The Much Better Movie Hiding In 'Titanic'
It doesn't seem like anyone remembers Titanic as a great movie, despite the fact that it won 11 goddamned Oscars. Maybe it's because we've decided that anything teen girls like is terrible. Or maybe it's that every line sounds like it was directly copied and pasted from some other period romance movie. But what if there was something much more daring going on under the surface?
Here's something you might not know: There's a fair amount of fanfiction out there positing that Jack was actually short for "Jacqueline." What if that's in fact the real story being told ... or at least the one that James Cameron wanted to tell, but chickened out of at some point? If you think I'm just screwing with you, give me a chance to make my case.
Leo Was Cast For A Reason
This is a distant memory for Leo "Grizzled Revenant Frontiersman" DiCaprio, but there's a word the late '90s press kept using to describe him. The New York Times referenced his "androgynous good looks." Entertainment Weekly said, "The shockingly androgynous DiCaprio looks barely old enough to be playing anyone with hormones." The BBC quotes someone saying that Leo "didn't like being so slim and child-like, almost androgynous." In fact, BuzzFeed's LGBT editor takes it a step further than I'd dare, saying, "Leonardo DiCaprio and other androgynous '90s heartthrobs looked a lot like the soft butch queer women we'd grow up to date in real life."
This made him a weird choice to head an action romance (don't forget, the last half of the film is full of stunts and chases). Romantic leads at the time were George Clooney, Clint Eastwood, or Jack Nicholson, aside from when characters explicitly had to be teenagers (like in 1996's Romeo + Juliet). James Cameron had never cast anyone like this before in an adult part, and he never would again.
It also makes no sense for the story. Jack is written as homeless, world-wise, indifferent to social conventions, and carefree about the future, all of which suit someone rugged and unshaven (and maybe several years older). But Cameron instead went with a guy famous for clean, soft features and not a hint of stubble. Plus, you know how hard it is to shave that close when you're on a ship, in steerage, without modern toiletries? Don't take my word for it—here's what Titanic's Oscar-nominated makeup team thinks most passengers like that should look like:
Even first-class passengers, dolled up for a formal dinner and no doubt employing private professional barbers, show remains of facial hair:
There are even shots in which Jack wears men's clothes that look intentionally out of place, like Jack's playing dress-up:
Now Notice How He Was Shot
First, let's state the obvious: Male romantic leads get shirtless scenes. They just do. Male action leads do too, for that matter. And yet in Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio does not. That's even though he'd done shirtless sex scenes before, and the film has no problem otherwise with showing men's chests.
Plus, oh yeah, female lead Kate Winslet has a whole separate nude scene. Though we all know movies have more female nudity than full male nudity (I'm not questioning why we don't see Leo's dick), it's extremely weird for the female lead to show nipples but the male lead not to, especially in a PG-13 film marketed to women. You can't even say, "That one boobs scene was for the guys!" because that scene, as well as the film overall, stays in Rose's point of view (remember, the whole tale is being told by Old Rose). "Male gaze" doesn't feel right here, even though it's literally a scene of someone gazing at Rose.
"But they're both naked in that famous sex scene in the old-timey car!" you might say. I'm glad you brought that up. Here's the scene (mildly NSFW, if you're somehow not familiar with one of the most famous love scenes in cinema history):
They start in the car, with Jack in the front seat and Rose in the back. Rose roughly pulls Jack into the back with her and says, "Put your hands on me." We conspicuously cut away (avoiding the undressing and foreplay), and when we return, we get just a glimpse of Rose's fingers wet with something and then cut to a tight shot of the two of them ... inexplicably framed to display as little of Jack's chest as possible:
You'll note a tuft of armpit hair from Jack, which you personally might associate only with people with penises. But don't forget, Jack was recently in Paris, the land of unshaven armpits for people of all genders. I'm not joking: Earlier, the movie went out of its way to show us a nude sketch Jack made in Paris, showing a woman with armpit hair.
The sex scene lacks any thrusting or other typical Hollywood shorthand (Cameron films included) for, "this is heterosexual intercourse." All we see is that afterward, they're both shuddering, their crotches weren't lined up, and it was the sort of sex in which birth control isn't an issue. And Jack is shot in a way that if the character had breasts that are normally hidden, they wouldn't be showing—and they keep that framing the entire time.
So why in the hell would James Cameron make all of these particular choices? Maybe because he's hinting that Jack is either a woman forced to pass as a man or a trans man, in society that wouldn't be accepting either way? In other words, because he was (at some point) trying to make a way more interesting movie? One that would have been progressive as hell in 1997?
Look Carefully, And There Are Hints Of A Much More Forbidden Romance
A third of the way into the movie, Jack is invited to dine in first class, and adopting this new look and manner requires additional prep. "You're about to go into the snake pit," warns Kathy Bates's character (as in, the penis domain?), and she offers assistance. The next time we see them, she's finishing putting the night's wardrobe on Jack ...
... and wow, that was a convenient cut. We appear to have skipped over a 45-year-old married woman taking a 20-year-old third-class boytoy to her cabin, then dressing him up for her amusement. That would be highly improper, or at least extremely awkward ... unless something about Jack is different from what we thought, and a woman figured out Jack's situation, sympathized, and wanted to help.
Then, the script proceeds to give us a series of what seem like little winking hints in the dialogue. At dinner, one guest sees Jack and says, "You could almost pass for a gentleman!" Another later jokes, "You don't want to stay out here with the women, do you?" and throughout it all, Kathy Bates shoots Jack comforting, conspiratorial looks. On first viewing, you take it as someone from "new money" helping Jack navigate a hostile world outside his own class. Go watch it now, and you'll see a woman sharing a secret.
