“I’ll never let go,” she whispered.
Except, uh: She did. She totally did.
Rose DeWitt Bukater, heroine of Titanic, badass proto-feminist, wearer of the Heart of the Ocean and owner of the beating heart Céline sang about, did, in the end, something you wouldn’t expect: She let the love of her life freeze to death in icy waters. Oh, and she did that while 1). wearing a life vest that she could have at least lent to Jack, and 2). floating safely and relatively comfortably upon a wooden door that, science has proven, totally had enough room for Jack to come aboard. As Ross Geller (a fellow who, say what you will about him, never would have let Rachel be swallowed alive into the murky Atlantic) would put it, decades later: “Let’s try scooching.”
Don’t blame Rose, however, for Jack’s demise. According to Rose herself—Kate Winslet, who appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live this week—Jack “actually could have fitted” on the pair’s makeshift (yet roomy! so roomy!) raft. The actor thereby washed her hands of decades’ worth of conspiracy theories and scientific inquiries and indignant self-defenses and, in general, confusion and consternation on the part of Titanic’s legions of fans. There was room, Rose! There was totally room.
You could look at that decades-in-the-making admission as Winslet’s “agreement,” as the Guardian put it, “with fans who felt Leonardo DiCaprio’s character died unnecessarily.” You could see it, even more dramatically, as a final declaration—as Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos argued—that “Rose let Jack die.”
Which: She kind of did! (See, again: All that room.) Another way of seeing it, though, is that Rose DeWitt Bukater, the lover and the fighter and the fictional character, had very little to do with things on that life raft and in that movie. It was James Cameron, Titanic’s director and auteur, who let Jack die. It was Cameron who approved the use of a prop that would have room for Titanic’s star and yet refuse to accommodate him; it was Cameron who made the decision, finally, that Jack would die. It was Cameron who made Rose let go.
And: All of us who watched Titanic helped him to make those decisions. Imagine, after all, if Jack had survived. On the one hand this would demand that an already long movie become even longer, to explain the survival; on the other, though, it would compromise the lofty ambitions Titanic had for itself as a cinematic project. “Epics”—the types of movies that get celebrated at the Oscars and remembered for their human dramas—don’t traditionally accommodate happy endings. They tend to prefer pathos. They tend to prefer plots that allow for the ironization of lines like “I’ll never let go.” They tend, essentially, to prefer dying over living. As Cameron sniffed of the Jack Matter back in 2012: “I’m going to call up William Shakespeare and ask why Romeo and Juliet had to die.”
Commercially, too, Titanic had a vested interest in Jack’s death. The song that helped the film to cement its status and its brand in pop culture almost demanded that Jack be sacrificed to the cause. (“Near … far … whereeeeeeever you are …” wouldn’t have had the same poignance if the “wherever” in question had been “an artist’s loft in New York City.” ) The resonance that audiences felt with the film when it premiered in 1997—the resonance that they continue to feel when it streams on Amazon or airs on HBO—is premised on the romance of the unfinished. Had Jack and Rose been left to live their lives in America—had their story, even if only through implication, gone on to involve the finding of an apartment and the making of a living and Jack’s realization that Rose has never in her life needed to cook a meal—the romance of their story would have been compromised. Their love, gauzy and warm, would have congealed into the stilted pragmatisms of everyday life. Their romance took place in international waters; Jack’s survival would have, in every sense, brought it to shore.
Which is all to say that the culture that created and propelled and validated Titanic as a film was also the culture that killed Jack. Titanic wouldn’t have enjoyed the successes it did, as an artistic product or a commercial one, had Jack survived. James Cameron—and Rose Bukater along with him—sacrificed their hero upon Hollywood’s icy altar. Jack had to end, so that the film could go on.