cameron on set because he wanted to give Jack some sort of defect, a limp, something like that, but Cameron knew better, telling him: "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. This is your movie star performance." For all the talk of Leonardo DiCaprio's starmaking performance, though, girls came out for Kate Winslet's Rose: What teenage girl couldn't relate to having adults make decisions for her, swooning over a cute bad boy and suffering the beautiful pain of doomed youth romance? It was catnip for teenage girls, an audience Hollywood had ignored for decades and would continue to until Twilight took over. Teenage girls went to see Titanic over and over and over and over and over. It so freaked out DiCaprio that he had to openly break with his fans, lest he turn into Joey Lawrence. (They returned the favor.) All in all, it is sort of amazing how talented both DiCaprio and Winslet turned out to be, and comparatively well-adjusted, relatively speaking. Of course, that's the thing: Now everything's for teenage girls. We'll see how Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, and Taylor Lautner turn out.
One of the primary critical raves for Titanic at the time—and don't let the revisionists fool you: Critics loved that movie when it came out—was that it was "old-fashioned," a return to some sort of classic form of storytelling. This seemed a bit kind. The only thing "old-fashioned" about Titanic was that it featured period clothing and that Cameron, while a visionary as a filmmaker, is too inherently hackish of a writer to recognize that his clichés had been clichés for decades. All the things that are so openly mocked today—the dumb-dumb framing device, the slackjawed dialogue ("A woman's heart is a deep ocean of secrets"), pretty much everything involving Billy Zane—were just as bad when the film came out. Everyone just chose to ignore them.
And why wouldn't they? For all its obvious, lunkheaded faults, I still unapologetically love Titanic, for reasons similar to why those teenage girls loved it: It is profoundly, almost embarrassingly sincere. There is no winking in Titanic, no postmodern touches, no self-referential asides. It is the opposite of cynical; it is a big sprawling epic about the timelessness of adolescent love, a plain, open-faced black-and-white story where you cheer the good guys and hiss at the bad guys and grab your date's arm and ultimately just give yourself over to the whole thing. (I didn't cry at the end the first time I saw it. But I'm not gonna lie and say I wasn't close.) The movie has a big, babbling, stupid, awesome heart, and its hokiness and dopiness is central to its charm. All the great universal entertainers, the ones who moved the world rather than a select group of cultish admirers, have had a certain crazy tunnel vision to them, a total inability to see shades of gray, or understand jaundiced views of the world. (Think Michael Jackson, or Charlie Chaplin, or Steven Spielberg.) Titanic went huge—dominated the movie world, even still to this day—because it touched on basic, universally held human concepts of love and fate and time and loss. It did this in an extremely obvious way, but that's a reason to admire it and to mock it. Titanic moved teenage girls in a basic way because they have no hard protective coating yet; they took Titanic's story at face value and fell for it whole-heartedly, over and over and over again. It's the reason the film still has a kick, and it's the reason my sister, all attitude and eff-you, completely melted. You can only hate Titanic if you really, really want to. And even then it's hard.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.