THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – March 16, 1998
Hollywood has embraced “Titanic,” but the jury’s still out on James Cameron
SCHADENFREUDE IS A NASTY, ineradicable bit of human nature, present everywhere and always. But it is especially virulent in Hollywood, and it’s a little uglier there because of the smiley-face hypocrisy of the place: nowhere else, probably not even in Washington, do people revelling in another person’s flameout make such a show of earnest empathy while privately aching intensely for successful colleagues to fail. Since there has never been a movie as successful as James Cameron’s “Titanic”—rapturous praise from tough critics, staggering commercial success everywhere on the planet, more Oscar nominations than any other film in a half century—Hollywood’s collective anti-Cameron schadenfreude should be achieving critical mass just about now.
Might there be a sufficient “Titanic” backlash to keep it from winning the Best Picture Oscar? (The ballots were mailed out last Tuesday.) One factor
suppressing ill-will toward the movie is the inoculation of bad press it received while it was still in production. Because of the barrage of negative stories (about the two-hundred-million-dollar budget, the bullying by Cameron of his actors and crew, the five-month delay, the mutual loathing between the co-producing studio executives at Fox and Paramount), “Titanic” underwent its obligatory failure stage (in the three-stage modern marketing-phenom cycle: success, failure, redemption) before it ever opened. The good reviews and the glorious box-office performance were therefore perceived by the media and the Hollywood establishment not as ordinary success, which would beg for a reversal, but as a comeback. This is what the longtime studio executive and Academy vice-president Sid Ganis means when he refers, with fond awe, to “the kind of cocoon around ‘Titanic’ that’s protecting it from backlash.”
The movie’s extravagant commercial success protects it, too. Among the five Best Picture nominees in any given year, the movie that wins tends to be the biggest-grossing or second-biggest-grossing one. Among the movie business’s movers and shakers, to criticize a movie so big, so Hollywood, so popular is an act of churlish industry disloyalty. “Titanic” ’s interests and Hollywood’s interests have come to be seen as not just intertwined but identical. A couple of weeks ago at a dinner in Hollywood, I asked Arnold Rifkin, the head of the William Morris Agency, if he detected any groundswell of anti-“Titanic” sentiment. His agency represents Gus Van Sant, the Oscar-nominated director of “Good Will Hunting,” but also Kate Winslet, the Oscar-nominated star of “Titanic.” Rifkin looked at me as if I had squawked in a foreign language. “No,” he said carefully. “No.” “Yes,” his wife demurred.
In other words, yes, there is some “Titanic” dissent, variously a function of envy, rivalry, and disapproving aesthetic bafflement, but almost no one in the movie business will admit to any antipathy on the record. (Three different people who told me ungenerous things in interviews about Cameron and his movie later asked that their quotes be softened.) “I know Jim, and he’s a genius of sorts,” one of the town’s important movie agents told me. “It’s not very chic to say ‘Titanic’ is unwatchable. I’m in a minority. I thought the movie was terrible. The level of writing is just atrocious.” Then he added, “I do think it’s good for the movie business.” This regard for “Titanic” is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s giddy popularity in the mid-eighties, when Reaganism was tantamount to patriotism, and even people who considered the President shallow or stupid had to admit that there was something awesome and even sublime about his craft and his popularity.
Despite Hollywood’s compulsory boosterism on behalf of “Titanic,” Cameron may be hurt by his own sore-winner outbursts. He has been showing up at industry events lately—an uncharacteristic attempt to play the establishment game, according to a friend of his—but has reportedly acted like a prima donna. When Cameron won the Golden Globe, in January, he snarled, in a kind of ungracious Howard Stern taunt, “Does this prove once and for all that size does matter?”
Harvey Weinstein, the in-your-face co-chairman of Miramax Films, saw Cameron’s bigger-is-better triumphalism as a gauntlet thrown, since Miramax’s raison d’être is small movies. (Miramax once owned the television rights to a play I wrote.) The studio’s “Good Will Hunting,” up for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, cost less than a tenth as much as “Titanic.” “Cameron walks around and says, ‘Size matters,’ ” Weinstein says. “This is David and Goliath. We’re Miramax!” Trying to be polite, he says, “ ‘Titanic’ is a spectacular entertainment,” then goes on, “but I just don’t think it’s the best picture of the year. Some of the dialogue makes you cringe.” (“Well,” he adds with a chuckle, “there goes Miramax ever working with Jim Cameron.”)
Apart from the acting categories, the only available Oscar nomination “Titanic” didn’t get was for its screenplay, which, another anti-“Titanic” studio executive told me hopefully, shows that it may be “vulnerable” in the Best Picture category. This year, however, Miramax can’t telephone Academy voters, a form of politicking it pioneered a couple of years ago. “There was no rule against it,” Weinstein says, “so I would make some key phone calls. I called Tom Cruise. . . . The minute I started, it’s ‘He’s brainwashing people!’ You can’t do that anymore.”
The last film to get fourteen Oscar nominations was “All About Eve,” which came out in 1950, and had precisely the kind of smart, talky, witty script that “Titanic” antagonists regard as a gold standard. But this is a post-literate cinematic age, an age in which movie audiences, as in the silent era, can be fully satisfied by fresh, well-executed special effects and heroic myth—by a kind of grand cinematic Reaganism which is finally immune to critical carping. Most people, even smart people, swept away by the “Titanic” spectacle, don’t care that the actors utter dumb lines. (Moreover, Cameron has advanced the art of the modern thrill-ride event movie: “Titanic” is a fabulous sinking-ship simulation and a Tunnel of Love.) Just as Weinstein is an old-fashioned Hollywood throwback, running Miramax on a kind of passionate seat-of-the-pants instinct and making movies inexpensively, he is judging “Titanic” by old-fashioned, pre-Spielberg literary standards. Most of the Best Picture nominees—“Good Will Hunting,” “L. A. Confidential,” “As Good As It Gets”—are good movies made from impeccable scripts; “Titanic” embodies a different paradigm, the good, arguably great movie with a merely serviceable script.
Yet, for all the ostensible Hollywood-versus-independent-film rivalry, “Titanic” and “Good Will Hunting” are oddly similar. “They’re both films that make the Academy feel good about filmmaking,” says Gus Van Sant (whose druggy and homoerotic previous films are to “Good Will Hunting” as “Good Will Hunting” is to “Titanic”). Both are weepy love stories between beautiful, talented working-class boys and zaftig, blossoming ruling-class girls. And, in fact, the two movies’ leading pre-Oscar promoters, Cameron and Weinstein, are curiously similar, too—acer-bic, righteous, sometimes maniacal visionaries who, despite immense Hollywood wealth and power, still consider themselves outsiders in the movie business. Which helps explain why they both are so desperate to win the Oscar. ©