As for Jack's background, all we have to go on is what the character tells us. Rose says, "You're crazy," and Jack replies, "That's what everybody says," leaving us to guess why. Jack fled the Midwest for California and Paris, places viewers will have heard were historically tolerant of people in Jack's situation (even if that wasn't true in the early 1900s, our screenwriter probably thought it was).
After dinner in first class, Jack quips, "Time for me to go row with the other slaves." That's a line that doesn't make sense, even if Jack identifies as male—life below deck isn't slavery. It's fun. Rose had said Titanic was a slave ship to her, while Jack's life of poverty was freedom. But that's because the line was ad-libbed. Jack's actual line from the script was, "Time for my coach to turn back into a pumpkin," likening Jack to Cinderella.
The Movie Keeps (Clumsily) Hinting That Rose Likes Women
When Rose goes through Jack's sketches without permission, she finds a bunch of naked women there. She responds "Well, well, well!" then digs through for more and smiles when Jack talks of "lots of girls willing to take their clothes off." That is not the usual reaction when opening a guy's folder and seeing unexpected nudes, at least not if you're as uptight as Rose is shown to be earlier in this scene. No, it's coyly hinted that Rose likes what she sees, though she has to close the portfolio when passersby almost spot what she's admiring.
And these aren't the only nudes Rose likes. She owns this:
James Cameron didn't have the rights to reproduce that painting from Picasso's Rose period, and so had to pay a fine, but it seems like it was important to him to show that his heroine liked looking at nude women. Nude prostitutes, in fact—lesbian prostitutes, according to interpretation. She also owned this next piece, a painting of a woman by Edgar Degas, who also painted lesbian scenes, including "Two Women (Scene From A Brothel)":
Then there are all of the other signifiers that, to a guy who normally writes action movies, would be "subtle" allusions to her sexuality. Rose does not think highly of penises (Freud's "ideas about the male preoccupation with size might be of particular interest to you," she tells one ship official she doesn't like). And take a look at the final scene of the movie, which reveals Rose's personal highlights of life post-Titanic. There's no wedding portrait, though she did marry. We see one picture with possible family but not the endless photos of grandchildren that literally every grandparent proudly keeps nearby. Instead, they show us Rose fishing. Rose flying a plane. Rose riding a horse.
You can almost picture Cameron on set saying, "Next photo, Rose has a BUZZ cut, lifting WEIGHTS, on a MOTORCYCLE," before someone told him to tone it down. Just to be absolutely clear, the point isn't that only lesbian women do those things. The point is that if a writer like Cameron were trying to drop such hints, this is how he'd do it.
The Interactions All Make Much More Sense This Way
Rose says, echoing the audience's thoughts about her suicide attempt, "I know what you must be thinking! Poor little rich girl. What does she know about misery?" Jack replies, "That's not what I was thinking. What I was thinking was what could have happened to hurt this girl so much she thought she had no way out." This telegraphs that we'll learn more about Rose's backstory ... but we never do. She just tells Jack that she's rich and unhappily engaged, which we already heard. We have to read between the lines to see she's trapped in a different—and worse—way.
In that same conversation, Jack asks of Rose's fiancé, "Do you love him?" Rose reacts like it's an odd question, and it is, taken at face value, because she literally just told Jack that she chose suicide to escape Cal. Asked again, she says, "You don't know me and I don't you and we are not having this conversation at all ... you are rude and uncouth and presumptuous," even though she has already openly confided in Jack the question's direct answer. She is flustered because she sees there's more to this question. Jack's asking her whether she likes guys at all. That's taking her into dangerous territory.
Later, we get a conversation in which the couple agree that Jack will teach Rose to ride a horse like a man, chew tobacco like a man, and spit like a man. It feels (again) like James Cameron's approximation of what lesbian flirting must be like. "I will free you of these lame womanly things and let you do tomboy things! On horseback!" Jack refuses to be called "Mr. Dawson" by Rose, insisting on the unisex "Jack." When they first kiss, Jack sings a song that was originally sung to a woman by a woman.
Now look at the additional layer this brings to the climax. Women and children board lifeboats first, which means Jack can theoretically board with Rose, but only by coming out to the crew. Could Jack do that if it meant saving their lives? And if so, is there even a way to do it without causing a riot and maybe even getting shot? I repeat: This would be a way better movie.
Jack makes the choice to stay behind. Then Rose abandons her lifeboat and returns to the ship, which would do nothing to help the situation, unless it's to try to convince Jack to admit the truth and board the next lifeboat with her. It winds up being moot. Everything goes to hell right after that, and the two end up in the water together. Jack tells Rose to grow up and have babies—if she does choose to marry a man and have a family, that's fine—and to promise to go on living and "never" give up. Because Cal and her mother weren't her only issues, so she must pledge to deal with them all, for she will surely feel suicidal again.
Maybe, if only in a version of the story that never left James Cameron's head, what came next was a reveal that brought all of that subtext to the surface. Old Rose could have said, "A woman's heart is a deep ocean of secrets," and then gone on to say (or show in flashback) exactly what that secret was. It would have been the boldest twist in blockbuster cinema, and Titanic would have gone down as a whole other kind of milestone. "But," James Cameron would presumably have thought, "will this movie make $2 billion at the box office?"
Or, if you want to give him a little more credit, he may have simply written it so that a young woman in the theater could project herself as Rose or Jack, regardless of her orientation—creating a fantasy that, on one level or another, appeals to literally everyone. If so, it's kind of genius.
Go listen to the Titanic soundtrack again. You know you want to.
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