[Sady is working on a giant Mystery Project. It entails watching a lot of “romantic” movies. You know, for the chicks! Here are some of her notes.]
One of the many things you come to appreciate about Titanic, when re-watching it as an adult, are the complexities of Billy Zane’s performance. Zane plays Caledon Hockley – steel magnate, loveless-arranged-marriage candidate, avowed hater of the poor – who, as you can probably guess from his preposterous name and the aforementioned list of qualifications, is the villain of the piece. Oh sure, you might think that in a movie entitled Titanic, the villain would be, I don’t know, an iceberg or something! Ah, but no. You would be wrong. The villain is Billy Zane. And what a villain he is, let me tell you!
I feel goofy explaining the plot of Titanic to you, since I assume that you have been alive for at least twelve years and have therefore seen it or at the very least heard about it, but, to be brief: Titanic is two movies. One of them is about a boat that sinks. The other movie, which prefaces, interpenetrates, and steals a really inordinate amount of focus from the sinking-boat movie, is about a girl named Rose (Kate Winslet! YAYYYY), and her various thinky thoughts, deep feelings, and meaningful once-in-a-lifetime discovery and embrace of Girl Power. Rose is rich, and as a rich person she is taking a journey aboard fancy rich-person vessel Titanic. But Rose hates being rich. It entails assorted Edwardian constraints on her Girl Power! Rose is so sad about being rich that she decides to jump off the ship in her fancy dress. A boy named Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio! WHATEVERRRR) stops her from jumping. He is not rich. He is poor! Poor, and free! Now Rose wants to be poor, too! Jack approves of this. He teaches her to spit and give the finger to people because that is what Girl Power is all about. Also they fuck. Then the ship sinks and everyone dies, the end.
So far, so good. But don’t we need… CONFLICT??? Don’t we need… A VILLAIN??? (“What about man’s tragic hubris? Can that be the villain?” NO, God. What does man’s tragic hubris have to do with Rose’s feelings?) Yes, in order to convince us that being a rich Edwardian lady would be the worst, most stifling, least Girl Powerful fate in the entire world, we need a convincing cinematic shorthand for the evils of the rich in general and Rose’s life as a rich person specifically. Enter the Zane! Specifically, enter the Zane as Caledon Hockley, the snootiest, entitledest, cowardliest, connivingest, abusivest, potential-rapist-iest, most perpetually tuxedo-clad millionaire playboy in the entire world. Rose’s mother has determined that Rose shall marry the Zane, whether she will or no, because he is rich, and also because one thing I forgot to mention before is that Rose’s mother is an asshole. Actually, it is not hard to see why Rose’s mother and Cal get along so well; for one thing, they both just hate the ever-living fuck out of poor people, to the extent that they cannot stop talking about it. This is part of Titanic‘s Very Important Commentary on Class (short version: poor = fun-loving and awesome, rich = boring and evil) but it actually just sort of comes across as some disturbing and socially inappropriate obsession they’ve bonded over, like every time they see a person with even slightly less money than themselves it is all they can do not to stab him or her to death on the spot. Other rich people seem kind of disturbed by how much these two hate the poor, and are always sort of determinedly pleasant and uncomfortable-looking around them whilst they aim death glares at whatever unfortunate broke person happens to get in their way. Look, here are their Looking At The Poor faces:
I TOLD YOU.
