When Titanic hit theaters 20 years ago, the widely held view in Hollywood was that it would be a financial disappointment. James Cameron’s long-planned project about the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic had gone over budget (it cost $200 million, at that time a record, after being green-lit for $109 million). Filming had taken weeks longer than expected, and the final cut of the movie came in at a gargantuan three hours and 15 minutes. When Fox (who funded the project, along with Paramount) asked him to cut the movie down, Cameron responded in typically bellicose fashion: “If you want to cut my film, you’ll have to fire me. And to fire me, you’ll have to kill me.”
All of the trouble, it seems, was worth it. What Cameron delivered was an epic that recalled Hollywood’s golden age as much as it did the action-packed thrillers that the director was better known for making. “Everyone thought they were going to lose money,” he remembered years later. “Nobody was playing for the upside, myself included.” Yet the film went on to become a record-breaking sensation, grossing more than $2 billion worldwide. Titanic was something audiences hadn’t experienced before: an extravaganza of visual effects and high-octane action, crossed with a romance so broad and appealing it seemed ripped from a dime-store novel. But more than that, Cameron had brilliantly taken the true-life tale of the most famous shipwreck in the world, inserted a tragic star-crossed couple—the soulful artist Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the society girl Rose (Kate Winslet)—and yet somehow managed to give his film a happy ending.
It’s worth noting that Titanic wasn’t an instant success. Its opening weekend garnered a modest $28 million—solid, but indicative of a film that would make around $100–$150 million, rather than its final domestic total of $600 million. So why did it end up being so profitable? In part because people kept going back to see the movie again. And they did so in spite of the fact that the last hour is intense, killing off most of the ensemble and having Jack die in such wrenching fashion by freezing to death in the ocean.
The real ending, of course, comes a bit later. There’s an epilogue in which the older Rose (Gloria Stuart) bids Jack a final farewell and goes to sleep, and we’re treated to one last sequence: a dream (or perhaps a metaphorical vision of the Great Beyond, if you buy the theory that Rose dies at the end of the film) in which the wreck of the Titanic is restored to its former splendor. Young Rose appears in a white dress, climbs the boat’s iconic grand staircase, and reunites with Jack, as the rest of the ship’s passengers and crew (minus the story’s antagonists) applaud joyously.
I didn’t really process the final sequence when I saw Titanic in theaters on opening weekend for the first time. I was so spellbound by the movie’s staggering scale that the romance, to a preteen boy (I was 11 at the time), seemed of secondary importance. Jack’s death was sad, to be sure, but felt appropriate given the larger tragedy of the shipwreck. And a perfectly happy ending for him and Rose would have felt too easy.
It’s hard to overstate just how weirdly daring Titanic’s conclusion is, even 20 years on. Cameron conjured a doomed love affair that had its cake and ate it too, both killing Jack and bringing him back to life, and yet neither of those choices felt forced. Yes, Rose’s reunion with Jack in her mind is a fantasy, but it’s one that’s baked into the grand, nostalgic storytelling style Cameron employs throughout the film, a fully earned postcredit to love found and lost but never forgotten. Seeing Titanic with a crowd, even to this day (and it’s been rereleased twice in theaters, in 2012 and 2017), reinforces just how special the finale is. Multiple times I’ve watched dozens of people, many of whom have seen the film before, whooping and cheering at the sight of Jack standing atop that staircase.
Beyond its magically uplifting tone, the scene is a testament to the qualities that distinguish Titanic as a blockbuster today. Cameron’s attention to detail and to the layout of the ship makes its destruction all the more painful; the return of the staircase is almost as exciting as the resurrection of Jack himself. Titanic is also a tale of love transcending the boundaries of class: Cameron looked at the rigidly structured decks of the ship, and the (perhaps apocryphal) stories of poorer passengers being locked away from the lifeboats, and saw a powerful, larger allegory. In Rose’s final fantasy, all of the ship’s passengers, rich and poor, young and old, are gathered together; she’s wearing an elegant dress, while Jack is in his street clothes, and Rose’s villainous ex-fiancé, Cal (Billy Zane), is nowhere to be seen.
After Titanic came out, near Christmastime, it went on a totally unprecedented theatrical run fueled by fans seeing it again and again. It was No. 1 at the U.S. box office starting on December 19, 1997, until April 2 of the following year, each weekend making somewhere between $15 million and $36 million. Much like the story itself, Titanic’s financial performance was a throwback to the cinema of yore, when smash hits such as Gone With the Wind would play for months, earning millions as they expanded around the country and people lined up for repeat viewings. Even when adjusted for inflation, Titanic still has one of the highest domestic grosses of all time, only behind Gone With the Wind, Star Wars, The Sound of Music, and E.T.
Cameron himself would not have predicted such an outcome. “We labored the last six months on Titanic in the absolute knowledge that the studio would lose $100 million,” he once said. “It was a certainty.” Reflecting on the film now, Cameron (who’s deep in production on a slew of Avatar sequels) sees one scene as particularly crucial to its success. “The long shot of Rose and Jack clinging to each other as the vertical stern of the ship plunges down shrieking and groaning, with bodies falling hundreds of feet down toward churning water, was a slam dunk. I think that shot alone got our opening-weekend audience,” he recalled. He might be right that the action drew people in. But it’s the ending that kept them coming back.