Anyway! Back to Zane! In early reviews of Titanic (which were not, as far as I can see, very good) he and his role were roundly panned. And, you know, I agree that the role of Caledon Hockley was not written very well. He says things like, “Go? TO HIM? And be a whore to a gutter rat?” Or, “Picasso? He’ll never amount to a thing! Trust me!” But it is possible to imagine any number of accomplished actors sort of embarrassedly slogging their way through these scenes, imbuing them with the bare minimum of superciliousness necessary for the job, and quietly cursing the series of life decisions that brought them to this impasse. That is not the path of the Zane. Oh, no. The Zane bites down on this role as if it were a delicious jerky, and he savors it, my friends. He savors it immensely. It is as if Billy Zane received his script, flipped ahead to the shipwreck portion, and saw that his character (a) bribes a ship’s officer to let him on to a lifeboat (whilst brandishing a fistful of money in clear view of the rioting mob, perhaps just to remind them of how poor and terrible they are), (b) calls that plan off so that he can run around a crowded stairwell firing a revolver in the vague direction of his girlfriend and the dude she’s boning, (c) realizes he still needs to get off the ship, and (d) steals a baby so that someone will let him onto a lifeboat, because the guy he bribed belatedly realized that he was going to die in a shipwreck and that he really couldn’t use the money as a corpse at the bottom of the ocean and then he shot himself, whoops. We’ll miss you, Slow-On-The-Uptake Lifeboat Guy! What I am saying is, Billy Zane, alone among all Titanic’s many acclaimed cast members, seems to have realized what a ridiculous movie he was making, and he apparently decided to go full-on cartoon villain for the occasion. For though Billy Zane may not be the most able of actors, he possesses the essential quality of enthusiasm. Specifically, enthusiasm for unhinged, hilarious overacting. Tragically deprived of a cape and/or moustache to twirl, he nevertheless fills out the character with a pseudo-British old-timey American accent (all of the American characters have these, actually, but Zane’s is the worst/best) and a dazzling array of snickers, smirks, dramatic eyebrow-raises and, on more than one occasion, high-pitched girlish squeals of frustration. Zane is wildly over-the-top, which is probably why he didn’t get good reviews. Also, Zane is wildly over-the-top, which is why he is the most entertaining thing in the movie.
Or maybe he just seems that way because Jack is such a dud. A confession, reader: when I saw this movie, as a teener, I kind of liked it. I even liked Jack! In spite of the fact that he was Leonardo DiCaprio! Yes, when I was a teen, Jack seemed like a perfectly reasonable love interest. And now, he seems slightly less interesting than the wood paneling in Rose’s cabin. What changed?
Oh, right: I’ve actually dated some boys, in the years since Titanic’s release. Whereas, in the years leading up to and coinciding with Titanic’s release… yeah. Late bloomer. ANYWAY. My more or less total ignorance of the sexy side of the male gender allowed me to buy into the fantasy of Jack. And it is quite a fantasy indeed.
For, you see, Jack has exactly three things to do, in this movie. The first is to stand around looking adorable as the wind tousles his already-artfully-tousled hair. The second is to get really, extremely, catchphrasily enthused about the fact that he is on the Titanic. (Although, to be fair, everyone is really enthused to be on the Titanic in this movie. All you need to do, to recreate the early scenes of Titanic at home, is to gather a bunch of friends together and make all of them run around going OMG WOOOO TITANIC BEST SHIP EVER TOTALLY NOT GONNA DIE ON IT TITANIC 4-EVER YEEE-HAAAAAAA. Then, have somebody say something about how poor people are awful and women shouldn’t be allowed to do stuff.) The third, and most important task, is to enable Rose’s Girl Power. This is literally all he does in their relationship. He has no other goals. He just endlessly tells Rose what to do in order to be happy. She’s going to jump off a ship? He tells her not to jump off the ship. She’s going to marry Cal and enter a life of soulless richery? He tells her not to marry Cal and to embrace the joys of poordom. She’s going to die on the ship that is sinking? He tells her – in really, unexpectedly graphic and scientifically accurate detail – how not to die on the ship. After, of course, he’s liberated her kundalini with fucking and artistic nude sketches, and taught her to dance the jig, and given her the opportunity to chug her first beer, and informed her that she is possessed of a “fire that he loves about her” (although it really seems, at this point, that it’s not so much a “fire” as an “uncanny ability to follow Jack’s many instructions because she did not have the TINIEST FUCKING IDEA AS TO WHAT SHE WANTED BEFORE JACK SHOWED UP, JESUS.”). And then? After he’s delivered his final sermon about how she must go and live a fulfilling life and have lots of babies and under no circumstances die in the aftermath of the shipwreck? Like sweet Teen Beat Jesus, he gives up his life for her. Basically, what I learned from this movie is that if a boy likes you, he should show up, fix all your problems, get you off, and leave. Or die, if that’s more convenient for you!
Which is not actually how it happens, and which might be an objectively terrible lesson that I can blame for all of my many failures in life. Because it’s still what I want from boys, sometimes! And they tend not to be happy about that! But that is a speech for another day and another Giant Mystery project, my friends. For now, I leave you with one of the many sermons of our Reedeemer, Jack (“he saved me, in all the ways a person can be saved”) as delivered by the old lady who apparently used to be Kate Winslet: a woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets. And one of those secrets may or may not be a desire to be bossed around by a well-intentioned hobo.
Oh, and also, there is an old lady who used to be Kate Winslet in this movie. Whatever. IT’S LONG. Can’t cover all of it!